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Before today, there had only been five poets at U.S. presidential inaugurations, the very first being Robert Frost at John F. Kennedy’s swearing-in. When Richard Blanco performed at President Barack Obama’s 2013 inauguration, he was, at the time, the youngest inaugural poet, the first Latinx inaugural poet, and the first gay inaugural poet—and he’d been selected personally by Obama. As a new administration enters the White House, relieved Americans tuned in to see a new vision of the country as articulated by President Joe Biden and by his inaugural poet, Amanda Gorman, who spoke with Blanco before she performed her poem “The Hill We Climb.” On Wednesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Blanco about preparing for Obama’s inauguration, his view of the U.S. then versus now, and where he thinks we go from here. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mary Harris: That overall message of unity in your inauguration poem, “One Today,” I’ve been thinking about it a lot over the past few days because it’s such a powerful and appealing message, but at the same time that unity seems harder than ever to achieve. If you were going to read the inaugural poem this year, would your message change?
Richard Blanco: Somewhat. That poem is already making a statement like, we’re not really one, we need to check ourselves, and we need to think about what this what this this charge is, what this great experiment is. That means going back to the drawing table and seeing what went wrong. Where has this gone awry? How did we end up here?
Something I didn’t know until I was preparing for this interview is that you actually wrote three potential poems for Obama’s inauguration, and the president’s team chose “One Today.”
Yeah, they asked me to write three poems. I’m not exactly sure why. I think they were running a little behind because there was another budgetary crisis. But it was interesting to have the assignment—those poems each made me think about different things.
“One Today,” the poem you ended up reading, focused on things that unite us. Then “Mother Country” was about your mother and her deep attachment to the United States. But the first poem you gave the White House was called “What We Know of Country.” It’s darker.
Listen to Richard Blanco read “What We Know of Country,” or read the full poem below.
Those picture books from grade-school days:
Pilgrims in tall hats, their gold-buckled shoes
I wanted so badly. White-wigged men standing
tall in velvet-curtained rooms, holding feathers
in their hands, inked words buzzing off the page
into my heart’s ear: Life, Liberty, Happiness for
we, the people, singing of shining seas crossed,
the spacious skies of a God-blessed land when
a song and a book were all I knew of country.
I’ve forgotten the capital of Vermont and Iowa,
but I remember my eyes on a map mesmerized
by faraway cities, towns I couldn’t pronounce,
or believe the vast body of this land belonged
to me, and I to it: the Rockies’ spine, blue stare
of the Great Lakes, and the endless shoulders
of coastlines, the curvy hips of harbors, rivers
like my palms’ lines traced with wonder from
beginning to end, the tiny red dot of my heart
marking where I lived—when what I knew
of country was only what I read from a map.
I wanted to live in the house I dreamed from
television: cushy sofas, crystal candy dishes,
mothers who served perfectly roasted turkeys
with instant stuffing, children with allowances
and perfect teeth, fathers driving teal-blue cars
with silver fins to some country club I’d surely
belong to someday. Though the gunfire, blood
of war beamed into my bedroom, though I fell
asleep, though our men from the moon landed
on my roof with empty promises from space—
fantasy was still all I could believe of country.
I didn’t want to change the channel, but I did:
I lifted the shades, let light shine on the carpets
stained with lies I’d missed, and saw the dust
of secrets settled over the photos. The house
began to creak, fall apart around me, alone
for years waiting at the kitchen table, the last
to know, asking my reflection in the windows:
How could you, America? With no answer for
all I knew of country was my hurt and rage.
But home was home: I dusted off the secrets,
cleaned up the lies, nailed the creaky floors
down, set a fire, and sat with history books
I’d never opened, listened to songs I’d never
played, pulled out the old map from a dark
drawer, redrew it with more colors, less lines.
I stoked the fire, burning on until finally: Okay,
nothing’s perfect, I understood, I forgive you,
I said—and forgiveness became my country.
