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Richard Blanco Will Be First Latino Inaugural Poet

Jan 9, 2013
Originally published on January 16, 2013 3:44 pm

In 1961, Robert Frost became the first poet to read at a U.S. inauguration when he recited "The Gift Outright" at President John F. Kennedy's swearing in. Since then, only three other poets have taken part in subsequent inaugural ceremonies: Maya Angelou, Miller Williams and Elizabeth Alexander. Now, there's a fifth.

The Presidential Inaugural Committee announced Wednesday that this inauguration's poet will be Richard Blanco. At 44, Blanco is the youngest poet, as well as the first Latino and the first openly gay poet to take part in an inaugural ceremony. He joins NPR's Renee Montagne to discuss his plans for the inaugural poem, as well as his own story of coming to America.


Interview Highlights

On how it feels to be asked to read at the inauguration

"Even though it's been a few weeks since I found out, just thinking about my parents and my grandparents and all the struggles they've been through, and how, you know, here I am, first-generation Cuban-American, and this great honor that has just come to me, and just feeling that sense of just incredible gratitude and love."

On writing the inaugural poem

"I think I started writing it right there in my head [when I got the news]. Images just started coming to me. What's interesting, as I think every inaugural poet has said, it's a very difficult assignment because it is an occasional poem. But luckily, I really sort of have keyed in to the theme of the inauguration, which is Our People, Our Future, and writing about America is a topic that obsesses me in terms of cultural negotiation and my background as a Cuban-American. And so it wasn't a completely unfamiliar topic ... So as a subject I felt somewhat comfortable; but the challenge of it was how to maintain sort of that sense of intimacy and that conversational tone in a poem that obviously has to sort of encompass a whole lot more than just my family and my experience."

On being "made in Cuba, assembled in Spain and imported to the United States"

"My mother ... was seven months pregnant with me when she left Cuba, and at that time, in 1968, since there were no diplomatic relations, everybody had to go through what they called a third country, so we ended up in Spain. Forty-five days later I was born, and a few weeks after that, we got in a plane and immigrated once more to New York City. So by the time I was about 2 or 3 months old, I had figuratively and literally been in three countries, and could probably have claimed citizenship in any one of the three at that moment. And then eventually when I was about 3 or 4 we settled down in Miami. And it's kind of, you know, as I look back on my life, as we all do, you kind of think, 'Is this some kind ... of foreshadowing, of course, of what my work as a poet would be obsessed with?' This whole idea of place and identity and what's home and what's not home, and which is in some ways such an American question that we've been asking since, you know, since [Walt] Whitman, trying to put that finger on America. You know, it makes for a very confusing childhood. Like, most of my family calls me el galleguito, which means the little Galician, and yet we were Cuban, and in my, you know, 5-, 6-year-old mind, I was going, 'What the hell are they talking about?' Not only that, I'm not from Galicia, I was born in Madrid, I'm a madrileño! So, it somehow seems like it was all fated."

On his poem "América" — told in the voice of a 7-year-old girl whose family always serves pork and yucca on Thanksgiving — and how it tackles the complex world he grew up in

"This poem is sort of that angst, and that plea by the 7-year-old child, that we have Thanksgiving the way it's supposed to be:

A week before Thanksgiving
I explained to my abuelita
about the Indians and the Mayflower,
how Lincoln set the slaves free;
I explained to my parents about
the purple mountain's majesty,
'one if by land, two if by sea'
the cherry tree, the tea party,
the amber waves of grain,
the 'masses yearning to be free'
liberty and justice for all, until
finally they agreed:
this Thanksgiving we would have turkey,
as well as pork.

[Read the full poem here]

... That's what I've always had to negotiate. To this day, my mom will make a turkey, but she always has a backup pork roast in the oven, just in case, and for those that don't eat turkey."

On whether or not electing a black president changed America

"The immediate answer is, I think, yes ... [A]s an artist, I don't know if it's something in the air that I definitely feel is different. I do remember that historic moment, and I remember thinking to myself it was one of the proudest moments I ever had as far as being proud of America ... I remember thinking to myself, 'You did it, America!' You know, sometimes I speak to America like that. And my life in America sort of feel[s] a lot more open to possibility, and ... [I'm] sort of dreaming a lot more of who I can be and what I can do. And proof is in the pudding, you know, in the sense of being here, inaugural poet for this momentous occasion and the first Latino. I think that kind of mindset is contagious, and I think it's something many people feel in the air."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

When President John F. Kennedy was inaugurated in 1961, Robert Frost was asked to recite a poem. He wrote a new poem for the occasion called "Dedication." But when the time came for Frost to recite it, the glare of the snow kept him from reading the faint words on the page, so Frost recited another one of his poems from memory.

"The Gift Outright" spoke of how Americans came to posses this land, ending this way.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

ROBERT FROST: The deed of gift was many deeds of war, to the land vaguely realizing westward, but still unstoried, artless, unenhanced, such as she was, such as she would become, has become and I - and for this occasion, let me change that to what she will become.

MONTAGNE: Robert Frost, improvising there at the JFK inauguration. Frost was the first. Since then, only three other poets have taken part in inaugurations: Maya Angelou, Miller Williams and Elizabeth Alexander. Today, the Presidential Inaugural Committee announces this year's poet: Richard Blanco. A child of Cuban exiles, he's the first Hispanic and gay poet to be so honored, and he joined us to talk about it.

