What It Will Take to Remake America Great

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S1: Don’t need to have a poet at a presidential inauguration before today, there have only been five of them. First, Robert Frost for JFK, then Maya Angelou for Bill Clinton. The last time there was an inaugural poet was back in 2013.

S2: Mr. President, Mr. Vice President, America won today.

S1: Richard Blanco was at the time the youngest inaugural poet, the first Latin X inaugural poet, the first gay inaugural poet.

S2: One sun rose on us today, kindled over our shores, peeking over the Smokies, greeting the faces of the Great Lakes, spreading a simple truth across the Great Plains, then charging across the Rockies.

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S1: When you watch video from Obama’s inauguration, when Richard starts reading, he’s got this little smile on his face, like, how do I get here?

S3: It’s still a little bit of a mystery to me.

S1: Nearly a decade later, Richard is still wondering.

S4: I just got a call. I was driving home to Maine from actually from New York. And I just got a call, which I thought was a crank call. I didn’t quite understand what they were trying to explain to me and to the person said no, like Robert Frost and Maya Angelou. So I was like, oh, OK. But anyway, I I pulled over the side of the road and Googled the person I called, and sure enough, it was the presidential inaugural committee.

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S1: Richard’s not sure why he was chosen.

S4: I’ve met with the president since then several times, and I’ve never quite dared to ask him exactly. I prefer my romantic version of, you know, him sitting in the Oval Office and absorbed in my poetry and canceling all his meetings with Putin or whatnot.

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S1: He’s like, I have seven Arman’s and are Richard Blanco book. That’s my evening.

S5: Yeah, exactly.

S4: I know he picked me personally that much.

S1: I know one today was made into a children’s book after its inaugural debut. I still read it to my daughter every now and again when she lets me. It celebrates an America we know in America, bustling with trucks on the highway and honking cabs and squeaking playground swings, an America that greets the day in a variety of different languages but is tied together by one sky and one ground underneath our feet. That overall message of unity in one today. I’ve been thinking about it a lot over the last few days because it’s such a powerful and appealing message and at the same time that unity seems harder than ever to achieve it. Made me want to ask you, like if you were going to read the inaugural poem this year.

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S3: Would your message change somewhat? So that’s a great question, and I think that poem is already making a statement as like we’re not really one we we need to check ourselves. We need to think about what this what this this charge is, what this great experiment, so that means really going back to the drawing table and seeing what went wrong. All right. Where has this gone awry? How did we end up here?

S1: Today on the show, a new administration is beginning, and after everything that’s happened over the last four years, especially the last few days, it’s hard to know what to say. And that’s why we have poets.

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S6: Turns out Richard Blanco didn’t write just one inaugural poem. He wrote three of them, the words he didn’t read that day.

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S1: They might resonate even more strongly now. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick with us. 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.

S4: Yeah, three poems. They asked me to write three poems. I’m not exactly sure why. I think they were running a little behind because, again, there’s another budgetary crisis. So I suspect this is just me and my poetic fund mind. But I suspect let’s let’s ask him for three because we don’t have time. If the one he sends doesn’t really work for us, there’s not time to write a new one. So but it was interesting to have the assignment was wonderful to have three of those poems made me think about, you know, different things.

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S1: Each of Richard’s three poems revolved around a different idea. One today, the poem he ended up reading focused on things that unite us. Mother Country was about Richard’s actual mother and her deep attachment to the United States. But the first poem Richard gave the White House, he called it What we know of country, it was darker.

S4: The first poem was an idea I always sort of had in my mind and thinking about how one’s relationship with one’s country, with one’s nation is kind of there’s an analogy there to sort of a romantic relationship or a marriage where you begin with this kind of innocence and infatuation and then you realize this will be cheated on you. And, you know, you kind of grow into a mature love and understanding with your country. So it’s more of an idea of hope.

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S1: I asked Richard to read me a bit of this poem and the years since he first composed it, he’s renamed it now. It’s called What I Know of Country.

S7: What I know of country.

S8: Those picture books from grade school days, pilgrims in tall hats, their gold buckle shoes I wanted so badly white weak men standing 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.

S1: From here, the poem evolves. Richard acknowledges that the reality of America is quite a bit more messy, less idealistic than what he thought of as a kid. For that reason, Richard himself has said, What we know of country is a braver poem than one. Today.

