If you watched the second inauguration of Barack Obama in 2013, then you're familiar with Blanco's work. The White House asked him to write and read a poem for the occasion, making him one of only five writers ever to have held the title, “Inaugural Poet,” a distinction he shares with Robert Frost and Maya Angelou. He was also the youngest, first Latino, immigrant, and gay person to hold the position.
His poem, "One Today," which he wrote for the occasion, is an ode to the kaleidoscopic variety of American life.
Blanco has spent much of his literary career reflecting on America and his place in it. In several books of poems and in his memoir, The Prince of Los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood, he’s written beautifully about growing up in Miami as the son of Cuban exiles, straddling the boundary between the culture of his family and the version of America portrayed on the Brady Bunch or in the canned food aisle of the local Winn-Dixie.
A self-described “poet of the people,” his work is accessible, moving, and emotionally rich. It’s expansive, concerned with big questions of identity and belonging, country and family, love and loss. So it makes sense that, in addition to the inauguration, he’s also been called upon to commemorate other important national occasions, including the reopening of the U.S. Embassy in Havana and a memorial for the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings.
Blanco was invited to speak in Colorado Springs as part of Converge Lecture Series, which brings writers and poets to the city to share their reflections on art, life, and the topic of "moral beauty."
In advance of that talk, he spoke to 91.5 KRCC about his work, his life, and how he sees poetry as an important tool in the fight against political polarization and partisan thinking.
On when he first understood the importance of poetry:
There was one particular moment where I got hooked on poetry, and I "got" poetry, so to speak. I was reading "The Red Wheelbarrow" by William Carlos Williams, probably everybody in high school has read that poem. And I was sitting in the family room, which is open to the kitchen, watching my mother cook, as she'd done every day of my life that I can remember. [She had] what seemed to me to be the same apron with tomato sauce stains, the same dull, nicked knives, chopping her onions and her bell peppers, her olive oil, and i just realized, that's poetry. Poetry is about finding the extraordinary in the seemingly ordinary. Just like the Red Wheelbarrow, "so much depends / upon / a red wheel / barrow / glazed with rain / water / beside the white / chickens." So much does depend on the simplest of things. Everything is pregnant with poetry, it's just there and the poet's job is to see it.
On his relationship to America:
I always thought I had to pick, I always thought I had to be either Cuban or American, I always thought that I couldn't be both at the same time. One of the hardest things about writing the inaugural poem, and that assignment, was that I had to ask myself a very blunt question: 'Do I even love this country? Do I even belong to this country?' I mean I'd sort of circled around that question by asking, 'What is an American, and what does it mean to be a Cuban in America?' So the answer to that was what allowed me to write the poem, and realizing that yes, my story as a chubby little gay Cuban-American kid from a suburb of Miami, that's America, that's part of the great American narrative. My mother's story, as a woman who was born on a dirt farm in Cuba, that's part of the American narrative.
On the political role of the poet:
I don't like to necessarily categorize myself as a "political poet," because I think a lot of what gets categorized as political poetry stays in the problem... and it doesn't offer us a way out, it doesn't offer us a third option, it's in some ways preaching to the choir. So it's more than just rallying the base, it's more about connecting people, and that's what I try to do. That's with love, that's with compassion, that's with the same old tools that we know are proven over and over again. When you speak from that sense of a spiritual confidence, I think those are the best poems, the ones that really move people.
91.5 KRCC is a media partner with Converge Lecture Series.