Richard Blanco

Prince of the Stanza

Air Date: March 7, 2015

Blanco narrates the bilingual immersion from which his unique American identity emerged.

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I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind .

“One Sun…One Light…One Ground…One Sky…One Today.” You may recall these stirring echoes of the unifying national sermon delivered by 2013 Presidential Inaugural Poet Richard Blanco, our guest today.

Not since then-State Senator Barack Obama’s 2004 DNC Keynote address when he rejected blue states and red states for the United States, has an orator rekindled the spirit of inclusiveness in our patriotism. Blanco’s reading of “One Today” at the most recent inaugural celebration simply captivated the nation.

The Madrid-born, Miami-raised beloved poet, Richard Blanco broke ground as the first openly gay Inaugural Poet, and he’s trailblazing again with his new memoir, a beautiful exploration of bilingual immersion from which his own unique American identity emerged.

Colorfully capturing the memories of his childhood like they were yesterday, Blanco’s The Prince of Los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood is intimate personal history grappling with universal truths in the American experience.

A trained engineer and poet, Blanco identifies vision as underpinning his past and present vocational pursuits. There are many such formative moments in The Prince of Los Cocuyos so first I want to ask Richard Blanco: Which vision of his childhood most inspired this extraordinary poetic journey … Richard … which has touched so many Americans?

BLANCO: Thank you. I think, you know, one of the main, the main pieces of the book is my grandmother and there’s this, this weird irony that I, I speak to in the book a little bit, but I’ve spoken more about in essays and things like this, my grandmother was a very xenophobic as well as homophobic woman. And so she was constantly surveilling me and also what that meant in her world was that anything that was culturally odd or too American was also “queer” … so things like Fruit Loops or (laugh) or things that … you know anything in English … but the weird thing is that you know, in some way her constant surveillance, her somewhat verbal abuse made me a withdrawn child, made me an observer of human nature, made me learn how to read the world in, in, in … as a form of … a mechanism for survival, so that I knew how to respond.

And at the end of the day, there’s the irony that I think she, in a way, made me a writer in that way. You know, she made me pay attention to the world in a way that maybe I world have missed. Made me pay attention to the world as a poet and I think, you know, even though there is a lot of trauma and a lot of not so, so great memories and a lot of hurt back in that childhood, there was a lot of fun with her and there’s also … she was my greatest teacher and my greatest, my greatest chastiser at the same time.

So I think that, that vision of how that started is part of, is part of what’s in the book. My grandmother … my relationship with my grandmother was key to my life in so many ways.

HEFFNER: Conflicting emotions.

BLANCO: Exactly. Which is, which is where … you know great things come out of. You know out of dilemma and out of trauma and out of, out of having to question oneself and the world is where, where art comes from.

HEFFNER: How did you come out of your shell? I mean to what do you attribute One Today … Inaugural Poet …

BLANCO: (Laugh) Right. Well, I think, I think in some ways, and, and I’m not sure if it comes across in, in the way that I was able to characterize myself … Little Riqui … in the book, but in some ways I was very much an extrovert, I think always.

And I’ve heard stories from grade school chums, you know, later on about … I mean I used to be hell apparently when I was like in first, second, third grade.

And when my grandmother came to live with us, I think I became withdrawn. So, so there is … I think there’s that duality as well. I mean I can be an incredible introvert, and an incredible social extrovert. And part of what happened at the Inauguration was sort of stepping into that extrovert role, to realize, to realize that there is, that there was something that had to be done, something that had to be engaged with, and, and part of the motivation for that was also just the idea that poetry … of connecting America with poetry that’s so important to me as a poet, and on, on behalf of all poets and poetry everywhere … but there was also an amazing sort of spiritual almost … almost spiritual moment that happened just before, while I’m sitting there waiting to read the poem … is that, you now, to that point I was just worried logistics and getting there and making sure my tie is straight and make sure I didn’t miss any pages of the poem (laugh), I was still revising the poem while I was sitting on the stage, but I’m sitting there … finally had … being able to take it all in …and realizing you’re just part of something so much larger … than your poem, yourself, my sitting with my mother who grew up in a dirt floor home in Cuba … which is part of what … what part of the story is, part of the memoir is to tell her story as well.

