Published: September 22nd, 2015
Richard Blanco is an acclaimed American-Cuban poet who was the fifth presidential inaugural poet in U.S. history as President Barack Obama’s second inauguration. In addition to reading the commemorative poem at the opening of the U.S. embassy in Havana, Cuba, Blanco is also the first immigrant, first Latino, youngest person, and first openly gay person to be the U.S. inaugural poet.
Howl: How would you describe your style of poetry?
Blanco: I guess you would call it contemporary. If I had to put a word on it, I guess it would be narrative poetry. Style is something very complex. There’s not really one tag you can put on it. But predominantly narrative would be it.
Howl: So then what is your writing process? How do you develop a poem?
Blanco: Every poem is a little bit different in how it comes about. But there are some generalities. Usually I begin with something that I don’t quite understand...something that’s an overwhelming feeling or memory or situation. And I come to poetry to figure out what that means to me. So the best poems are the ones where you come to the page without any sort of preconceived idea of what it is you feel or want to say because poetry is a lot about the discovery process. And that is what a poem really is all about: taking the reader on that process. Not necessarily beginning with the conclusion and proving a point. It’s rather getting to that point that is the poem.
So I start sketching words, sound bytes, things that start coming to me, start throwing it all on the canvas like paint and then see what starts taking shape. It usually takes about a week to get to some kind of draft that I feel comfortable with. But every poem has to find its own organic, sort of structure, and its own sort of way. Every single poem, every verse, sets its own boundaries and its own rules and then breaks them. So each one is sort of its own unique being. It’s not like forms - traditional forms - which are prescribed for you like a sonnet or villanelle. Those have more rules up front, so to speak.
Howl: Do you have a favorite poem that you’ve written?
Blanco: I think “Looking for the Gulf Motel” is one of my favorite poems. Usually the poems you write most recently are your favorite. You know, there are some older poems that I still like. There are one or two at the moment that I don’t necessarily feel as strongly about. Some poems last the test of time. The very first poem, the very first book is still also one of my favorites. “America,” the one about having a Cuban Thanksgiving. Some don’t last the test of time and that’s fine, too.
Howl: What advice would you have for budding writers?
Blanco: Keep writing. That’s the only real advice worth anything: keep writing and reading. Just like a football player or a dancer or anything else, art is a discipline and just like football or dancing or whatnot, you get better at it by rehearsing, by practicing. You know, there are rules and you have to remember the rules and learn the dance steps and learn the game - the playbook - but ultimately it’s getting out on the field, getting out on the stage and doing it. It’s the best way to learn.
Howl: You were the fifth inaugural poet and we were wondering if you sought any inspiration for your inaugural poem, for President Obama, from previous inaugural poets?
Blanco: Yes, certainly. Particularly Maya Angelou, and Elizabeth Alexander who was the poet before me. Their poems did some interesting things that I liked. I loved the power of the natural imagery in Maya Angelou’s poem of the symbolism of the rock, the river, of the tree. And in Alexander’s poem, I liked how she populated the poem with small scenes of people sort of doing ordinary things throughout the day. And also as well from Whitman who obviously has that kind of voice, that vernacular voice, that was asking questions about what is America, but also paid a lot of homage and drew a lot of poetry from the people of America. So that was a very important exploration.
And also Allen Ginsberg and Robert Frost as well. Allen Ginsberg had that kind of collective voice...that, you know, “we, the people” kind of voice. And so did Frost in a way. Frost had sort of tapped into a kind of American folklore that makes his work at once very particular and unique in terms of his setting in New England, but it’s also very universal because he’s really tapping into something larger than the regional aspects of his poems.
Howl: When did you first start getting into poetry and who were your biggest supporters?
Blanco: I first started becoming interested in language and that was actually when I started as an engineer soon after graduation. In my engineering job, about 68% of my job was writing, much to my surprise. Writing proposals and letters and studies...so I really had to start paying close attention to my words. And this notion of tone, audience, persuasion, diction, and connotation...all those things are becoming really relevant, acquired, and useful. I just started falling in love with what language could do and realizing that in some ways language is designed just like my bridges were designed, just like my roads were designed. So from then on I started exploring poetry and language.
I took a class - a couple of classes - at the Community College of Miami and so I had great support from the teachers there and friends and students. I matured and I got better. I wasn’t, obviously, writing the best poems in the world right in the beginning. They were amateurish...and then I dove into exploring what poetry was all about and then, eventually, was accepted into a masters program in creative writing at Florida International University and then the learning was accelerating even more there, obviously.
Howl: What is your editing process like?
Blanco: Editing is more of a prose word. We don’t really edit in poetry, we revise. It’s more than sort of dotting an “i” or crossing a “t.” It’s really about finding the real core of the poem, getting rid of what doesn’t belong. So that revision process happens simultaneously with the creation process. You do a draft, you look at it, you revise, you look at your second draft, you revise. It’s all a process. It’s all a dance as far as looking at your work, seeing what’s coming, responding to it, and seeing what direction it’s taking you. It sort of all happens together. You don’t finish a poem and then edit it.
It’s the center - its emotional center, I’d say - and really that’s one of the hardest things about the poem. Finding that center from which you can make those revisions - those decisions on what to revise and what not to revise.
So I always advise students when they revise, you should revise with some intent and inspiration. That the revision process is also the creative process. And you should not revise for the sake of revising, but rather with some reflection on the poem. Engage with the poem in a way that’s not just superficial, but really intense...as intense as the genesis of the poem. Some poems I consider finished far quicker than others. Some have taken up to three years before I really find what it is that I wanted to say or was feeling.
Howl: So what’s next for Richard Blanco?
Blanco: Well, I’m working on a collaboration with a photographer on a photography book with the theme of borders. Not just physical or actual borders, but thinking about those divisions that separate us. For example, Hallandale Beach in Florida where most of the rafters end up from Cuba. I think of that as kind of a border. What happens at those borders? How visible or invisible they are and what that means to peoples’ lives. So that’s really exciting. So we photograph these subjects in different geographical parts of the world.
Side Note from Richard Blanco:
And to all the English teachers and language arts teachers and reading teachers, please look at Poets.org, which is the website of the Academy of American Poets for which I am the education ambassador. I just really want to turn them on to that. They have educational resources. They have wonderful ways of teaching and approaching poetry. Lesson plans that include common core curriculum, just really wonderful resources they have in there. You can also create your own class anthology from the poems. They have thousands and thousands of poems online. So I just wanted to give a shout out to the teachers.