Inaugural poet Richard Blanco is this year’s convocation speaker. Before the event, The Mac Weekly got a chance to speak with him about his work, his childhood, and his life since the poem that put him on the map. Check him out in person at Mac’s opening convocation on Wed., Sept. 11 at 4:30 p.m. in Kagin.
What first sparked your interest in writing?
I was always one of those left brain/right brain kids, so I always kind of enjoyed everything. When it came time to decide on a major, it was a little bit difficult. I came from a working class immigrant family, so a career in the arts wasn’t really in the realm of possibility. There was also sort of a cultural divide, essentially. My parents weren’t raised with any of the tradition of the arts in America, so I studied engineering. After a year of working full-time as an engineer, I knew I wanted to do something creative. I knew I needed to satisfy the other half of me, so to speak. And through my work in engineering, actually, I started writing a lot: a lot of reports, a lot of studies, a lot of letters, and I started to pay really close attention to language and sort of fall in love with language, uncovering its inner workings, the idea that language was engineered, like anything else. So I started paying really close attention to that and from then I just started picking up a pen and writing a few poems out of a creative curiosity, just moving along, and one thing led to another and another and another and another, all the way up to the podium, I guess, in Washington.
How would you characterize yourself as a writer and poet? And given what you just said, how do you think all of your interconnected knowledge manifests in your poetry?
I tend to approach a poem, in many ways, as a problem, as a problem-solving exercise. I feel that vague, powerful emotion about something or someone or some memory or some event, and working through the poem is kind of working through an algebra problem. Well, really more like a calculus four problem. But it helps me to understand: what is it that I really feel about this, or what is the real complexity of this emotion that I’m feeling, or is shared by a group of people or in a moment or in an event? So I think I approach my poetry with the left-brained part of me. It also makes me a ruthless editor, when it comes time to become an editor. I look at the poem piece by piece, each line. It’s like building a building, something that each piece has to fit together in a way, and each piece has to be sturdy so that the whole structure can stand. I think there’s a lot of internal structure, a kind of logic, a kind of element that is brought out from my engineering skills.
Everywhere I went to read about you, I saw kind of the same thing: “First immigrant, first Latino, first openly gay, youngest.” If you could rewrite all the blurbs about you, how would you choose to represent yourself?
I would like to add “first engineer.” [Laughs] It really wasn’t apparently sexy enough. But, you know what, I am very proud of all those. I wouldn’t change any of them. I think it’s reflective of where America is today, where America is moving towards, our consciousness, that we, this, is America. We are gay, we are immigrants, we are Latinos, we are engineers. So I’m not sure I would rewrite it—I would maybe add to it. I think some of the elements of engineering are very important to understand and give us a sense that the arts are not something reserved for, you know, quixotic poets. If you’re trying to build windmills or write poetry—we can be multifaceted in that sense. And I would wish that that would have been brought up a little bit more. That sense that we are all complex human beings, that any talents or desires or passions [we have], we can move through life and do these things and live a more enriched life.
Do you think writers and artists have a responsibility to act as a social barometer? In the sense of social movements, but also in terms of how society chooses to view individuals, like you were just saying.
Yeah, I think that’s something that writing the inaugural poem really made me think about. I had to break out of the autobiographical mode to be able to write that poem. That whole process of writing that poem, and the response, really, that I received from everyone, was so overwhelming, this sense of inclusivity, and people saying that for the first time they felt they belonged to America—it was the same process that I went through, emotionally. It kind of opened a new possibility in my life, but I think in doing that, I heard that echo in a lot of responses from all over the country, from every demographic you can imagine. And if we take a pulse, as an answer to your question, the idea there and the tension there, what that poem is asking us to do, is not just [the idea] that we are one, that certainly, whether we acknowledge it or not, we are all interconnected and part of a whole. What the poem is really playing at, trying to understand and grapple with, [is] that to move forward as a country is to understand that for all those people that populate that poem, and what they represent, what we’re striving for—to be one today—the tension, of course, at the end, is that we’re not quite there yet. I think, of course, we can certainly plant a seed of consciousness in many ways, to keep on striving. There’s also political poetry, or poetry that can be characterized as more political. I’m terrible at writing those kinds of poems. It’s just not my aesthetic. The mere idea that you are perhaps changing someone’s mind or broadening someone’s idea of themselves or their country or their family or their parents, whatever the case may be—you’re striving towards something, you’re reaching towards something, trying to change something even if it’s just at an emotional level.
Have you continued to reflect on all these different themes of collective identity and all those tensions in your writing after the inaugural poem?
After writing the inaugural poem, one of the big lessons I learned was maybe I felt that, in some way, I didn’t have permission to write about America outside of my own autobiographical melting pot idea. And in some ways I always felt that my writing had been well-received because of what I wrote about, but I realized that, really, it’s how you write about something that’s important, not what you write about. It’s sort of a new creative door for me, understanding that my story was as American as any story that I had ever thought was American. So the whole inaugural experience, writing the poem, I really transcended, in a sense, my connection with America and what that meant. As an immigrant, there’s always this little piece of you that says, well, I’m not really American or I’m not American 100 percent, or America is some little boy, not me, that little boy who grew up watching MTV. So to be able to describe how incredible the American story is and to continue to work through that and feel suddenly that I can write for and about America, in a whole different way that’s more inclusive than just my autobiographical boundary. So I continue to explore all that. It’s all braided together, the spiritual, creative, cultural journey, is all sort of braided, as it’s always been in my life. So I continue to explore those questions.
