Yesterday, Richard Blanco, at 44, reached the ranks of renowned poets, Robert Frost and Maya Angelou. Like them, he was handpicked by the White House to give an inaugural poem — he’s the youngest of the five poets ever chosen in history — as well as the first Latino and openly gay poet.
“I have never felt more American…than on that podium,” says Blanco about his monumental experience reciting “One Today” on inauguration day, January 21, 2013. “The poem was about the immigrant story.”
The award-winning poet who immigrated with his Cuban exile parents from Spain when he was an infant, says his nerves were calmed because his mom — and personal hero — was right beside him on the platform.
“I’ve seen her whole story about leaving Cuba and leaving her entire family, and how much she worked to make our lives better, and that’s why I’m here,” says Blanco. “I admire her courage and fortitude. I don’t look too far for heroes — they are right in front of me.”
A little more than a month ago, Blanco had no clue he was going to be addressing the nation in iambic pentameter.
“I first thought it was a friend playing a practical joke,” says Blanco remembering when he received the call asking him to be the inaugural poet on December 12. “But overall, I had a feeling of gratitude. I thought of my parents and grandparents and all the sacrifices they have made. It was the end of a chapter, and hopefully the beginning of a new chapter.”
The master of words, who formerly had a career in engineering, was all of a sudden signed up to write a poem for the President of the United States.
“I had to write three poems,” says Blanco reciting his instructions, which he had less than a month to execute, and he did it all at his kitchen table. “I finished two in two weeks, and then finished the third.”
Ultimately, the White House chose the winner of the three — “One Today,” which touches on what it means to be an American — a topic that has been floating around in Blanco’s mind ever since he immigrated to this country. He says he was forced to think about it even deeper to write the poem.
“What I realized most importantly is America is still negotiating its own identity,” he says. “It’s like an immigrant…it’s a beautiful thing — America can wake up every morning like the poem.”
My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors,
each one yawning to life, crescendoing into our day…
Blanco says there are so many memories to take away from the special day, but the most special one was perhaps the moment he walked up to the podium, and the President whispered a few words in his ears.
“I felt he had my back,” say Blanco. “I was nervous, but he said something like, “Thank you,’ and ‘It’s an honor.’”
And then afterwards, he says people came up to him and expressed how they connected to the poem and how it touched them, because their moms and grandmothers also worked so hard.
“That’s exactly who I wanted the poem to be for,” says Blanco. “It felt very intimate – everybody was united there for one purpose — for a couple of hours — for the fundamental principles of America…It really felt so amazing at that moment.”
An inaugural committee’s spokeswoman, Addie Whisenant, said President Obama picked Blanco because the poet’s “deeply personal poems are rooted in the idea of what it means to be an American.”
“I feel American, because I’m still asking questions and wondering about tomorrow,” says Blanco, who often writes about that very topic. “I’m realizing my own personal story as an exile immigrant and trying to figure out what is home.”
Now that the important task of writing the inaugural poem is over, he says he will be concentrating on finishing his memoir, which will be based on the same theme.
“The memoir is about negotiating cultural identity, and living between two worlds — the Cuban world and the American world,” says Blanco who hopes to complete it in about a year. “I have a lot of it done, but I’m going through the writing process…hopefully, it will be even sooner than that while this is all still fresh in my mind.”