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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Poet Richard Blanco shares his journey to the podium

Published: November 22, 2013
Section: Arts, Etc.

On Thursday, the Department of Hispanic Studies brought Richard Blanco to Brandeis for a poetry reading in the Carl and Ruth Shapiro Admissions Center. Blanco recently joined the elite group of inaugural poets, as he read at President Barack Obama’s second address.

Professor James Mandrell (HISP) introduced Blanco, touching shortly on what the poet represented to many on the day of the president’s second inauguration. “The poet chosen to read that day exemplified the types of inclusion that many in the U.S. had thought they would not necessarily live to see in the political realm,” he said. Blanco is “a gay man made in Cuba, assembled in Spain and imported to the United States.” After being introduced, Richard Blanco began to speak about his journey not just through life but around the world, which led him to President Obama’s inaugural address.

It is the story of this journey that Blanco tells in his new book released Nov. 19, “For All of Us, One Today: An Inaugural Poet’s Journey.” Writing in English and in Spanish, Richard Blanco aims in his book to tell the emotional journey leading to the inaugural address, rather than the classic story about how he received a phone call from the president one day while driving on a highway in Maine. Blanco spoke with pride of his history and his family that formed his character.

The journey starts as far back as the womb, Blanco joked. He told the audience how his parents moved from Cuba to Spain when his mother was seven months pregnant. By the time he was two months old, they had moved to America. “By the time I was 45 days old, I belonged figuratively to three countries … if that wasn’t some higher power telling you what was going to obsess my life and my writing later on, I don’t know what was,” he said.

Blanco opened up about many problems he had with his own cultural identity as a child and an adult. Growing up in Miami, in a bubble of other Cuban families, he felt as if he was between “two imaginary worlds”—that of Cuba, as he knew of it from tales told by his parents, and that of the United States as he saw on television in shows like “The Brady Bunch.”

At first, Blanco felt as if he was practically meant to speak at the inaugural address, when he received the call from the president. His first assignment in graduate school was “to write a poem about America … and that’s exactly what Obama said 20 years later.”

Blanco read excerpts of his poetry that were heard as smoothly and as easily as his natural speaking. The poems were much like stories but performed. The first was “America.” The poem told the tale of Cuban-American Thanksgivings, where they ate pork rather than turkey and never knew what to do with peanut butter when it was in the house. It slowly opened up into an exploration of the life between the two worlds in which Blanco lived. “Overheard conversations of returning to Cuba had grown wistful and less frequent. I spoke English. My parents didn’t.” Blanco’s poems, while following no rhyme scheme or formula, flowed naturally off his tongue and held the audience’s attention. While exploring a topic such as his own journey through life, he could still create humorous moments. “Men in guayaberas stood in senate blaming Kennedy for everything. ‘Ese hijo de puta … ’” Blanco’s poems were long and winding, but filled with dramatic pauses and shifting tones; it was easy to follow along.

Blanco spoke most passionately perhaps about his mother. One of the last poems he read focused on her and how she was core of his story. When Blanco was asked to speak at the capitol, he initially assumed that his partner, Mark, would be the one guest allowed to sit with him on the platform. However Mark, and soon Blanco, knew that it was his mother’s place. “She won’t fully understand the poem I will read about America, to America, in English, but she doesn’t have to. She is the poem. She is America.”

Blanco’s poetry was truly an expression from the heart. “The weird thing about poetry,” he admitted, “is that you write this stuff but then as you read it, you get emotional,” he admitted.

The reading was fully attended by a variety of people, from Spanish students looking to receive extra credit, to those truly intrigued by the poet and his work, to faculty and staff and outside members of the community. Raffle tickets were handed out upon entering the hall, and at the end of the reading, six numbers were pulled to give those students a free copy of Blanco’s new book. Copies were also for sale, and he stayed afterward to sign them for anybody who wanted.