And here we all are. And in that moment in the Inauguration, you really feel this, there is this palpable sense of something really larger, it’s not, it’s not about me, it’s not about Beyonce, it’s, it’s really in a way not even bout the President, it’s really about our country and our founding ideals and in some ways it feels like America comes together to renew their vows in some way. It’s almost sacred. And, and that’s what allowed me to sort of, to sort of have that courage and that, and that … everybody said I was so calm, cool and collected … in a way I was because it wasn’t about me, it wasn’t me who was there, it was … it was that other part of the South that sort of just takes over and just says, “This is what this is”, you know, and it was just so beautiful for me, as well.

HEFFNER: You were certainly informed by the cultural transformation that you embark on in your book. And, and to witness that, first hand …

BLANCO: MmmHmm. Exactly.

HEFFNER: Mean that Barack Obama’s experience was different from yours, but it was a bilingual or biracial story.

BLANCO: Right.

HEFFNER: And you must have profoundly related to that.

BLANCO: Yes. Certainly and I think that, that’s in some ways … in some ways this book only goes until I’m 17. But, but the Inauguration … that moment in the Inauguration was kind of very sort of … it’s not a finishing point, but it really did sort of, sort of felt like some kind of … like everything had led up to that point in my life, in some ways … everything I had read about, everything I had experienced … all my languages, all my different (laugh) professions, all my careers, all my, all my family lore … everything in some way felt like it led up to that, to that great honor.

That I couldn’t imagine in my own sort of life something more appropriate. I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t toss a Pulitzer Prize aside (laughter) but, but in some ways in Richard Blanco’s life and, and Little Riquie’s life … it was in … in some ways a like a perfect ending to the story. If it had to end there, it was a perfect ending to my life. And I think what, what it is, it is a juncture from which now I’m starting to ask new questions about America and our place in, in … but in a … maybe in a different, less autobiographical way because I realize that, that, that story that I thought was … eeeh, it was a good story, but I thought was sort of limited and realized how universal that is to America and how foundational it is to who we are as, as a country.

In some ways that’s … the, the sort … the universal story of coming of age, of becoming something that applies even to countries. And I realized that America in the moment … we’re still sort of coming of age … right … we’re still sort of becoming and we get to participate in that hopefully.

I think we do. You know we get … add a sentence or a paragraph, or a chapter to that, to that evolving America and it doesn’t necessarily mean that America is … or the United States is done in our lifetime.

The story’s not going to finish in our lifetime. Everyone works towards that story. And, and the story will continue and in some ways, the same way that, that human beings, I think … you know, we’re never done becoming. We have junctures.

This book ends at 17 … 16 and a half which is a very unique juncture, but does it mean “Oh, now I’m Richard Blanco (laugh).” I mean there are so many different … we’re always, we’re always becoming, becoming something else and evolving. And I always compare it to sort of a mirage down the road, where down the road where just when you think you reach, and you think you know who you are, there you go and you have children … or (laugh) or when your children grow up … there you go and your children have grandchildren. Or, you know, that there’s always … we’re always chasing after our own, our, our own mirage.

And that’s beautiful. I mean that makes … that’s part of the magic of life. Part of why these questions and these stories of becoming and of coming of age … in all different regards, culturally in terms of sexuality, in terms of artistic identities that … the subject of art because there isn’t one defining answer, but rather it’s all about really great questions and how great questions ask more great questions and, and I think that’s part of the beauty of what I saw paralleled in my life, with what I was able to realize about America.

And it made me hopeful in a way … not to say, “All of America … you know … whoa … you know, God bless America and realize that this story is still being written, you know and that’s like … damn it I got … I got to add a poem to that story. And that, that’s just such a beautiful and an amazing honor.

HEFFNER: And what about the personal dimension of this … your Abuela …

BLANCO: MmmmHmmm … it …

HEFFNER: Did you learn from each other? Did you, did you kind of come of age together … in terms of your …

BLANCO: That’s a good question. Yeah.

HEFFNER: … cultural transformation.

BLANCO: I think, I think we did because as I detail in the book … especially … I mean it was all around sort of food especially (laugh), you know. Of course the middle generation are the first …you know first generation immigrant or I think that would be correct … well the hyphenated American … it’s always this bridge, this bridge sort of generation that teaches the old generation the new ways and then has to also navigate uncharted, you know, uncharted seas to, to be able to see their life in, in this world.

