When Richard Blanco stepped up to the podium in front of the U.S. Capitol on January 21, 2013, he was the first immigrant, first Latino, first openly gay, and youngest poet to read at a presidential inauguration.
Born in Spain, Blanco emigrated to the United States at just 45 days old and was raised by Cuban exile parents in Miami. His family and his immigrant experience make cameos in “One Today,” the poem he composed for President Barack Obama’s second inauguration.
In November, Blanco will release For All of Us, One Today: An Inaugural Poet's Journey, a memoir about the experience.
Was it difficult to put yourself and specific memories from your life in the poem alongside universal themes?
It was kind of a difficult choice, but something that I knew had to happen. In part because one of the things that I wanted, in my personal aesthetic of poetry, is how do you become vulnerable and make yourself part of the poem so it’s not this lofty voice of preaching ‘Let’s all be one today’? It dawned on me in the process, that of course, my mother and my father are those people of "One Today." Those people in America. So it seemed natural after a while. But part of me wanted to do that, and it happened more naturally than I expected.
How is writing for the inauguration different from writing other poems?
My work is more heavily autobiographical. I haven’t experienced all of America. What I learned was, how could you make the poem infinite and authentic and at the same time grand, and at the same time have some amount of tension in there? It’s not what I write about, but how I write about 'I' that makes all the difference.
I always thought my work was well received because of the subject matter, because of the experience I wrote about as a Cuban American, a child in exile. When I approached the Inaugural with the same kind of sensuality, love imagery, lushness of language that I do when I’m writing a poem about my mother, a lot of things clicked. It really opened up.
What was it like reading your poetry that day?
It seems like something that happened yesterday and like something that happened 30 years ago at the same time. It’s kind of one of the moments when we realize nothing will ever be the same.
You really do get enraptured and taken by the moment of that ceremony, which is really quite powerful, especially sitting up there. And you get swept away in it. I felt like in some ways, unexpectedly, almost like I was reborn an American again. It was very powerful. Really, love is what it was. It was an embrace.
You have a book about the experience coming out soon. Tell us about For All of Us, One Today.
In part, it’s the story of the inaugural poet that’s never been told, some of the juicy details from the moment of getting the phone call to reading the poem. It’s like a mini-memoir as well. It digs back to getting to that point and how that’s reverberated through my life as a child of exiles. How all that became braided together: creative process, spiritual journey, and emotional journey. And after that reading the poem, what that meant for my life and the connection I feel with America and with Americans. And the idea that poetry can have a force in the country to speak to things.
How has your experience as an inaugural poet been an inspiration to other Hispanic Americans?
Even though I came to the country 45 days old, I’m technically an immigrant, and I grew up in immigrant exile culture. There’s always part of me that said: You’re not really American.
I’m finally feeling like I’m American. Or I always was, but this light bulb went off, like, wow this story of immigration of my parents is the American story, and it always was. It finally clicked. It wasn’t just the writing of the poem, but really the whole emotional, spiritual process. So many loose ends came together through this process. Writing the poem, getting up there, being a spokesperson—all the hats that I represented—was a shift in my life. I received a lot of mail from Latino families all over. That speaks to me.