It’s not every day that a presidential inaugural poet gives a reading for Hollins University. In fact, it’s a first. This Thursday, April 8, Cuban-American writer Richard Blanco, who read his poem “One Today” at the second inauguration of President Barack Obama in 2012, will offer a virtual reading for the Hollins community that’s open to the general public, becoming the first inaugural poet to do so in the university’s history. It’s a rare honor to be selected to read a poem at a presidential inauguration, even rarer than being president (45 individuals have served as U.S. President, but there have been just six inaugural poets, including literary titans such as Robert Frost at John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inauguration and Maya Angelou for Bill Clinton in 1993.) Blanco was the nation’s first Latino and first openly gay inaugural poet, and he wrote about the experience and his life leading up to that moment in his 2013 memoir For All of Us, One Today: An Inaugural Poet’s Journey. Blanco recently spoke about his latest collection How to Love a Country, writing during the COVID-19 pandemic, and his new friendship with fellow inaugural poet Amanda Gorman.
Thank you so much for taking the time, Richard. Let’s just start with the big game-changing moment: getting the call to read at then-President Obama’s second inauguration. What was that like?
That was a pretty crazy, alarming, wonderful, all-of-the-above moment. But I guess the most striking thing was that my initial reaction was not of fear or apprehension but really more of immense gratitude, not just for the opportunity that it represented, but more so gratitude for my parents and grandparents and all the sacrifices they made coming to this country. So you realize that your story is not just your story but that it’s a story that started being written a long time before. Gratitude for all of that was, in a way, a kind of closure as well as a new beginning. It closed one chapter of my life but opened up a whole new one.
It sounds like the inauguration was cathartic not just personally but artistically as well. Can you talk more about that?
Aesthetically and creatively, I’d never had to write a poem like that before. But I have to say, in an interesting and ironic way, I’d been writing it my entire life. In my very first graduate-level creative writing workshop, my first assignment was “write a poem about America.” [Laughs] My mentor and I joke that Obama gave me the same assignment ten years ago. But to be honest, after four books of writing about being Cuban-American and gay and Latino, I felt I had kind of exhausted the material. I didn’t know how to break out of the more purely autobiographical, and [the inauguration] was an invitation to do just that. I know what America means to me, but what does America mean to America? That was the question I had to ask. So the poem is a response to that and, in a way, it did open up a whole other approach to writing where the idea of the poetry of “We,” not just the poetry of “I,” became very important. And that’s obviously reflected in How to Love a Country as well.
Yes, I’ll read some poems from, How to Love a Country, [plus] some poems that lead up to that book as well. I usually like to tell somewhat of a narrative about my journey, both artistically and personally, and how that’s reflected in the poems. So thinking about growing up as an immigrant gay kid, becoming an inaugural poet, and how that changed my perspective on things in my art, resulting in How to Love a Country, which are poems that are much more socio-political.
I love that collection so much. For these poems, did you find yourself struggling to love this country, or struggling to re-evaluate that love?
The question of what is America, what does it mean to be an American, has always been a part of my question. Being selected as presidential inaugural poet was obviously an amazing experience in that it opened my eyes to the idea that my narrative is part of America. Before then, I wasn’t 100-percent convinced of that. [Laughs] But I also started seeing how many narratives weren’t being included although they were part of this country’s fabric, that so many people, like me, felt the same way. So I just started thinking about all the work we had to do still in this country. Our democracy is not a one-off—it’s not a check-and-done—it’s constant work and constant re-evaluation. So the inauguration was a pivotal moment, a positive moment, but it also sent me on a journey to keep investigating this idea of the American narrative.
And how has the COVID-19 pandemic affected that investigation? Has quarantine had a big impact on your writing process?
For the most part, no, in the sense that writers are used to working alone. But even I’m going a little stir crazy, and you know when the writers are going stir crazy that something is really bad. [laughs] But I really have a sense of empathy for people who have been working outside their house for years and years. I would say that this last year has instilled in me an appreciation for home and community like never before. There are so many things that we all take for granted, even the smallest things like going to your favorite neighborhood restaurant or just appreciating the people who allow us to have those experiences and understanding, much like the inaugural poem, that all of us matter. All our stories are really happening at once and they’re all interconnected.
Speaking of that interconnection, we just had another inauguration in January and another presidential inaugural poet. What did you think of Amanda Gorman’s poem, “The Hill We Climb”?
I know Amanda. She speaks Spanish, which is really wonderful; we text in Spanish so she can practice. As my partner Mark says, more people have been to the moon than have been presidential inaugural poets, so it’s a very small club! [laughs]
But besides her poem and the strength of her poem, what she represents is so powerful. During these chaotic years, I’ve been concerned by what kind of story we’re telling to our children, to our youth. So the choice of this 22-year-old writing dynamo as inaugural poet says a lot: says that you have power, you have agency, you have to participate in this democracy, it’s your country as well. I think she has come at a moment when we need that the most, and I look forward to seeing how she can lead us, especially our youth, through what I think are still very tumultuous years ahead.
Jeff Dingler is a graduate assistant in Hollins’ marketing and communications department. He is pursuing his M.F.A. in creative writing at the university.