And with my grandmother I think that was, that was … in partly true … I mean I think not only in terms of cultural stuff … because I got her to buy me … things like “easy cheese”, got her to finally cook a turkey for Thanksgiving.

And I should mention, she lived with us most of my life. So she was, in some ways, more, more influential than my own mother (laugh) in some ways.

I think I got her to sort of warm up and lose a little bit of the xenophobia, but also in terms of …I think in terms of just …

HEFFNER: Not the homophobia …

BLANCO: Yeah, in terms of the homophobia, I think … even though I didn’t quite come out to her, as I had … as I did come out to my family … but again there’s this great period when you come out, which is like … you sort of come out, but then everybody else around you has to come out (laugh), you know, so they have to have their time, and my grandmother … ah, ah … I know she got something because one of her last words to me was “Well, you may not get married, but you’ll have children … right”. (Laughter)

Which was her way of saying “I get you, but please have kids”, or something … give me, you know, great-grandchildren, or something like that.

But the interesting thing about it, I think was about my grandmother and then I’m not sure I did such a, such a perfect job in, in, in the memoir, but I hope it’s there … is that it was a cultural thing to him … how that, how that … the sense of what homosexuality is, or what homophobia is … in my culture, or in every culture … and almost in every family is slightly different and I wanted to see how those two things connect.

So, what my grandmother, as I’ve come to realize … her, her homophobia wasn’t one of “You’re evil and you’re going to hell and this is, you know, this is wrong and, and, and you know, I never want to talk to you again”, what she was really trying to do was “butch” me up (laugh) because in Latino culture in a way … the Latino culture of machismo it’s all about the appearance of manhood … so in, in some ways her message to me was … “I don’t’ care what you do, but you’d better do it like a man” (laugh) “because it’s an ugly world out there” and she didn’t want people making fun of me. And I think that in her own twisted way … I’m, I’m not making excuses for, for her homophobia, no matter what flavor you put on it … but it was a way that I was able to, in a sense, understand her a little bit more. And have her … meet her half way and I think she met me half way, and so I kind of did “butch” up (laughter) and then she realized … I think she realized that no matter what … that a gay man is a gay man. You know and I think she understood that in the end.

HEFFNER: And maybe overcame bigotry … you know.

BLANCO: Yeah. A little bit, a little bit. I mean … I wouldn’t give her that much credit (laughter). But, yeah, a little bit … I mean the … I can’t help but think that, you know, on her deathbed we had a moment in which, you know, we looked into each other’s eyes and it was one of the most beautiful moments of my life. And I forgave her and she basically let me forgive her (laughter) because that was my grandmother.

HEFFNER: Do you differentiate yourself as a citizen and then as a poet?

BLANCO: One of the challenges of having … of writing the poem was when I’m asked for this assignment was, I wasn’t convinced that I was American yet.

HEFFNER: MmmHmm.

BLANCO: You know, I wasn’t convinced that I was a citizen, I wasn’t convinced that, you know, even though all these years … you know I was here since I was 45 days old and, and all the rest, there was still a little part of me that still, you know, thought I had to be Peter Brady in order to be American … or Marcia Brady, in my case.

But (laughter) that … you know, and so up until writing the poem was a very, was a very spirit … was a very personal and emotional endeavor because it let me finallyi connect and realize, as my mother says, you know, you’re not necessarily from the coutnry where you are from … but from the country where you chose to die.

And I realized that this, in the end of the day … this is my country. This is my citizenship, this is where I belong. And, and that was all a result of that emotional process of having to write a poem for America about America and offer that and how can I speak to that honestly if I’m not a citizen.

But … I don’t know if you mean citizen served in the, in the literal sense or more in the figurative sense …

HEFFNER: More figurative sense.

BLANCO: More figurative. In the figurative sense I think it, it … I mean I think there’s, there’s obviously … it’s kind of the same answer in the sense that I didn’t, I didn’t want to think that I participated in America in that way. And that my story was not American or that my story … you know that there was … that I … that maybe perhaps I’m always going to be the “other” you know, in my head. I thought and that … and then in someways I didn’t want to, you know, I didn’t want to push that envelope either.

And after this whole experience I realized that that story is America, you know, that is … one of … if we have any folklore in America in that sense, it’s that … it’s the folklore of the immigrant story. Which is so powerful and yet, we hardly really recognize it because every generation loses the institutional memory, I guess, of that experience.

