Award-winning poet Richard Blanco was launched into the public eye after reading his poem “One Today” at President Obama’s second inauguration. Following this life-changing event, Blanco took on an increasingly public role – one he continues with his speaking and teaching and as the education ambassador of the Academy of American Poets. His latest poetry collection, How to Love a Country, is a poignant and moving reflection on issues facing our nation and its people. Topics he addresses in the collection include cultural identity, immigration, race, sexual identity, mass shootings, and modern politics. His powerful, beautiful, and sometimes painful work conveys both personal and collective experiences and struggles. Blanco is also the author of two memoirs, The Prince of los Cocuyos and For All of Us, One Today: An Inaugural Poet’s Journey.
How poetry is taught
I want to turn metrophobes (people with a fear of poetry) into metromaniacs. I think the fear goes back to the way poetry is taught. I think we should approach poetry more like music or art. Instead, it’s shrouded in mystery. Like anything new that you try, you start and fail and then improve. You have to keep practicing. Creating can be a wonderful space, but it can be terrifying, and you just have to accept it and dive in. Eventually, you get into the flow, and it gets a little easier.
Beginning a poem
For the most part, I don’t know where a poem will lead, but I’ll have a sense of the theme or texture to start with. It can be an image, a quote, or a memory, and I’ll slowly start seeing what develops on the page. Typically, when I start holding strongly to an idea, it doesn’t turn out well because there’s no discovery. Finding the structure is like tuning an instrument until you hear the right note. And with free verse, every poem has to find its own internal logic and structure. You figure that out during the process.
Persistent themes and questions
My whole trajectory with my work comes down to one essential question: Where is home? In a lot of my earlier work, cultural identity and belonging in terms of place was biographically centered around those questions. After serving as inaugural poet, I was thrust into a public world, of not only my poetry but myself. I felt a natural sense of thinking about civic duty as an outgrowth of that. It became not just “me” but “we,” and a broader, more pluralistic way of questioning the same things.
Raised in a working-class, immigrant family, I didn’t have access to poetry. I want to write poetry that my mother can read, or poetry that I would have loved as a little boy. I think of myself as a poet of the people. I argue against the idea that if a poem is accessible, it’s not complex. Accessible is not synonymous with simple.
Prose vs. poetry
For me, I kind of just wanted to teach myself to write prose and go through my own learning process. The main difference is that even with memoir, what drives the book is plot. The narrative has to keep moving. A poem is like a two- or three-minute song, where a memoir is like a movie. As I wrote, I kept asking, “What happens next?” But I can’t write a memoir without writing poetry first. I need to know, “What is the emotional center?”
Allison Futterman is a freelance writer based in Charlotte, North Carolina.