Conversation with Richard Blanco

An interview by Professor Michael D. