Richard Blanco was the author of three critically acclaimed, award-winning poetry collections (City of a Hundred Fires, Directions to the Beach of the Dead, and Looking for the Gulf Motel) when he received an invitation to be the Inaugural Poet for Barack Obama’s second presidential inauguration. Only four other poets—Elizabeth Alexander, Miller Williams, Maya Angelou, and Robert Frost—have received this honor. No wonder, then, that Blanco was almost immediately catapulted into fame.
Since the time that he read his poem, “One Today,” the political landscape has altered dramatically; and his latest collection, How to Love a Country, is perhaps his most political work to date. As a second-generation Cuban-American, whose parents were immigrants, and as an openly gay poet, Blanco revisits themes such as belonging and culture clash, in the context of our current debates over immigration, borders, and national identity. He also continues to examine and explore our failures, with deep honestly, even as he retains his faith in the American Dream.
Recently, I spoke with him about how he has used the limelight to call attention to what he calls the “life-enriching power of poetry.” And, as scientist-turned-writer myself, I was also curious about his unusual journey to becoming a poet.
The Rumpus: Your path to poetry was untraditional. You began with a degree in engineering. Why? And how did it lead you to poetry?
Richard Blanco: Well, I should first confess that since childhood I had an equally active left and right brain. I enjoyed carving abstract sculptures from play-dough as much as I did snapping together Lego pieces into intergalactic spaceships; playing vet with my cat as much as decorating the house with my paper-cut snowflakes. In grade school I did well or excelled in every subject—all of which I was fascinated me as beautiful expressions of human intelligence and imagination. I guess I was a Renaissance child—and to paraphrase William Blake’s thought—the child is the perfect being and artist. But, as was typical then—perhaps even more so today—knowledge got siloed into categories, and I felt the pressure to choose between a life and career in the “impractical” arts or one in the “practical” sciences. There were other factors, too. As a child of an immigrant, working class family barely surviving—the arts were deemed a ridiculous luxury and out of reach. Also, my grandmother—a textbook homophobic—despised me for anything I did or liked that seemed sissy-ish, like drawing and even reading. What’s more, there was a cultural divide: my parents didn’t even know who the Rolling Stones were, much less Robert Frost.
And so, long story longer, I majored in civil engineering—not because I was forced to, exactly, but because it fulfilled a certain part of my natural love for knowledge, of all kinds. Calculus became a language to me—a way of expression that made the intangible world, tangible and quantifiable, verifiable. But when I began my careers as an engineer, surprisingly I realized that half my work and success depended on words, too, and not solely numbers. I found myself writing reports, studies, letters, and proposal for contracts that were essentially narratives of my firm’s vision, without a single calculation required. In the process, I came to firmly grasp the importance and power of language—and I fell in love with it the way I had fallen in love with integrals and polynomials. Then my right-brain kicked-in and I began to follow my creative impulse and explore my newfound love for words in other ways. It was then—at about age twenty-five—that I first began to write poetry—really terrible, melodramatic, cliched poems at first. But I was determined and dedicated. I took a couple of creative writing classes at the local community college, then eventually was accepted to the MFA Creative Writing program at Florida International University, the same institution where I studied engineering.
I guess you could say that engineering paved the road to poetry for me, pardon the pun. But let me be clear, even after much success as a poet, I never abandoned my engineering career entirely. For most of my life I have been a practicing poet and engineer, a poet-engineer, if you will. To answer your question more directly—no, I have never thought of my engineering as a detour from poetry, but rather, as an integral part of my unique journey. In that respect, I’ve looked to the lives of poets like William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens, who maintained other professional careers throughout their entire lives. Like them, I think that being an engineer has given me an important distance from poetry and a healthier perspective. And vice-versa—poetry has done the same for my engineering. I share all this because I fear that these days there is an unwittingly promulgated sense that success as a poet—or most any career—requires following a certain “formula” or standard. That simply isn’t true—has never been true. If you look at the lives of poets, you’ll find that each of their journeys is unique—and makes their poetry unique.
Rumpus: So would you say that poetry and engineering now work synergistically in your life? Does anything factual or any way of thinking or acting that you learned as an Engineer work its way into the words you place on a page or the way you look at poetry or your life?
