Monday, June 3, 2019

How to Love a Country: An Interview with Richard Blanco

How to Love a Country

an interview with Richard Blanco
conducted by Therese Marie Konopelski

How to Love a Country offers a poetic narrative of the United States, wandering its alabaster cities and fruited plains with the spirit of a nomad and sincere devotion of a pilgrim. The scout of the reader's journey, Richard Blanco, curates small everyday episodes ranging from tensions on small-town Main Street to a cab driver's despair in sunny Cuba. Informed by the wisdom and perspective gained from his travels as the first Latinx inaugural poet, Blanco makes a compelling narrative of competing patriotic ideals within the U.S. today. In his collection, Blanco registers the impact of ahistorical and revisionist versions of American heritage fueling nationalistic propaganda.

A patriot at heart, Blanco does not shy away from describing the scope of structural injustices in American society. As a young adult whose generation is faced with solving many of these serious issues, I also believe that constructive criticism will be a much greater tool than embittered cynicism. The journey of country and self share an intimate relationship in Blanco's story, suggesting the flaws of the self as well as the country may be erased in time by increased awareness and growth. Blanco suggests that faith in a deeply divided country and activism for radical change are not only compatible, but synergisticHow to Love a Country is a deeply inspiring book, offering clarity and reconciliation for the conflicted individual and nation.
-Therese Konopelski, University of Notre Dame (class of 2020)

[Therese Konopelski]: American Wandersong combines your life’s narrative with the history of America. The poem finally narrows its scope to a starry night on a porch in Maine, grounding the monumental achievements of America in a singular ordinary moment in nature. Why are vignettes predominant in your style? How is your increased agency and growth as an individual represented through the reframed diction of nationality throughout the poem, resolving in a homeland within the self?

[Richard Blanco]: I consider that we live and move through three different kinds of landscapes: the physical, emotional, and natural. The relationships among these and their unique and complex intersections and divergences develop our sense place and belonging. This is what I was exploring and trying to capture in American Wandersong, namely: my personal journey through these landscapes in search of a grounding identity, which has changed over time. 

As a child and adolescent, I didn’t entirely embrace my Cuban identity because it was my given culture and therefore commonplace—it was what I knew. Instead, I sought the “other,” wanting to identify with what I perceived to be the “real” America I saw on TV. However, through a cultural coming-of-age I gradually came to appreciate my Cuban heritage and claim it, culminating in my first visit to Cuba in 1994. For years afterwards, I self-identified as Cuban, but eventually realized that the Cuba I “belonged” to was the intangible myth and memories of my parents and grandparents. I then moved to New England, seeking that quintessential America I felt I had a claim to as well. Of course, that America also proved to be a myth. 

And so, I began my wanderlust phase, travelling throughout the world carrying with me the same question of home and belonging. Eventually, I gave up—decided that to live in the question, as Basho wrote, “Everyday is a journey, and the journey itself is home.” But then the White House called and asked me to serve at Presidential Inaugural Poet. As a result of that experience I embraced America in a way I never had or thought I could. But in 2015, when I was asked to write and read a poem at the re-opening of the US Embassy in Cuba, I once again began to question my identity and cultural loyalties. All this is echoed in American Wandersong, which ends with what I have tentatively concluded: the only sure homeland is the one within the self that is connected to nature, the universal, unifying home to which we all belong.

[TK]: November Eyes juxtaposes familiarity and traditional neighborly values with affective polarization that has invaded small-town Main Street. How did you craft the litany of divisive topics like gun control and the border wall in terms of sound and overall reading flow?

[RB]: I’ve never been one to write in strict meter, but I do listen to my instinct for sound, and I’ve noticed that the anapestic foot generally dominates my lines, which tend to be ten to twelve syllables long. I think every poet parcels-out language in a particular, unique way—a result of the various influences that affect how language is imprinted in us, how we develop and come to “hear” that inner voice in our minds. For me, that inner voice was heavily influenced by the musicality and rhyme-rich sounds of Spanish. When I come to the page, I instinctually and naturally work to mimic or replicate that inner voice by employing the various craft techniques at my disposal: a complex combination of alliteration, assonance, consonance, etc., as well as line lengths and line breaks—all of which are meant to create and maintain a certain rhythm and keep the language flowing.

[TK]: From a rhetorical or creative perspective, why do you examine particular or anecdotal instances before transitioning to a broader perspective of the issue in many of your poems? 

