Catalina Gómez: My name is Catalina Gómez and we are recording Richard Blanco today, May 17, 2013 for the Archive of Hispanic Literature on Tape. I am doing this recording session on behalf of Georgette Dorn, Curator of the Archive, and Chief of the Hispanic Division of the Library of Congress. We would also like to take a second to thank Letras Latinas from University of Notre Dame and the Poetry Literature Center for making these wonderful recordings with Latino poets and authors possible. So, Richard, thank you for being here with us.
Richard Blanco: Thank you, Catalina.
CG: To begin, we usually ask the poets and writers to talk about themselves, your background, and then how you became a writer or a poet.
RB: Well, as my official bio says: I was made in Cuba, assembled in Spain, and imported to the United States, which means my mother left Cuba seven months pregnant in 1968 with me. They went to Madrid. I was born in Madrid. And then forty-five days later, after I was born, we immigrated again to the United States. So my newborn photo is actually my green card photo so it was the start of, by the time I was forty-five days old, I metaphorically belonged to three countries by then. It was kind of a foreshadowing of what my writing would focus on, which is all about cultural identity at first, but also gender identity, sexuality, and all sorts of identities and how we negotiate our lives through these many hats we wear. So, that’s it, sort of, in a nut shell as a typical immigrant sort of story, or exile story. I actually studied engineering first. My parents, you know, we were working class, just trying to survive and the idea of a life in the arts or in poetry or in anything that wasn’t medicine or engineering or law wasn’t really within the realm of possibility. You know, they just wanted me of course to have a better life than them, etc. etc. So I actually went on and studied civil engineering, but I am also practicing engineering to this day. It wasn’t just a degree. It was my bread and butter until I served as inaugural poet. And you know, that was still my day job, because as you know poets in the United States always have to have day jobs. I actually started writing much later in life, around twenty-four, twenty-five, after I started working as an engineer and part of that fascination came from, actually, my engineering in a way because when I started working in a consulting office. I realized how much, how important language was, and how much writing I had to do, even in engineering. And I started paying really close attention to language and understanding how you create a persona, how you argue, how you persuade through language in the context of my job. But, it taught me number one that language is really something that was vital and alive to no matter who you are or what you are doing and number two was that language was engineered, that language was crafted. And naturally from there, I started looking into poetry. I started fiddling around with poetry as I like to say. And one thing led to another and well, here we are.
CG: Very fascinating. If you can say the book and the title of each poem so I can write it down. Thanks.
RB: Well, let me start at the beginning. This was actually my first graduate creative writing class with Campbell McGrath. This was my first day of class. This was my first assignment that he gave us and it’s just almost serendipitous but we read Ginsberg and we read Frost and my assignment was: write a poem about America, which was basically the inaugural poem that I flash-forwarded twenty-five years later. And it became the very first poem in the very first book, which is City of a Hundred Fires, which is actually a literate translation of Cienfuegos, which is the town, the city in Cuba where my parents are from. So this poem actually was very important because it got me thinking about cultural identity and negotiation and to that point, as a young adult, I hadn’t really questioned my identity and so this really got me going and it became the rest of my life’s work. And it’s called América. It deals around Thanksgiving and our inability as Latinos sometimes to really get Thanksgiving.
Poet reads “América”- City of a Hundred Fires (1998).
RB: One of the interesting things growing up as a child of a first-generation immigrant or exile is that your parents sometimes assume that you understand all these traditions and that, you know, understand them as well as they do. One of those mysterious things was called la charada, which was this numerology, which is like la lotería in Mexican-American culture and every number has a term assigned to it so, you know, number twelve could be cat, number forty-two is dog… Everything you can imagine has a number. They never explained that to me. So my grandmother, when I remember during the summers, we’d go around and then she saw, like, there was a bird dropping on the windshield and that was a number. If there is a bus, that was a number. And there was this magical world of numbers that nobody bothered to explain to me what the hell they were talking about. So this poem is sort of reminiscing about this sort of interesting childhood memory. It’s called "Mango, Number 61" and it’s also from City of a Hundred Fires.
Poet reads “Mango, Number 61”- City of a Hundred Fires (1998).