But when you think about the contribution of what that means to, to our sense of America or ourselves, it’s pretty insanely wonderful and huge.

HEFFNER: You talked about your contributions as an artist and, and there’s something, unfortunately fleeting that defines the, the moment in which one is captivated. Because what you epitomized in those words at the Inagural Address was unity, the idea that we’re going to perfect our Union together …

BLANCO: Right.

HEFFNER: … as one. And as a poet in this society and, and in a universe of Twitter …

BLANCO: Right. (Laughter)

HEFFNER: … where arguably 140 characters could be a stanza …

BLANCO: Right. Right.

HEFFNER: How, how can we insure that those moments are not fleeting?

BLANCO: I know what you’re saying and its unfortunate and, I mean I didn’t grow up in that generation and its hard for me to imagine a world that moves that quickly.

I, I think for one, the Inauguration is, is one of those moments that makes the whole country stop. Right. Like it makes us stop and I’m doing my best to continue that message with every reading, with every conversation I have with people … even in poetry in general, that’s just something that’s just sort of fallen by the way side. Because the Inauguration has opened the doors to so many unusual suspects as far as engineering firms and law firms. All sorts of people are suddenly want to hear more about this poetry and it surprised me because I think the irony of … in, in that world of 144 … is it 144 …

HEFFNER: 140.

BLANCO: 140 (laughter) … see … if 140 characters … what I found that ironically there is … that still fundamental human … that hunger is still there for something of substance. So even though we might move about our lives like that, people eventually seek out something more of substance and I think that will always be the case. And it’s almost like … I feel like “Yes, we have all this going on, and, and it’s … but it might not be any less busy than we were before in some way, we’re just busy in different ways. And that we seek out, we seek out art and we seek out literature and, and all sorts of art when it comes time to do that.

And I, I think … I think or maybe I’m just being Pollyanna about it, but I think that what … I was surprised by that myself … the way that the poem … I touched people that I wasn’t expecting. And I think the irony is that … in this world of that … when you, when you present something of substance and something that makes you pause at least more than, you know, you know, 10 seconds on a Facebook page that in some ways it has an even more powerful effect, because it’s something that’s not there every day and it has … it creates a special place I think in people.

HEFFNER: Do you find that younger poets or even your contemporaries draw the same inspiration from their family stories?
BLANCO: I mean I’ve not done the survey, but I wonder if you ask, you know, a hundred … a hundred people in the street what they know about their grandparents’ stories. Or maybe even their grandparents … and be … they might even be surprised to think that their grandparents came from some other country. (Laugh) They might not even know those stories and that’s kind of odd and sad.

I think every generation wash … I’m the bridge generation … every generation sort of washes out a little bit … more and more. You did ask me about other poets … if … yeah … I think some poets do, some poets don’t. I think a lot do especially when you first start writing … you’re poetry sort of reaches back to, to sort of what made you … you know, I mean what maybe created your psyche. And you know, this Memoir is obsessed with the same things that my poems are. It’s like how did I become who I am and what does that mean not just selfishly, but what does that mean about “becoming” and how is it that people “become” through story and community. And then way was a going back to understand those stories in a more finite way to be able to understand my present self even more. And not myself only, but others … my country, my community … what not.

Yeah, I think we live sometimes in a, in a world where that’s easy to ignore and what I’ve been finding because of what I’ve done in the Inauguration because of perhaps the stories I’ve been telling that people are coming out of, sort of the immigration clause … and to be frank, it’s a little … you know, my, my partner like on some things … they’re starting to tell me all these stories about their grandfather and these stories that they heard as a little kid … about Poland and all the idiosyncracies about their grandparents … things that they would never sort of share want to or thought were of value and suddenly it becomes “lore”, you know, and it’s … you know sitting around the proverbial campfire telling your stories is, is just primordial to, to our human experience … the narrative, the ability to tell our stories.

And it’s not just in telling our stories that are important because “I want to tell my story”, but it’s that looking across the other person’s eyes through the flame because they’re thinking about their story and your story prompts their story and their story …the story of that other person prompts your own story to think about. And that communication of where we come from … you know it’s a cliché, but to know where we come from, we kind of need to know that to know where we’re going, kind of a thing.