[RB]: As the old adage goes: the universal lies in the particular. Providing specific anecdotal experiences grounds the poem, establishes the premise and my emotional authority which allows me to then draw and substantiate larger conclusions or claims. In other words, a movement from the particular to the general. Or, in terms of Aristotle's modes of persuasion: beginning the poem with first-hand experiences establishes a certain credibility (ethos); I then make an emotional appeal by responding to those experiences (pathos); and finally introduce the litany of sociopolitical issues (logos).

[TK]: Now Without Me performs a masterful blend of consonance, balancing harsher pronouncements like a clashing callous chance cosmos with more soothing sounding aspects of life, like moonlight shadows and showers. Do you integrate the sound or feel of the written word with themes you explore?

[RB]: Yes, of course. Just as with a song, the sound of the music should reflect the connotations of the words. Extending Coleridge’s definition of poetry as “the best words in the best order,’ I would say that poetry is also the best sounds in the best order. But this is an instinctual, complex, and often non-linear process. At times the theme informs the sound; at times the sounds develop and strengthen the theme.

[TK]: Another unique thought experiment I enjoyed was Let’s Remake America Great, where you envision an America according to the Anglo-Protestant wealthy narrative that is portrayed in conservative movements as an America worth returning to. You use the re-prefix extensively, the etymology of which means “once more”, afresh, or anew. If a return to America as it never really was is impossible, why do you imagine (the right perhaps) remaking America on a set with film imagery? Is poetry a more nuanced or less easily subverted medium?

[RB]: Let’s Remake America Great is an exercise in irony and sarcasm. As a child growing up in a Miami—a Cuban cultural bubble—I thought that the Anglo-Protestant, upper middle-class narrative that I saw on TV was the only “real” American narrative—the only one that counted. What’s more, I yearned to be part of it because I wanted to be an American, after all. Flashing forward, as an adult I came to understand the narrative portrayed in those TV shows was pretty much a fiction, a kind of nationalist propaganda. But it’s more complex than that: though I know better, some part of me ironically still wants to believe that such an American Dream story truly existed or was attainable by everyone. I think the Trump presidency taps into that mythic, perfect, fictional America that never was—that promise of a model America, which meant a white male America, steeped in racism and sexism. That’s essentially what this poem is trying to expose.

[TK]: Your feedback on your inmate student’s poem in Poetry Assignment #4 elevates a talented voice while also creating a poetic work in tandem. Similarly, One Pulse—One Poem imagines a collective poem written by those who survive the victims of the Pulse Nightclub massacre. How does collaborative and collective poetry embody the convergence of all narratives in America? How do you write an invented collaborative poem?

[RB]: Honestly, my intention was not to make such a grand statement about America. I was simply trying to frame the poems as variations of the ars poetica mode. But, now that I think about it, perhaps such a choice does indeed make an indirect statement which echoes our nation’s motto: e pluribus unum (out of many, one). As I wrote in my Author’s Note to the book: We are a populace of individual “I’s” who have consented to come together as a “we.” The challenge has been to continuously question who is (or isn’t) included in that “we” and how to redefine and reimagine it. Ideally, in a democracy no single narrative should matter more than any other—all narratives should converge and share the same importance. The poems you mentioned reflect that ideal by folding-in or merging other narratives into my own. In that light, I suppose the “invented” collaborative poem is a very “democratic” form. How does one write such a poem? Well, I would say the key is empathy—to hold a certain regard for the “other” and establish a shared emotional experience. 


Selected by President Obama as the fifth inaugural poet in U.S. history, Richard Blanco is the youngest and the first Latino, immigrant, and gay person to serve in such a role. Born in Madrid to Cuban exile parents and raised in Miami, the negotiation of cultural identity characterizes his three collections of poetry: City of a Hundred Fires, which received the Agnes Starrett Poetry Prize from the University of Pittsburgh Press; Directions to The Beach of the Dead, recipient of the Beyond Margins Award from the PEN American Center; and Looking for The Gulf Motel, recipient of the Paterson Poetry Prize and the Thom Gunn Award. 

He has also authored the memoirs For All of Us, One Today: An Inaugural Poet’s Journey and The Prince of Los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood, winner of a Lambda Literary Award. His inaugural poem “One Today” was published as a children’s book, in collaboration with renowned illustrator Dav Pilkey. Boundaries, a collaboration with photographer Jacob Hessler, challenges the physical and psychological dividing lines that shadow the United States. And his latest book of poems, How to Love a Country, both interrogates the American narrative, past and present, and celebrates the still unkept promise of its ideals. He is a Woodrow Wilson Fellow and has received numerous honorary doctorates. He has taught at Georgetown University, American University, and Wesleyan University. He serves as the first Education Ambassador for The Academy of American Poets.

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