RB: My mother is, I trace a lot of my connection to Cuba and that sort of longing for a place that I had never been, because I wasn’t born in Cuba, through my mother’s story, who had left every single brother, aunt, uncle, cousin, nephew, niece, everybody behind for the sake of coming to America. And so, we’ve always lived in the house with that sense of her incredible loss because back then, but now she’s been able to of course see her family again. Back then, in 1968, you really didn’t know when you turned your back and got on that plane if you were ever going to be able to see these people again. And so, as a child, you know, you kind of grow up with that. You are not really, it is sort of infiltrating into your subconscious. And this poem is about that one moment that I realized the humanity of my mother, how much like all of us she was human. And this was just the first moment I think when you realize as a late teenager in your early twenties, wow, my parents were just trying to figure it out like we are, you know, so. This was that sort of little moment and it happened while I was watching my mother in our little Cuban bodega in Miami. And this is called "Mother Picking Produce" and it’s also from City of a Hundred Fires.
Poet reads “Mother Picking Produce”- City of a Hundred Fires (1998).
RB: This is a similar portrait about my father who was very, I think, trapped in a kind of silence that was generational but as well as in some ways cultural. And in some ways, the whole gender issue of that generation, of their inability to sort of speak and speak their emotions of which I think I also, in part, is part of the reason I became a poet, because of my own emotional handicap in being able to express what I feel. So this is a portrait of him in a moment of contemplation in a mirror about shaving. This is from City of a Hundred Fires as well and the title is called “Shaving.”
Poet reads “Shaving”- City of a Hundred Fires (1998).
RB: I should say that City of a Hundred Fires is, as a first book always has a special place in my heart, of course, and it is in two sections. And what you heard was from the first part, which is what I call BC and AC, Before Cuba and After Cuba, which is… The book is divided into my sort of negotiation while I lived in Miami, growing up in Miami, and that’s the Before Cuba part. And the AC part is actually during my first trip to Cuba. All those poems that came from that first experience, which was really an amazing sort of advent in my life because of, for so many reasons as you can imagine. It was sort of like stepping into a story book of your life, all these stories and gossip and old photographs and everything sort of just comes to life.
CG: How old were you when you went for the first time?
RB: I want to say I was like twenty-five.
RB: Yeah, so. It was actually because I started writing that, you know, again like America, that started that whole quest, esa búsqueda, no? That started me. I think I eventually got to the point that I felt: I need to go to Cuba. I need to go see where all of these stories come from, where all of this identity issues come from, la cuna, no? And so I would like to read just two poems from there and move on. This is called Havanasis, which is, it’s a play on the story of Genesis. In the book, it’s the idea that this is my genesis into Cuba. This is my first trip. But it also takes off this idea that, someone told me one time that “los cubanos se creen que son el ombligo del mundo.” And that sense, that exile mentality which comes across as somewhat arrogant or self-absorbed, and really what I realized was an emotional sort of way of preserving yourself because the idea of the exile and the mentality of the exile is like: let’s not change too much and let’s not let too much in because we’re taking all this back. You know. And so I think that sometimes comes across as sort of standoffish kind of thing, but it’s really that they’re just scared, you know. That’s the idea of self-preservation and celebrating one’s culture to the point so you don’t forget it. And so I thought: what if a Cuban had written a story of creation? And this poem came about. It’s a play on many levels. It’s called “Havanasis” and again, this is from City of a Hundred Fires.
Poet reads “Havanasis”- City of a Hundred Fires (1998).
RB: This next poem takes off from the famous playa on Cuba called Varadero, which… We grew up in Miami and going to Miami Beach. According to my parents, Miami Beach was a landfill because of course of this nostalgic eye of always looking at the past. And my brother and me would roll our eyes and go: God, here they go again. But, I actually went to Varadero and they were not lying. It was still the most beautiful beach I have ever been to and so this is sort of a tribute to that place in memory. It’s also sort of linking that idea of memory to my father, who had always passed by the first time, by the time I had gone to Cuba. Varadero en Alba, which means “Varadero at Sunrise.” And this is in Spanish and English and this is something that I like to do, which is, I might sometimes write something in Spanish and just respond to it with my English mind. And so you’ll see some of the images might be borrowed, but it’s not a literal translation and that is never my intent. But, sort of, to just create an eco of each other in the images. And of course, something you get to do with your own work. So, the verses alternate between Spanish and English. The Spanish was written first.
