Poems Are Bridges: An Interview with Richard Blanco
Prior to talk, Saint Michael's students question this year's March 18 Sutherland Lecture speaker, Obama's presidential inaugural poet, about his art and advice for young writers
On March 13, 2021, in advance of his appearance at Saint Michael’s College as part of the Donald J. Sutherland lecture series, junior English major Georgia Flanders (GF) and first-year Biology major Sophia Meimaris (SM) interviewed inaugural poet Richard Blanco (RB) via Zoom about his life and poetry. In their conversation, which addressed the pandemic’s effects on experiences of human connection, his writing process, and his advocacy through poetry and performance, Blanco identified “the big question of home” as animating his thought and work, whether as a civil engineer or as a nationally recognized poet. Below are selected excerpts from the interview, edited for conciseness and clarity. The complete interview will be published in the 2021 edition of the Onion River Review.
GF: How would you describe your writing process, and where does your inspiration come from?
RB: I think there’s a lot of mystery shrouded around the idea of writing or anything in the arts, when in reality it’s like any other problem-solving kind of process, to a certain degree. It begins with an exploration of what I’m feeling and thinking, trying to find language, trying to find a model. Then you start scribbling stuff and working things out. At some point, you find something that you feel you can hang your hat on, that you can commit to, and you start building the poem from that. I’ve been a professional engineer all my life, and no two engineering projects are the same. You begin in the same way, though: you begin with an exploration. You look at the things you don’t know, what are your givens, what are the things that you need to research, and then you just start. You do the first draft, and then you go back over it, and you do the second draft of the plans, and a third, and a fourth, fifth, and sixth, and even when the thing is being built you’re still out of the field revising something you missed. It is a multi-step process, it’s wading through it like anything else in life, any kind of thing that we’re trying to do. I would just say you maybe get a little better at it, so that you know sooner when you’re going down the wrong path. That’s what a lot of the training is all about. Just like when you are an engineer, or a doctor, or a lawyer, you just know sooner when things are not going right.
As far as inspiration, for me it is really, “What is your obsession? What is your focus?” As I like to say, every poet is writing one poem all their life. There’s something really essential about your entire body of work that keeps coming back to the same question. Sometimes you answer that question, or part of that question, and new questions come up. For me, it’s always about coming back to the idea of home, identity, belonging. Even when I want to run away from that, I end up there anyway. So if I start writing about a cup of water, before I know it I’m thinking, “Where’s the water from, and how did it get here?” So that is, in a sense, my inspiration: that big question of home, which is a big word. It’s like asking, “What is love?” In some ways, it’s endless inspiration, because there is no final answer.
GF: Multicultural ties and evolving identity experiences can complicate definitions of home. How do you define home for yourself, and has that definition changed over time?
RB: It’s definitely changed. I don’t think I’ve ever defined it–I just explored it. I believe good art answers questions–great art keeps on asking them. The end point of an artistic exploration is not to find a final definition or meaning, but rather to keep on proposing possibilities. Sometimes when you settle on something, something else shifts in your life and then you’re paying attention to that. The idea of home changes, and that’s been constant.
Again, it’s like love. The idea of what love means to us changes over time. Especially in your age group, your sense of what love was even a year ago may be very different than what it is now. It’s an endless shifting. I’ve learned to sort of be okay with that: home is the question. As Basho the poet said, “Life is a journey and the journey itself is home.” More and more, I’m realizing that my art is also home. It’s one of the places that I’ve belonged to for a long time, and I feel at home in the words on the page, and also in the performance of my poetry. My connection with community through my poetry–that’s part of what feels like home to me.
SM: I really like the idea of your art being home. Both of us come from immigrant families, as well. Do you find it fulfilling to learn about your personal history through writing?
RB: Not only fulfilling; the writing is what actually led me to even asking those questions. There’s a kind of general misunderstanding or misperception that children of immigrants, or maybe even immigrants themselves, adore their given culture, and you know that’s not necessarily true. Especially if you’re a child of immigrants, whatever your parents are is immediate grounds for rejection. If my parents were dancing salsa, I wanted to listen to AC/DC. But of course you are these stories, you are this culture, you are being imprinted by it all your life. I think there comes a time in your life when you ask that big question: “Where are you from?” It’s a rite of passage. It’s kind of a cultural coming-of-age story that we have within each of us where we finally learn to acknowledge and appreciate that it’s very much a part of us, and then dive into it and really uncover all this history, all this heritage and cultural legacy, that you were born with but never bothered with. For me that is writing.
My very first creative-writing assignment in graduate school was to write a poem about America. We read Frost, Ginsberg, and Whitman as models, and I was like, what America is that? That assignment opened the floodgates to asking the questions I didn’t know I had within me. I was 27. It was about that time when you really start thinking about those kinds of things. And also, in the evolution of that, also asking what it means to be an American. If I’m questioning what my ethnic identity is, or even my sexuality, or my identity in so many different regards, that’s also to question what is American. That’s where I’m at now, not only questioning my cultural heritage, but who are we as a country, what does a country mean, and how is country home. The title of my most recent book is How to Love a Country. That could be a question, too. It’s a statement, but is also asking: How do you love this kind of place? How do we all belong to something, especially something so complex as a democracy? Writing is a vehicle for exploration of all these questions. Writing makes you think, and thinking makes you write. I’m not sure I would have bothered with these questions–I mean, I’m sure they would have been there, but I’m not sure I would have explored them to such a degree–if it weren’t for the work.