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S9: It is a bit braver. It’s a little it’s a little more in your face, so to speak, because it acknowledges that perhaps a little more of a complexity that we have with with with our country. And I think so. Yeah, it takes us through the stages of like, for example, I’m thinking about and begins with like when you’re a little kid, you know, and you’re like you’re learning about this great country and liberty and justice for all and all these great ideals.

S3: And you believe all that. And especially as an immigrant kid, you know, it’s just the idea that that meant so much to me. Right. Like and you’re sort of enamored in this sort of like when we meet somebody, you know, you’re just infatuated, enamored, discovering this person, discovering the beauty of this person, and then slowly the marriage gets a little more difficult. And so thinking about, you know, I you know, high school, college, when you start learning some of the real history of the United States and that we’re not you know, we’re we’re certainly not innocent, that there’s a lot of there’s a lot of blood on our hands. And and then there was a period in my life I just got really angry at America was like, how could you do this to me? I think that’s one of those Livewell lines in the poem. How could you.

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S7: The house began to fall apart around me alone for years, waiting at the kitchen table, the last to know, I see my reflection in the window. How could you. America. With no answer. For all I knew of, country was my hurt and my rage and felt like I was cheated on, I.

S3: That’s not what you were supposed to be, who you were supposed to be. And then and then sort of growing out of that, too, and realizing the United States is not the only country that’s a little bit of a tainted history. I finally started having a reckoning with myself in this country. I said, well, yeah, there’s a lot of problems here, but let’s do something about it. And then also, you know, hey, we all mess up. Right. But sticking through it.

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S7: 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. Listen to two songs I’d never played, pulled out the old map from a dark drawer, redo it with more colors, less lines. I stoke the fire burning on until finally. OK. Nothing’s a perfect. I understand. I forgive you, I said. And forgiveness became my country.

S1: Oh, man, I would have loved to hear that at the end, I guess.

S5: What a different vibe, though.

S1: A different vibe. I wondered in some ways if that poem is the poem you’re thinking about more now, like being at that moment where you’re saying to America, like, we got to talk.

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S3: Yeah, you’re right. That could be very much the poem of we need to talk. And I think that’s what got us here. Got us here. We haven’t been talking. We haven’t been seeing each other. Yeah. We’ve kind of just been in this fight, so to speak, you know, this growing fight. And it’s in a way, it’s coming to a head. Right. Like it’s finally we’re seeing, what, miscommunication or lack of communication, just like in a relationship, how destructive that can be when we’re not really talking to each other. A miscommunication. And I think in the ways that we’ve also objectified each other, that we’ve just become, you know, a blue state or red state, as if we’re not human beings anymore. And we know that that that wasn’t just the last four years. The last four years certainly ramped that up to 3000 percent. But it was coming. It was coming. It’s been there. But that’s fine, too. I feel like that’s important. I think it’s, you know, how else are you going to get to that other love? How else are you going to get to that better relationship if you don’t face the skeletons in the closet? And like the poem says, we need to talk. I love the way that romance. It’s like. Right. It’s like very like, yeah, we need to talk you all, you know, this is not and that’s like the phrase that I feel like if you’re in a relationship, you’re like, oh, right now it’s serious.

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S5: Serious like. Yeah, yeah.

S1: 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.

S9: Sure. That’s exactly right. And that’s, you know, just growing up around so much rhetoric, but also realizing, you know, in the history books and the class, you’d read one thing and then you’d get home or the community to be another thing. Like, for example, as we all know historically, for Cuban exiles in general, not so much probably today. But, you know, JFK, John Kennedy was, you know, a traitor to that. And that was that’s why Cubans turned Republican, like because of the Bay of Pigs. And then you read in the history books that, you know, he’s this great hero and like, OK, I’m in like third grade or fourth grade or whatever. And the idea that who’s telling the truth and where is the truth and what is the perspective?

S1: Well, it sounds like since you were very little, you understood that there were multiple narratives to being an American. And you’ve also said how television kind of fed into your understanding of the country and your community and your place in it when you were very young because you just grew up watching like The Brady Bunch, watching the Six Million Dollar Man and sort of seeing not you, but like the story America was telling about itself.