RB: Wait a minute... I’m going to start that again.
CG: It’s ok.
RB: It’s the having to switch the mind between one and the other.
CG: Yes. I understand.
RB: “Varadero en Alba”
Poet reads “Varadero en Alba” - City of a Hundred Fires (1998).
CG: Can I ask a small question about this poem?
CG: Who is saying this to who?
RB: Oh. To the sun.
RB: That’s sort of the dawning and it’s like it’s sort of an evocation for the sun to come out.
RB: But it’s also in a sense calling back my father there. So it’s like this sort of double, implied metaphor, just calling my father back to life, his spirit to the place that, you know, that was so much part of their lives and their memories.
RB: I am going to read, just a couple, from the second book and then a couple from the last book. The second book is called Directions to the Beach of the Dead, which unlike the title might suggest, it’s really not a morbid book whatsoever. It’s actually a title of a tiny little beach cove in, just south of Sitges in the south of Barcelona.
CG: Oh! I was there.
RB: Oh yeah?
RB: And they call it La Playa de los Muertos. I don’t know how to say it in Catalan. I am not going to just destroy that language but trying to even attempt it but they call it La Playa de los Muertos because it is so quite that it feels like, almost holy. And it’s almost like a church. And it’s almost like a graveyard. It is so quiet and isolated. So that’s sort of where this book takes its cue from. And it really, what happened after City of a Hundred Fires is that suddenly Richard grows up, you know has some money to travel, my first trip to Europe, you know, my first sort of grand tour of Europe is in this book. And what it was was this same idea of the quest for home and where is place and identity. But on sort of a larger spectrum the idea: well, home could be Venice. Home could be Barcelona. Home could be… Where do you belong in this world? And so that sense of traveling but always with the sense of dislocation and also with the sense of incredible hope that someday I’m going to stumble upon paradise that is the place that I have always belonged. And of course, that in a way was Cuba, but it isn’t Cuba at the same time because it’s what I realized from going to Cuba that it was the Cuba of my parents. That is not the Cuba of today. And so that is a mythical place in my mind that I keep on searching for, which I know isn’t real but… And that’s where this poem sort of takes off. It’s sort of that perpetual, which I think it’s a common human denominator that many of us travel always with this hidden agenda of like you know, finding that perfect place and thinking: if only I moved to Sao Paulo, all my problems would disappear because this is the place I belong. That sense of coming back. It’s written into our DNA, you know. It’s written into our mythology, this story of Genesis, that separation from paradise that always wants to find, to be reunited with that land and with that place that is ours. And so, this is sort of a funny take on that human drive so to speak. It’s called “We’re Not Going to Malta.”
Poet reads “We’re Not Going to Malta” - Directions to the Beach of the Dead (2005).
RB: This is another portrait of my father that’s in this book. In this book, I return to family. I had moved away from Miami and I had moved to Connecticut to get my first teaching job and it became the period of my life, as I like to call it, el exilio de mi exilio. So, all of a sudden, I felt this yearning of my home city in the way that I figured my parents, you know, felt about Cuba and their hometown, or towns. And so, a lot of in this book, there’s this looking at Miami, or looking at childhood memories with another sort of sense of nostalgia that isn’t about a cultural context necessarily but about just that thing that has slipped through my fingers and now I realize that living in Connecticut, which is culturally so different than Miami of course. And this is a portrait of my father, which is connected to the city and connected through my life as an engineer. For a while, I specialized in bridge hydrology, which is, it’s complicated, but basically we study rivers. And we study the flood plans and all this to determine how big the bridge needs to be, how deep the piles need to be… I sort of became fascinated with bridges. And there is this bridge in the middle of the city of Miami, which is, I call Mount Miami, which is the highest elevation in Miami. It’s so flat. And you come up the bridge, it’s under the Miami River, you see this beautiful panoramic view downtown to the right and to the left is what we call the civic center, which is where all the hospitals are. So that’s just the setting of this poem and my father. “Papá’s Bridge.”
Poet reads “Papá’s Bridge” - Directions to the Beach of the Dead (2005).
RB: Ok. Let me break into "Looking for The Gulf Motel." And this is the third and latest book to this date. I’ll read the title poem, which is what started this whole book in a way. A little background on this is that, you know, the whole experience of growing up as a child of exile and all of this really has colored my life and it’s the lens through which I see everything and so, it affects how I see the world in many different ways. One of the things that has happened as of recent is that Miami has changed so much. Florida has changed so much that I have been… my memories have sort of been erased from that landscape. And so I realized and I feel like my parents some days when they used talk about their nostalgic rants about Cuba and, you know, or when my mother visits Cuba and like: Can you believe they paint so-and-so’s house blue? It used to be yellow. You know, like this idea of how dare you? How dare the city change? How dare I be erased from this? And then this poem sort of took off from there. I went to Marco Island, which is on the west coast of Florida and it’s where we used to vacation a lot as kids. Poor man’s vacation in the middle of July, go to the beach for a week and it was like, fifty bucks a night. And I went and I took my partner Mark and I was just horrified. And I wrote this really angry poem, which I threw away. I do not do angry very well. And I kept one line in this poem that I thought really resonated with how I really felt and it’s the line that repeats in here. “Looking for The Gulf Motel.”
Poet reads “Looking for The Gulf Motel” - Looking for The Gulf Motel (2012).
RB: Even in this book sometimes I’m still… It’s odd. I think I’m over this whole cultural negotiation identity issue and you still get these flashbacks of these strange memories of my childhood. So there are still some of these in this book. And one of them is the Miss America Pageant, which was for some reason a really big deal in our house. Relatives would come over. There was all sorts of goings on over the Miss America Pageant. It was highlighted on the TV Guide. I know why I liked it. I just loved the gowns. But, this again is still sort of fading back into that idea of cultural negotiation. That sort of never really leaves you. And of course as you can imagine, we weren’t exactly the Smiths or the Johnsons watching the Miss America Pageant. So this is sort of just a flashback of trying to understand that sort of motivational sort of moment in my childhood. “Betting on America.”
Poet reads “Betting on America” - Looking for The Gulf Motel (2012).
RB: I want to make sure I get to this poem because one thing that was different in this third book Looking for The Gulf Motel was… For many years, I hadn’t come out in poetry. It was later in my life as an openly gay man. And it kind of always bothered me. I wasn’t sure why. And I think in the second book, there are different sort of queer poems or gay poems, but they were all kept in gender neutral ‘you.’ And they were dedications and they were all with initials instead of names. And I don’t know, I was like: Am I still hiding in poetry? And I think part of… Now I realize in this book what it was that… I hadn’t found the story to tell about my sexuality. And so, until I found this story, I had felt like I needed to finish this idea of cultural identity but now I dawned upon this idea of cultural sexuality. It’s not the same thing to be a gay Cuban-American man growing up in Miami as it is to be an Asian-American man growing up in Topeka, Kansas, or whatever. You know, put whatever you want in there. They’re all different experiences that are attached. Our sexuality is also attached to our experiences of coming out, are attached in many ways to other stories. And they are all sort of braided and melded together. Enter my grandmother, who was as homophobic as she was xenophobic. So that anything that was culturally odd to her, a little bit too strange, was also queer. So that I am talking about things like foods like Fruit Loops were queer because she did not understand Fruit Loops. Why didn’t I eat oatmeal or trigo, you know? And so, it was really interesting. She made my life hell but, it was also very entertaining at the same time because she’d just be going like: What are you talking about? And so this poem takes off on that note. It’s written in my grandmother’s voice and it’s called “Queer Theory: According to My Grandmother.”
CG: Tell me the page.
RB: Oh. Thirty-four.
Poet reads “Queer Theory According to My Grandmother” - Looking for The Gulf Motel (2012).
