The poet for Barack Obama’s 2013 inauguration shared his inspirations at St. Andrews University this week.
“I thought I’d pick out a few poems that are kind of like ancestors of how I came up with the inaugural poem, basically which I think will make sense of where that poem came from for me, the sort of soulful space that came from,” said Richard Blanco.
A guest at several St. Andrews Writers’ Forums, Blanco visited Laurinburg on Thursday for the first time since composing the poem “One Today” and reading it at the January inauguration.
“We were so excited for him when we found out that he was going to be the inaugural poet because we’ve sort of seen him as a poet and gotten to know him,” said Edna Ann Loftus, a professor of English at St. Andrews. “He gives such polished and beautifully-organized readings.”
Blanco, who currently lives in Maine, grew up in a Cuban community in Miami, Fla. after his parents emigrated from Cuba to Spain to the United States.
In writing the inaugural poem, Blanco drew from his experiences as a child and young adult, deciphering the meaning of “American” in order to deliver a message of unity and common prosperity despite shared trials.
“By writing about what it is to be Cuban or Cuban-American and being brought up in a Cuban household, I was by contrast questioning what it means to be an American, what is the ideal or am I that American that I see on TV,” said Blanco.
Throughout his young life, Blanco dreamed of leaving his insulated community and becoming part of the America depicted in the popular culture of the 1970s.
“In some ways that’s my particular story, but if you think about that, that sense of the universal element of what that means, who hasn’t sort of grown up imagining that there’s another place where they belong,” Blanco asked. “That’s what writing is about, how you speak about the universal elements of something through your particular details.”
Blanco read a selection of poems, including the first one he wrote in graduate school: “América.” That poem details his family’s celebration of Thanksgiving, a holiday largely misunderstood and celebrated in the Cuban community with pork rather than turkey.
“A week before Thanksgiving, I explained to my abuelita about the Indians and the Mayflower, how Lincoln set the slaves free,” Blanco read. “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.”
Other works, “The Port Pilot” and “Mother Picking Produce,” offered portraits of Blanco’s mother and father. Another poem described his grandmother’s categorical hostility to anything foreign to her Cuban sensibilities, including Blanco’s homosexuality.
“Things like Legos, Fruit Loops, anything she couldn’t read the label on, anything that had a sort of culturally different significance was considered queer, and I didn’t help the situation much,” he said.
Blanco’s initial inspiration for “One Today” did not come easily. He could only write the first line in a desperate fit of free writing.
“There’s a moment when something happens, and I’m not usually a free writer, but I started just free writing and I start shaping the writing as my thoughts come out,” said Blanco. “This time I just sat at my computer and wrote five or six pages of ‘my dog likes, whatever, blah, blah, blah.’ And as I was writing this, that thought: One sun rose on us today.”
Blanco also drew inspiration from the level of human collaboration involved in every day life, evidenced even by something as simple as a carton of ice cream.
“It takes hundreds of people to make that pint of ice cream, and it’s still only $3.99,” he said. “That is an amazing metaphor for me, how do we make anything happen. I just had this vision of a whole country waking up and going through their day, just from one end to the other and how amazing that is.”
Ron Bayes, St. Andrews distinguished professor of creative writing, praised Blanco’s style of delivery, as Blanco is now positioned to draw a wider audience to the art of poetry.
“There’s no high-faulting removal, it’s part of breathing,” said Bayes. “Poetry is part of breathing and part of life; it’s not something fancy, it’s essential.”