Blanco: Poetry and engineering are obviously different as careers, but surprisingly I’ve found some overlap with respect to certain skill sets and approaches. I believe I am a better poet because I’m an engineer. Let me explain. The rigors of mathematics and physics involve developing a keen sense of logic, recognizing patterns, and creating a structural framework in order to solve problems. I use all these skills when writing poetry, albeit contextually expressed in a different way. Still, I essentially approach a poem as a design problem, or rather an emotional design problem full of variables that I try to resolve with logical patterns and structures of words, imagery, and syntax, instead of with numbers. I also believe I’m a better engineer because I am a poet. Let me explain. Poetry, as a study of human nature and emotions, has helped guide my relationships with clients and the communities I serve on civic projects such as building park and schools, and planning towns. A good engineering design should meet not only practical needs, but emotional needs as well. Accomplishing the latter often takes years of engaging with people at town hall meetings. Poetry has helped me to navigate and gage the psychological nuances of these communities in order to develop designs that respect and enhance their sense of place and belonging, which are the major concerns and themes in my poetry as well.
Rumpus: Speaking of major concerns and themes, your work addresses themes of place and belonging, not only in your personal life but also in a larger context. You also often take on several large social justice issues. In your most recent collection, How to Love a Country, for example, you unflinchingly examine the Pulse Nightclub massacre and a lynching in Alabama. So you are not only a poet, but also a public speaker, educator, and advocate. Could you tell us a little about using poetry to engage with the public, especially in the context of, your work as the education ambassador for the Academy of American Poets?
Blanco: Well, first, a little back story. After the presidential inauguration I received thousands of messages from people from all walks of life expressing how powerfully they connected with the inaugural poem. I was quite surprised at first; after all, I had been under the distinct impression that most Americans didn’t care much for poetry, and that was that. But then I realized that the inaugural poem was for many the very first time they had engaged with a contemporary poem by a living poet—and that made all the difference.
I reflected on my own engagement with poetry and realized that throughout my education I was never introduced to a single poem by a living poet. It wasn’t until I began taking creative writing courses after college that I encountered the wide spectrum of contemporary poets, whose voices suddenly brought poetry alive and made it relevant, changing my life forever. I questioned why that hadn’t happened sooner. Why wasn’t poetry a larger part of our cultural lives; more connected to our popular conversations as with film, music, and novels. Why poetry isn’t more rooted in our history and folklore. Where was the disconnect?
I concluded that part of the reason had largely to do with education. The way poetry is generally taught, even by teachers who like poetry, falls short of exploring its full potential and engagement. There even exists a recognized fear of poetry known as metrophobia. I realized it was a systemic issue and I wanted to foster some kind of change. That’s when I teamed up with the Academy of American Poets, which is dedicated to serving educators. As Education Ambassador for the Academy, my role is to share and promote the plethora of resources they’ve developed for educators, including lesson plans, a monthly newsletter, and the “Teach This Poem” email series. I wholeheartedly believe in the Academy’s mission, inspiring and empowering educators to bring the life-enriching power of poetry into their classrooms for the sake of students.
Rumpus: After the presidential inauguration, you have become a sought-after public speaker, in addition to being an advocate, activist, and educator. All this has contributed to your attaining a celebrity status that poets normally do not enjoy. But I imagine that although it is certainly harder to languish in obscurity, it is possible for fame to obstruct or alter creativity. Have you ever experienced writer’s block? And, on a more general note, any words of wisdom on nurturing oneself regardless of external recognition, but more especially rejection?
Blanco: I would say that my relative fame—and I do mean relative—has had both positive and negative repercussions in various contexts. Fame has given me a sense of validation and arrival as an accomplished poet, which motivates me to keep on writing. I have seen the “payoff” of hard work and perseverance. Yet, now I write with more apprehension because a higher bar has been set and greater expectations set by myself, my peers, and my audience. As such, the fear of failure has become even greater. As the old adage goes: the bigger they are the harder they fall. Though fame has allowed me to live the dream of earning a living from my writing, there’s a lot of periphery work that has nothing to do with writing—all the business of poetry, which has become my day job, so to speak. A constant inundation of messages to answer, blurbs to write, contracts to review, contests to judge, all while being on the road about seventy percent of my time on a never-ending tour of readings, lectures, and workshops.
But, as my friend Nikki says, “No crying on the yacht.” She reminds me to be grateful and put things in perspective. Indeed, it’s a good problem to have, as they say. And it is a great blessing to be an uber active poet engaged with the world. But all the busy-work it takes to sustain that engagement has taken time away from my writing. What’s more, I’ve found it more difficult to get into the creative zone because of the very stress of having to earn my living as a writer, ironically. I wouldn’t call it writer’s block, though, which is just a convenient term we tell ourselves when we procrastinate out of fear. Letting go of that fear is simply part of the very writing process, not a block, per se. Whether famous or obscure, that challenge remains essentially the same; as does the one thing that keeps me going: those five minutes or five hours when I’m fully immersed and alive in the pure flow of creativity, when I abandon my ego and surrender to the poem, when I write out of my very soul without any expectations or apprehensions, as if no one was ever going to read a single word I write.
Photograph of Richard Blanco © Joyce Tenneson.