S10: Yeah, certainly very much so. Particularly in Miami, which is a very.

S4: Unique place, to say the least, to grow up in, as we like to say, Miami. We love living there because it’s so close to the United States. So you realize like and it’s and it’s it’s sort of like you said, I knew there are multiple narratives. So here I am in a classroom where 98 percent of the kids in my classroom are exactly like me with parents just like mine, stories similar as mine and the kids that got picked on in my class where weird kids with names like Bryant kids or that sort of like white American identity.

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S10: Yeah. And then they were you know, they were picked on. They were scapegoats. Their kids were cruel.

S4: By the same token, I’m I can’t see that other America that I’m supposed to love and falling in love with. So the only way I could contextualize America because everything around me was not what was on TV, the way I contextualized a lot of that was through TV. And that’s in that poem. Right. What I know of country to. Right. And I thought there is a Brady Bunch is everywhere. And I thought once you left Miami, there was that there was nothing. The Brady Bunch is everywhere.

S9: And I wanted that life to write. And so I describe it. And then I don’t have a real Cuba either. I mean, Miami was Cuban, but it wasn’t Cuba either. So I describe that you’re seeing multiple narratives of also the imagination. I always describe it as living between two real imagined stories. One is the story of Cuba. This place we came from, there’s this this, you know, supposedly paradise in some ways. Also all this turmoil that is my history that I knew nothing about.

S3: And then the other real imagined narrative was this America that we weren’t quite there yet either. Right. And that that is very true. Multiple narratives learned. It learned that very early age and contradictions and yearnings and things that weren’t very clear cut and sort of neat lines, everything was a blur. And isn’t that where art lives? Right in the gray area? Right. It’s it’s it’s in that space where I think I’ve always found truth.

S1: I think it’s interesting that in some of your poetry, you tap into the idea that President Trump. Used those narratives that were also familiar with those television tropes, Brady Bunch, Six Million Dollar Man, and made the idea that that was somehow the real America. And 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.

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S9: Yeah, and it’s interesting. And so here’s we’re talking about how to teach me something. I learned something. And so in this in the new book, I think you might be referring to the poem, which is a play on which is a play on Trump. It’s the poems titles. Let’s remake America. Great.

S3: And so in this poem, I start critiquing that and realizing that that is actually a fantasy, that that it wasn’t real, and not only that, that it was kind of a dangerous fantasy. America was never that great.

S11: Let’s audition only Street Boys like Opie, who carries slingshots and fishing poles, catch crickets and frogs who don’t play patty cakes with girls or grow up to marry a man like I did. Let’s keep gay characters in the closet for the camera again. Keep Miss Hathaway and skirt suits with cropped hair and single at 40. But keep her mad crush on Jethro again. Keep Uncle Arthur and his floral print ascots with his hand on his hip, dishing out campy gossip but keep him acting like a true ladies man again. Let’s remake America as great as it never really was. Take to. Quiet on the set.

S1: I mean, I’m glad you talked about let’s make America great again, because when I’ve heard you talk about that poem, it struck me as very true what it was saying. But at the same time, I didn’t know how to feel about it because it made me feel like making some kind of clean break with Trump ism, which is I think what a lot of people might want to do might not be possible because some of the ideas of the last four years are baked into our culture. And so it’s just not that easy.

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S3: Yeah, that’s a great that’s a great verb. You’re a poet yourself, baked into our country. Yeah. And I think I think, you know, the poem itself is supposed to make you question that. Right. Because the thing is that narrative can be used positively or negatively. You know, let’s take Obama’s narrative, for example, the idea of hope of a better tomorrow, of a idea of living an ideal life that means justice and but about working together and about, you know, kind of achieving that together and about that we’re not there yet versus the narrative of something we lost and we lost because it’s somebody else’s fault. And that that ideal, that is that American ideal, that American dream is something that was stolen. Right. So I think that narrative is there. I think it’s it’s worth who does not want to have a safe, prosperous just life. But how you how you deliver that narrative can be, again, very it can be constructive or can be very destructive. And who controls the narrative or how you change the narrative can make all the difference.

S12: We’ll be right back.

S1: As Richard and I spoke, I couldn’t stop thinking about that analogy he uses in what I know of country about how learning to love a country is a lot like trying to figure out how to make a marriage work, because we all know that statistic that half of marriages end in divorce. So I asked him, does he see divorce from his country as ever on the table?