And if I had one sort of thing that I could change about America (laughter) it would be this disposable memory that we have some times. You know this idea that, that … you know, that even my nephews, I’m sorry to say … sorry, guys, but you know …

HEFFNER: (Laughter)

BLANCO: … they, they don’t, they barely speak Spanish. And I’m trying to tell them … I mean the older one’s starting to investigate a little bit more … I’m like “These are your stories and it’s not about being Cuban and it’s not necessarily about all this jazz. But own, own your history, own your own history, otherwise you’re just floating around like a McDonald’s ad or something.” And your, your just fleeting, you know, you have no grounding and you don’t listen to me. (Laughter) But the older one is a …

HEFFNER: I saw …

BLANCO: … real intelligent guy. And, and at some point and I think that’s what a … I think … I think it’s pronounced when you are the first generation, you know. You immediately, I mean at 45 days old, I was already a citizen of three countries. So you’re immediately confronted with those questions at an early age and so every generation sort of tends to forget a little bit. But it’s not even that they want them to tell the story about being Cuban or not, or, or what they start … but whatever that story is … tell a story … man, you know, like don’t, don’t … and realize that your story is unique. And as much as you think you’re not unique, that everyone’s story and experiences and the way they see the world is unique. And that collective sort of story telling is something that, that I, that I think we miss out in America.

I was just in Ireland … even and in Hong Kong … I mean in Hong Kong they had quotes by … on the subway … and not … and I love the subway quotes that they put in, you know, in the subway here in Manhattan, but these were on the walls of the subway stations and done in like … beautiful mosaics with like … the things must have cost thousands of dollars … quote by Maya Angelou, by Vincent VanGogh and it’s like, you know … yeah, why not … that’s … that’s you know part of our lives.

And in Ireland … I mean story telling … talk about Ireland, I mean every town seems to have a statue of a poet and not Seamus Hammie … (laughter) … it’s some sort of well know poet from that town that, that may be … somewhat have an international renown … but is mostly an Irish poet and they’re really just proud as hell of him. You know, and their sense of … because they’re, because they’re the story keepers in their way.

HEFFNER: You had to triangulate, if you will, between Cuban, Spanish and your original birthplace and American, but what I was going to say, at some point because in certain states of our union, what was a minority is becoming a majority.

BLANCO: Right.

HEFFNER: Talking about the Spanish speaking population.

BLANCO: Right. Right.

HEFFNER: And so we’re going to have to look in the mirror and reflect on that soon.

BLANCO: Right. Right. Yean. Yeah, I think that’s … Ahemm … I mean I forget what the statistics are, but it’s …

HEFFNER: It’s going back to our roots in terns of the Conquistadores and …

BLANCO: Yeah, yeah.

HEFNER: If you were giving the Inaugural speech again …

BLANCO: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … the, the … reciting the poem … what would you do now? Because One Today is really a sentiment that we want our politics to embody far more frequently than it, than it does.

BLANCO: Right. Right.

HEFFNER: And so if you had that moment again, what have you thought since, what’s the natural extension of One Today?

BLANCO: What have I felt … since I’m not sure …

HEFFNER: What is, what is …

BLANCO: What would I change?

HEFFNER: No, not … I mean it was a beautiful moment.

BLANCO: Yeah.

HEFFNER: It was a beautiful moment, but if art is a continuum, and I’m not … you can ignore the question if … if you don’t’ want to invent the stanza right before us and, and our audience, but I’m just wondering … what has percolated in your mind since that … you know what could you convey now? Because you were speaking before a nation that was in transition …

BLANCO: MmmHmm.

HEFFNER: … it was the same President …

BLANCO: Right.

HEFFNER: … new Congress, but, but our politics is woefully inadequate right now and, and …

BLANCO: Yup, yup.

HEFFNER: … serving the ideals of art which, which can really present themselves quite vividly.

BLANCO: And I don’t think they ever will. I mean, let’s face it … I’m not a historian, but one of the things I had to debate with in writing the poem was … you know, I had to self, self impose pressure of trying to write something much more politically motivated and politically charged and, you know, the whole nine yards and, and I … this was one of the things I had to negotiate … when I realized the position of an artist or the poet, in my view … and I think in a lot of people’s view … and I’m not saying that political poetry is not worthwhile, or that it …that, that’s not a reality, is to provide a vision that somehow affects society in a different way

HEFFNER: Richard Blanco … I want to thank you for joining …

BLANCO: Sure, sure.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time…for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind.

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