In December of 2012, Richard Blanco received news that he was chosen to compose and recite a poem for the 2013 Inauguration. In For All of Us, One Today: An Inaugural Poet's Journey, he reflects on the writing process and his hopes for the future of poetry in America. His book is December’s Indies Next Pick.
What was the inspiration for For All of Us, One Today?
It was that urgency; I felt like I had to write it down to make sure all this really happened. It was also an opportunity to go over all the fine details and memories, to just go back and relive that. As writers, we go back into our lives to just try and understand what it all means: its emotional significance to myself but also what it means on a larger scale for poetry. The last piece of it was a mission to expound and explore where I’m moving towards next in terms of, what are the sum of all these experiences? The idea of understanding more about where poetry is in America, and what I can possibly do as a result of these experiences, to move and create and connect poetry and America. How do we keep that spirit moving? So, it was a search for finding out what’s the greater good that can come of this good that came for me.
Have you seen any evidence that America is more accepting and understanding of poetry?
I’ve been getting asked to write more occasional poems. People are suddenly realizing that poetry can be that proverbial campfire around which we gather. One of the reasons I keep on connecting, and keep on doing so many readings and events, is that I want to continue that spirit of connecting America with poetry the way the inaugural can. So I’ve also been asked to read at the most unusual places, like engineering firms, law firms, all sorts of charities. As a result of the inauguration, everyone realizes that poetry can have a presence in our lives, to commemorate, to celebrate, to mourn, to heal, to come together, to tell our stories, to connect collectively, as a community. And if you think about it, that’s what poetry always was from its conception, right? It was the oral tradition, long before books were available on our shelves. It’s the way people got together and found some common connection, a bond around a moment.
Would you say your experience writing the inaugural poem has changed the way you approach writing poetry?
Yes and no. It’s like I’ve been playing the violin and now I realize I can play the same song with another instrument, like piano. This idea of the occasional poem and how you can still be completely invested in a poem emotionally but keep it outside of your immediate, autobiographical sphere, in the way that maybe Whitman and Ginsberg wrote, was a real creative journey. It was something that I was scared to do before, but throughout the inauguration I realized that too can be very powerful. It’s not just about telling my story but that I can have the authority—as long as I have the love and passion—to tell our story, whatever our story may be for a group, a community, or what it might be for America, which is what the inaugural poem was. And I would’ve never dared to do that before. So, I realize now that I have another “instrument” that I can play with, and I look forward to it.
In the book, you talk about how you haven’t explored the “American side of the hyphen” of your Cuban-American identity as much as the Cuban side. Have you still been exploring that theme?
There was a very emotional journey that went along with the writing of the inaugural poems. One of the important things that I got from all this was finally coming to grips with the question: Am I American? As an immigrant there’s always this little shadow side that says you’re not really 100% American, or America is some other little boy on TV from a 1960s show. One of the greatest gifts of serving as inaugural poet was finally realizing that my story, my mother’s story as an immigrant, that all our stories are America. And it was a very important thing to discover that allowed me to write those poems. It was as much an exercise in craft as an exercise in digging deep into some of the emotional being of who you are; to write an honest poem, sometimes you have to ask some really important and terrifying questions. And the inaugural poems made me realize just how American I am. I’ve been asking in my poetry a lot about what it means to be bicultural, or Cuban-American, negotiating these identities, but I now feel a permission, so to speak, to discuss the idea of what America is or what it means to be an American on a wider spectrum of who we are as people that goes beyond maybe my immediate biographical sphere as a Cuban. I’m feeling like the next collection of poetry will discuss that question of what it means to be American.