Are there any writers you particularly look up to, or who you recommend current students and aspiring writers should read?
Sure. My foundational writer is Elizabeth Bishop. For several reasons. I really connect with her aesthetic, but in some ways I have a spiritual kinship with Elizabeth Bishop, which, you wouldn’t think, you know, a bouffant, gray-haired lady from Worcester, Mass., when you think of a Cuban kid from Miami. But I see in Elizabeth Bishop a person that was always looking for home, in many ways. She lived in Brazil for 15 years. So I’ve always connected with her and had a kinship with her and felt she was one of those—just, sheer brilliance. I think the real challenge in any art is how to take something and make it look so simple. To paraphrase, Albert Einstein said that anyone can take something complicated and make it look more complicated. And Elizabeth Bishop just has this genius way of making a poem seem so simple, and yet the complexity in it is so you can keep reading it for years and years and always get something different out of it.
I also like individual poems. All poets write stinky poems. So I like the idea of having favorite poems, which is Robert Pinsky’s project that he did. Looking at those masterpieces, rather than creating this sort of author worship—I’m not a PhD, so I’m not looking at it as an English major but as a writer—there are just poems that I just read over and over and over. So I encourage that. You should have a poem that teaches you the rest of your life, whether you know the person’s entire body of work or not. And then, as far as encouraging writers, I think what you really need to seek out is contemporary voices, writers that are currently living and writing about all communities and regions and issues, and looking for that author, that poet, that speaks to you. I can recommend a few, but my recommendations will be completely erroneous. Everyone should find their own authors. It’s a matter of sorting through aesthetics or forms, if you will. Find what speaks to you. And that’s a continual process. Writers keep stumbling onto new voices.
Where do you see yourself into the future? Continuing to write, continuing to pursue the other side of your brain, with the engineering, or both?
I’m really just playing it week-by-week. I’m obviously pretty booked with poetry right now. I have that book coming out in November, next year a children’s book, so it’s really a fork in the road for me, career-wise. I have always done both things. I’m a little apprehensive about it because I’ve always done two things. But the past is showing me that I’ll be fully committed to the writing, the poetry. And where I see myself, outside the poetry and prose, I really want to dedicate the rest of my life to finding out how can we reconnect poetry with America in the ways that (I might be a little bit dreamy here) it was in the past, like in the days of Robert Frost, when you’d see a published poem in Vogue, or something like that. And I would just like to dedicate the rest of my life to making a stronger connection between poetry and American contemporary work.
People have all these misconceptions about poetry, and I think part of the key is empowering educators, starting with middle school, onward, to be comfortable in poetry. And also to expose them to contemporary voices, because I think a lot of what would help educators is to be familiar with the contemporary works. And it takes a lot of work. The school systems nowadays, there’s not a lot of freedom for teachers, and I don’t blame them at all, in any capacity. I just want some power to help them feel comfortable so we can foster new generations of readers of poetry. I really have this kooky idea—I keep on calling it kooky, but every time I think about it, it seems more and more appealing—and I’d need a multi-million dollar grant to do it. But I want to call it the Poetry Bus. And I want a big RV, you know, like a country singer? And just travel around the country visiting schools and doing workshops for educators and maybe gathering local poets from that area and doing, like, a stage that pops out of the RV so we can have, in the parking lot of the school, impromptu poetry readings, expose kids to people who are writing in their own backyard, published, living, working poets so you make the connection that poetry is a living, breathing thing still.
Can you give any teasers for what your convocation address will be like at Macalester?
I’d like to do something honest that speaks to the students. To me, it’s all about the students, and that’s what I hope to focus on, giving my little words of advice and wisdom as they move forward in their studies. As an educator, I think I’ll put on that hat, more so than the poet hat. But as I understand it, you have a very global focus, and I get the feel that Macalester is very interdisciplinary, knowledge is knowledge. And that fits right in with my thing. So I’d like to pay homage to that, talk about that a little bit, and know that it’s not always easy in this world where everybody wants to put you in a box, and every resumé has to read, like, you’ve done the same job 18 times in the last three years. To help us get through those fears of the idea that we can’t go into those creative careers, or whatever we choose, but that it is a tougher journey, or at least there’s more bumps in the road.
Everything you were saying before made me realize how much it made sense that you’re coming to speak, because that’s so much of what Macalester is all about.
Yeah, I do get that. I was looking at the website and everything, and it was great to find that kind of surprise of—you can quote me on this—Macalester is the kind of school that sometimes I wish I would have gone to. Not that I complain about my education, which was wonderful, but the answers would have come a lot quicker if I had been in an environment like Macalester. I would have been OK with being the poet-engineer much sooner.