Welcome to the program.

RICHARD BLANCO: Hello, Renee. How are you?

MONTAGNE: I'm fine, thank you. This must be very exciting for you.

BLANCO: Oh, as you can imagine, I'm beyond - beside myself still, even though it's been a few weeks since I found out. I got a text message from my agent, who is usually very calm and very well-together fellow. And he texted me and said, you need to call me immediately. So luckily, I got in a traffic jam, and I was able to call him and I heard the news.

And, of course, it took me 10 minutes still of just being stunned, just thinking about my parents and my grandparents and all the struggles that they've been through, and how here I am, first-generation Cuban-American, and this great honor that has just come to me, and just feeling that sense of incredible gratitude and love.

MONTAGNE: Have you started writing the poem?

BLANCO: Well, I think I started writing it right there in my head on the way back home. Images started coming to me. What's interesting - as I think every inaugural poet has said - it's a very difficult assignment because it is an occasional poem. But writing about America is a topic that obsesses me in terms of cultural negotiation and my background as a Cuban-American. And so it wasn't a completely unfamiliar topic, except it's always been from a very deeply sort of personal, familial, lots of family lore and things like this.

So it's a subject I felt somewhat comfortable, but the challenge of it was how to maintain sort of that sense of intimacy and that conversational tone in a poem that obviously has to sort of encompass a whole lot more than just my family and my experience.

MONTAGNE: You weren't born in America. Tell us about that journey.

BLANCO: Well, as my sort of little tongue-in-cheek bio says, I was made in Cuba, assembled in Spain and imported to the United States, which means my mother left - she was seven months pregnant with me when she left Cuba. And at that time, in 1968, since there were no diplomatic relations, everybody had to go through what they called a third country. So we ended up in Spain.

Forty-five days later, I was born, and a few weeks after that, we got in a plane and immigrated once more to New York City. So by the time I was about two or three months old, I had figuratively and literally been in three countries, and could probably have claimed citizenship in any one of the three at that moment. And then eventually, when I was about three or four, we settled down in Miami.

And it's kind of, you know, as I look back on my life, as we all do, you kind of think: Is this some kind ironic or some kind of foreshadowing, of course, of what my work as a poet would be obsessed with? This whole idea of place and identity and what's home and what's not home, and which is in some ways such an American question that we're - we've been asking since, you know, since Whitman, trying to put that finger on America.

MONTAGNE: You do have a poem called "America," which tackles this complex world that you grew up in. I'd like you to read a few lines from it, just to know it's - you might give us a little explanation. It's from the point of view of a seven-year-old whose Cuban family always serves pork and yucca on Thanksgiving.

BLANCO: Right. And so this poem is sort of an angst, and that plea by the seven-year-old child that we have Thanksgiving the way it's supposed to be.

(Reading) A week before Thanksgiving, I explained to my abuelita about the Indians and the Mayflower, how Lincoln set the slaves free. I explained to my parents about the purple mountain's majesty, one if by land, two if by sea, the cherry tree, the tea party, the amber waves of grain, the masses yearning to be free, liberty and justice for all, until finally they agreed: this Thanksgiving we would have turkey, as well as pork.

(LAUGHTER)

BLANCO: So that was - and that's always what I've always had to negotiate. I mean, to this day, my mom will make a turkey, but she always has a backup pork roast in the oven, just in case, for those that don't eat turkey.

(LAUGHTER)

MONTAGNE: Four years ago, the inauguration of the first black president was a moment that was filled with history. As someone who writes a lot about cultural identity in America, do you think that that milestone has brought about any changes in our society four years later?

BLANCO: The immediate answer is, I think, yes. Specific changes - maybe again, in the way I look at the world as an artist - I don't know if it's something in the air that I definitely feel is different. I do remember that historic moment, and I remember thinking to myself it was one of the proudest moments I ever had as far as being proud of America in the sense of, like, I remember thinking to myself, you did it, America.

My life in America sort of feel a lot more open to possibility, and a lot more sort of dreaming a lot more of who I can be and what I can do. And proof is in the pudding, you know, in the sense of being here, an inaugural poet for this momentous occasion and the first Latino. I think that kind of mindset is contagious, and I think it's something that many people feel in the air.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us, and congratulations.

BLANCO: Well, thank you, Renee. It's been a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: That's poet Richard Blanco. Today, the Presidential Inauguration Committee announces he will be reading a poem especially composed to usher in the president's second term.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Hopefully, he'll be able to read the paper in the sun. The lineup for the inauguration was filled out a little further yesterday. Myrlie Evers-Williams will deliver the invocation at the ceremonial swearing in on January 21st. She's the widow of civil rights icon Medgar Evers, who was murdered outside their home in Mississippi 50 years ago. This is the first time that a woman will deliver the inaugural invocation, and it's also the first time that the prayer will not be delivered by a member of the clergy.

MONTAGNE: The benediction, however, will be delivered by a minister. Louie Giglio is the pastor of the Passion City Church in Atlanta. He's the founder of Passion Conferences, which holds annual spiritual gatherings aimed at young adults. Giglio is also a YouTube sensation, thanks to a sermon called "How Great is Our God." In the viral hit, he explores wonders of the science and preaches that they are evidence of God's grace. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.