S13: I’ve thought about that, especially in this last election. And I just thought, oh, God, maybe it’s time for a villa in southern Spain or to return to my roots. And I think it’s important and healthy to actually keep divorce. In some ways it’s an option, right? I think in my own personal relationship, I didn’t I didn’t really I didn’t grow enough until I gave myself permission to leave. And I hope Mark is not hearing this podcast. But but here’s the thing. I think yes. In terms of that analogy, there is a time to divorce, but I don’t see it as like, you know, just abandoning the country, but rather a reset point. Right. Because in the end, we can divorce one idea. Right. But we also ought to ultimately go on to find love in another way, in another context. Right. And so that’s that’s how I kind of finished mapping that out for myself and say, you know what, I’m done. I say there’s there’s times where been I’m done here. I think I think the divorce means a radical re understanding of oneself and what you have to give and your relationship, how that can change with the country. But let’s talk about a divorce from the old right from let’s maybe divorce from this idea, like like we’re just talking about, you know, how do how do we divorce ourselves from that? We know that mythic, you know, perfect America on television. Well, maybe we need to rethink what that has been doing to our relationship. You know, my therapist told me one time, you don’t need to know that. It’s why it’s exactly it’s not working. You just need to know that it’s not working and move on. And maybe that’s part of this conversation, too. It’s like we keep on trying to maybe rehash ideas or methods or conversations that haven’t worked. And again, maybe it’s about not abandoning one’s country, but thinking about what what that radical shift is.

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S1: But I think that’s interesting, the idea that. We may be getting stuck on. Agreeing about how we got here versus agreeing we need to start over, right?

S13: I’ll never forget that that line from I thought it was like, you don’t I mean, not that you should leave it unexamined. Right. We examine it, but there comes a point where you can’t find that final answer. And you just have to say this. Whatever I’m doing right now, this relationship is not working. And I need to move on and I need to try something new and try something new.

S1: You know, at the time you were selected to read at President Obama’s inauguration, you were the youngest inaugural poet ever. Is that right?

S10: Youngest, first gay firsts, first openly gay. I don’t know where they put an openly gay.

S5: I guess I don’t know if other parents were closeted gay cover on the bases if I’m not openly gay by now.

S4: Front page The New York Times sure did it. What a way to come out. And first Latino first text.

S1: And you were. You were what? You were 40 something, right? I was 44. I’m struck by this time. The poet Amanda Gorman. I think she’s 22. So young.

S5: Yeah, yeah. Yeah. She’s by half. Exactly half. Right. I heard she was in touch with you.

S3: Yeah. We’ve, she’s, we’ve got to connect. I got to say I she’s an ace. I mean just an amazing, amazing poet. Amazing human being. Amazing spirit.

S1: Yeah. What did you want her to know.

S3: You know mostly what a beautiful experience this is going to be because on the surface it feels so terrifying and how it can feel like overwhelming light.

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S10: In my case, I had to read in front of a million people, you know, what do you do with that? How do you you know, and so just to let her know that it’s absolutely gorgeous once in a lifetime experience and to just that’s that was my advice, to just embrace it all, take it all in and enjoy every second. But yeah, Amanda, I got to say, and I can’t be any more pleased with their choice, this this country right now, they need they need a young voice, because if anything that concerns me is what are our children thinking about these moments and these past? I don’t want to say just for years, but it’s just it’s been it’s been building up. We need to think about, you know, as I say, I think it was Gandhi or Einstein that said something like, you can’t solve a problem with the same paradigm that created it, kind of so to speak. And I think we need the input of our youth to help us, to help us with this mess we’ve created.

S1: Richard Blanco, thank you so much for joining me. Thank you.

S13: This has been such a pleasure and so meaningful and so enlightening. Thank you, Mary.

S1: Richard Blanco was the poet for Barack Obama’s 2012 inauguration, and that is the show, What Next is produced by Alina Schwartz, Davis Land, Daniel Hewitt and Mary Wilson, along with Frannie Kelley, Alicia Montgomery and Allison Benedikt. Supervise the lot of us. And I’m Mary Harris. I’ll see you back in this feed tomorrow.