Richard Blanco presented his work “One Today” at Barack Obama’s second inauguration. Born in Madrid, Spain, to Cuban parents who emigrated to Miami when he was young, Richard went on to become the first Latino and the first openly gay person to read his poetry at a presidential inauguration. In this interview with Omega, Richard speaks about his creative process and the spiritual dimension of writing.
Omega: What's your writing process like? Do you allocate time every day to writing?
Richard: I write in spurts. There's the adage that writers need to write every day, but I think that needs some qualifying. The idea is to pay attention to the world every day, as a writer. I jot down things in a journal, I achieve an active sort of psyche as a writer. I think that is part of writing every day. But like most people, sometimes I just don't have time to sit down and write.
I think that urgency sometimes works to one’s advantage. For the inauguration, I had three weeks to write three poems. I'm sure as hell glad they didn’t give me six months. There’s something to be said for having a certain amount of time to write; it brings out the best in you.
Omega: What would you suggest aspiring writers do on a daily basis to stoke their creativity?
Richard: If you have the discipline and the time and the motivation to sit at your desk for a few hours every day, that certainly can’t hurt. But sometimes, it’s more useful to take a walk in the park and take life in for a moment. It’s surprising how when your mind clears up, inspiration soaks back in. That's a very important lesson to learn—the balance between being alive and being present, and the idea of writing for the sake of writing [saying to yourself], “I gotta sit at my desk for four hours even though I'm completely uninspired.” Always be careful of that balance.
There's a spiritual dimension to writing that can be easily muted. Sometimes we need to pay attention to the world in a way that's inspirational, and not pressure ourselves for writing’s sake or for revision's sake. Every moment should be hopefully inspired in some way.
Omega: What’s the balance for you between poetry as a written form and spoken form?
Richard: There's a very intimate, quiet, interpersonal way of relating to a poem when you’re sitting at your desk. That doesn't go away. But the poem, even when it’s in print and it’s published, continues to evolve orally.
As I read a poem aloud more and more, it starts telling me other ways to read it. I consider that poem complete after I’ve read it several times and engaged with it publicly—after I've heard people’s stories about what it reminded them of, or what they were made to feel, or some kind of anecdote they tell me. That completes the circle for me.
Omega: Poetry in the United States today isn't as high profile as other art forms. What does the state of American poetry say about America?
Richard: The inauguration really changed what I thought about that subject. What I witnessed as inaugural poet was that when people are given the chance with contemporary work, the response is just amazing.
I realized that part of the issue is, very generally, the way poetry is taught from middle school onward. I think we need to rethink that. We need to empower educators and give them resources so that people, from grade school onward, can understand that there are poets writing poetry today, in their very neighborhoods, about people just like their family. I think we all live within 50 miles of a poet.
People grow up with this resistance about poetry. You give Beowulf to a sophomore in high school, and it’s difficult. It’s difficult with an adult. We need to expose people in many ways, so they understand that poetry is an art that's still evolving, that’s still pertinent and relevant.
Omega: You describe yourself as made in Cuba, assembled in Spain, and imported to the United States. Now that you’re in Maine, how does that inform your work?
Richard: Living in Maine is pretty diverse compared to where I grew up. It’s fascinating and different and new and interesting to learn all these other histories.
I think diversity is relative. There's still a part of me that is mainly between two different worlds. There’s still part of me that keeps on seeking that quintessential American experience, or town, or whatnot. I think that was part of the reason that I wanted to move here. In some ways I was still wanting to be American. It wasn't until the inauguration—having to write those poems, the emotional endeavor, just like any poem—I realized that my story was just as American, and my mother's story was just as American, as anybody else’s story. So that faded out a little bit, and I feel more like I found my place at the table in America on many, many levels.
Maine, surprisingly, in this small town, reminds me a lot of the community that I grew up in. Even though it was Cuban, there was the same sensibility. In Miami, it was a close-knit community of exiles, interdependent on each other, emotionally and practically, just to survive this big transition in their life. This small-town life in rural Maine has echoes of that. Everybody comes together. During this whole hoopla of the inauguration, everybody was helping us, in all different ways. It reminded me a lot of that same community spirit.