Miami’s Richard Blanco is a man of words on a mission.
Back in January, Richard Blanco made history when he stepped up to the podium at President Barack Obama’s second swearing-in ceremony and became the first openly gay Latino to deliver the inaugural poem. In the poignant One Today, the Miami-raised engineer gave us an inspiring glimpse at identity in America and won the hearts of millions across the country in the process. As his literary career forges full-speed ahead with multiple writing projects, Blanco spoke to us about growing up Cuban, the Miami memories that inform his work and getting the call that would change his life.
There’s only been a handful of inaugural poets in history. In January, you became the fifth. Take us back to the day you found out. What was that moment like?
I got the news by text and I thought it was my friend Brian pulling a prank on me. But then it slowly sunk in. I was overcome with this incredible sense of gratitude. I thought a lot about my parents and grandparents, and all the sacrifices they had made to get me an education and a better life. It was like a great chapter in a story that they had started.
Is it true you still don’t know who put your name up for consideration?
I’m not exactly sure where it came from. I’m curious, but at the same time, at this point I’d rather not know. I prefer my romantic vision of the president sitting in the Oval Office reading my poems and deciding it would be me.
A great deal was said about you once the announcement was made, especially about you being openly gay, Latino and the youngest person ever to deliver the inaugural poem. What did you make of all that?
And don’t forget the first engineer! But that isn’t as sexy [laughs]. I am all those things so I felt comfortable with it. I politely took on those labels. They describe me as much as saying that I grew up in Miami. That’s who I am.
How did you prepare?
What’s interesting about the inaugural poem and what’s so powerful about it is that it’s a neat little snapshot of where the country is at the moment. So what I did was add another brushstroke to that canvas given the context of my time and place in our country and its history.
But here you are being mentioned in the same breath as Robert Frost and Maya Angelou. Did you doubt yourself at any point?
I thought about that, but I wasn’t freaked out by it. The inaugural poem is sort of its own genre in poetry and you realize you are a continuation of what others have done before you. I decided to bring out some of the stories that haven’t been told in terms of Latino immigration and who I was. It felt like those poets had passed the baton to me.
Like you mentioned, before you were a poet, you were an engineer. Do you apply that type of critical thinking to your writing?
There are a lot of parallels. I started to get interested in language because of engineering. You don’t realize how much writing is involved in it, from letter writing to reports to proposals. Suddenly, I was paying attention to how language has to be engineered to argue a point and persuade. It’s kind of like music, which can be very mathematical and at the same time fluid and creative.
Your first two books explore your Cuban heritage and then in your last collection of poems, Looking for the Gulf Motel, you began to write more about your sexuality. Was that book a professional coming-out of sorts?
That’s exactly right. I call it an artistic coming out. I had written about being gay and what-not in the other books, but I had chosen to keep the poems gender neutral, and for years this bugged me because I was living my life as an openly gay man, yet I hadn’t quite figured out why I hadn’t done it in my poetry. So in that third book, I had a story to tell within the context of searching for what I call my cultural sexuality. So I’m a gay man, big deal. What’s my story? It’s not the same thing to be a Cuban-American gay man who grew up in Miami as it is to be an Asian-American gay man who grew up in Topeka. And I realized that my story is really connected to the cultural issues I had, and in Looking for the Gulf Motel it felt natural to speak about it.
On a lighter note, food is a recurring theme in your writing, isn’t it?
It’s something that I’ve been infusing in my poems sort of subconsciously. Food is an amazing cultural identifier. And for me, it’s Cuban food. Whenever I go to Miami, the first thing I do right there at the airport is to go to Versailles or La Carreta. My whole time there I just go from coffee window to coffee window eating pastelitos and drinking coffee.
Do you get much Cuban food in Bethel, Maine, where you live?
I’m not sure there’s a Cuban restaurant in all of Maine, but I’ve learned to cook a few things from my mom.
What’s your best dish?
Ropa vieja, even though the pressure cooker scares the living hell out of me. I still can’t make rice like my mother, though. I don’t know what she does to it. She has a magic touch.
Back to your writing, what are you working on these days?
I’m working on several things. One is a children’s book based on the inaugural poem and I also have a memoir that I’ve been working on for the last couple of years that should be out soon.
I imagine the pressure is on to get something out, but I read you prefer to write about experiences a reasonable amount of time after they’ve happened.
Yes, that’s been the way I’ve usually operated. But ever since the inaugural poem, a new pathway has opened up for my writing. There’s the public poem, which is something of the moment, and the private poem, the fermented stuff that’s more personal. I’m starting to see it as the two halves of Richard.
Favorite Cuban Restaurant?
“I like Sergio’s (3252 SW 22nd St., Coral Gables, 305.529.0047). It’s been there since I was a child, so it’s part of my Miami nostalgia.
Favorite Non-Cuban Restaurant?
“Everything changes so fast in Miami, but I definitely like Balans (901 S. Miami Ave., Miami, 305.534.9191) at Mary Brickell Village. That’s a new find for me.”
“It’s not really a landmark, but I love the drive around Cocoplum Circle in Coconut Grove. That always felt special.”
“When I want to be really private, there’s this little dead-end street called Crystal Drive near Mercy Hospital. I sometimes go there, look at the bay and think about Miami a lot.”