RB: Ok. Let me just sort of go completely… I like to say completely off topic but nothing is really off topic if everything is connected to your subconscious in some way. This is also from Looking for The Gulf Motel and where this book is leading me towards in the end is that I’ve also witnessed now throughout the years, since the first book I’ve wrote, you know, these generations of my older aunts and grandparents and everybody passing away. And so family, also through the lens of family, realizing some of those really, you know, realizing one’s own morality. And so the big questions of life, death, and all that, sort of still framed in the idea of family and exile, but seeing, you know, all those things that have come up. And so I am questioning my place in the world and not just culturally, but just as a human being, as well. I mean, what is life? The question that every poem asks I guess in some ways. And one of the things that has been always a constant in my life has been the sea or the beach. Having grown up since I was a little kid in Miami and it’s something, unlike the Gulf Motel, this is sort of a contrast to that poem that hasn’t changed because you can’t, the power of nature, you know, the beach hasn’t changed. But at the same time, if you really think about it, nature is constantly revising itself and so, the beach is really different every day. And I used to live on the beach. Every day you walk out there’s something different about it. And it struck me as a metaphor for living one’s life and for the perpetual sort of human condition of how do we always be who we are but every day be different at the same time? And, sort of, we always want different things in our life but we always want things constant. And so, nature is a great metaphor, a great way of doing that. And this poem is in some ways takes off from that. It’s called “Some Days the Sea.”
Poet reads “Some Days the Sea” - Looking for The Gulf Motel (2012).
CG: That’s beautiful. Ok, so I think this concludes our session. Thank you for an amazing reading, Richard.
RB: Thank you. It was a pleasure.
Poetry and Prose in English at the Library of Congress, Washington, DC, May 17, 2013
Approximately 1 hour.
Recording Title: Poet Richard Blanco Reading from his Works
Reading moderated by: Catalina Gómez
1) Selections from City of a Hundred Fires (1998)
- “América” – (min. 4:51)
- “Mango, Number 61” – (min. 8:36)
- “Mother Picking Produce” – (min. 12:13)
- “Shaving” – (min. 15:11)
- “Havanasis” – (min. 17:54)
- “Varadero en Alba” – (min. 23:13)
2) Selections from Directions to the Beach of the Dead (2005)
- “We’re Not Going to Malta…” – (min. 28:05)
- “Papá’s Bridge” – (min. 32:49)
3) Selections from Looking for the Gulf Motel (2012)
- “Looking for the Gulf Motel” – (min. 37:23)
- “Betting on America” – (min. 42:33)
- “Queer Theory: According to My Grandmother” – (min. 46:13)
- “Some Days the Sea” – (min. 51:27)
Conclusion – (min. 56:15)
End – (min. 56:35)
City of a Hundred Fires
LC Catalog record: http://lccn.loc.gov/98025470
Richard Blanco, City of a Hundred Fires (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1998).
Directions to the Beach of the Dead
LC Catalog record: http://lccn.loc.gov/2005002649
Richard Blanco, Directions to the Beach of the Dead (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2005).
Looking for the Gulf Motel
LC Catalog record: http://lccn.loc.gov/2011277563
Richard Blanco, Looking for the Gulf Motel (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012).
- Richard Blanco’s Inaugural Poem: “One Today” by Peter Armenti (blog post)
- “For all of us, one today : an inaugural poet's journey” by Richard Blanco (catalog record)
- A Poetry Reading by Richard Blanco(webcast)
Richard Blanco (1968- ) is the author of four books of poetry, including City of a Hundred Fires, Nowhere but Here, Directions to the Beach of the Dead, and Looking for the Gulf Motel. His honors include the Agnes Starrett Poetry Prize from the University of Pittsburgh Press (City of a Hundred Fires), and the PEN/American Beyond Margins Award (Directions to The Beach of the Dead, 2005). He was the inaugural poet for President Barack Obama’s second inauguration, being the first U.S. Hispanic and openly gay poet to be the U.S. inaugural poet. Blanco was born in Madrid, but migrated to Miami as an infant with his Cuban-exiled family. His poetry has been included in numerous anthologies, among them Who’s Yer Daddy, Divining Divas: 100 Gay Men on Their Muses, Norton Anthology of Latino Literature, and Great American Prose Poems: From Poe to Present. He currently lives in Bethel, Maine.
Learn more about Richard Blanco at The Poetry Foundation