I stayed, you stayed, we stayed for our boys
and girls returning as heroes, some without
legs or arms, for our Challenger and Towers
fainting from the sky, for the terrified lives
of the Big Easy stranded like flightless birds
on roofs, for the sea that drowned our North,
but we swept each grain of sand back to shore,
for the candles we lit for our twenty children
of Sandy Hook, feeling what we’ve always felt:
to know a country takes all we know of love:
some days better than others, but never easy
to keep our promise every morning of every
year, of every century, and wake up, stumble
downstairs with all our raging hope, sit down
at the kitchen table again, still blurry-eyed,
still tired, and say: Listen, we need to talk.
You’ve called “What We Know of Country” a “braver” poem than “One Today.”
It is a bit braver. It’s a little more in your face, so to speak, because it acknowledges that complexity that we have with our country. It takes us through the stages. For example, it begins with when you’re a little kid, you know, you’re learning about this great country and liberty and justice for all and all these great ideals, and you believe all that. Especially as an immigrant kid, you know, it’s just the idea that that meant so much to me. Then it’s high school, college, when you start learning some of the real history of the United States, that we’re not we’re certainly not innocent, that there’s a lot of blood on our hands. There was a period of my life where I got really angry at America. I was like, how could you do this to me? I think that’s one of those line lines in the poem. How could you?
You’ve said that early on in your career you tried to avoid politics, and that was partially because you grew up as a Cuban exile in Miami and you were aware of how polarizing politics could be. I wonder if you can explain that a little bit.
That’s exactly right. It’s growing up around so much rhetoric but also realizing, in the history books and the classes, you’d read one thing and again, you see it at home or the community as another thing. For example, as we all know historically, for Cuban exiles in general, JFK was a traitor—many Cubans turned Republican because of the Bay of Pigs. And then you read in the third and fourth grade history books that he’s this great hero. Who’s telling the truth, and where is the truth, and what is perspective?
I can’t see that other America that I’m supposed to love. I contextualized a lot of that through TV. And that’s in that poem. I thought that once you left Miami there was a Brady Bunch is everywhere. I wanted that life to write, and so I described it. And I don’t have a real Cuba either. I mean, Miami was Cuban, but it wasn’t Cuba either.
I always describe it as living between two real imagined stories. One is the story of Cuba, this place we came from, this country that’s supposedly paradise in some ways, and all this turmoil that is my history that I knew nothing about. And then the other real imagined narrative was this America, that we weren’t quite there yet either.
Everything was a blur. And isn’t that where art lives? Right in the gray area. It’s in that space where I think I’ve always found truth.
I think it’s interesting that in some of your poetry, you tap into the idea that Donald Trump used those familiar television tropes and made the idea that that was somehow the real America. Part of the reason you’ve talked about why that touches so many people is we all grew up watching that same story play out.
In this new book, in the poem titled “Let’s Remake America Great,” I start critiquing that and realizing that that is actually a fantasy, that it wasn’t real. And not only that, but that it was a dangerous fantasy. America was never that great.
At the time you were selected to read at President Barack Obama’s inauguration, you were the youngest inaugural poet ever. And you were fortysomething, right?
I was 44.
This time the poet, Amanda Gorman, is 22. I heard she was in touch with you.
We got to connect. I got to say she’s an ace. Just an amazing human being, amazing spirit.
What did you want her to know?
Mostly what a beautiful experience this is going to be, because on the surface, it feels so terrifying and it can feel like overwhelming. In my case, I had to read in front of a million people. What do you do with that? So I wanted to let her know that it’s absolutely gorgeous once-in-a-lifetime experience and that she should embrace it, take it all in, and enjoy every second.
I can’t be any more pleased with their choice. This country right now needs a young voice. You can’t solve a problem with the same paradigm that created it, so to speak. I think we need the input of our youth to help us with this mess we’ve created.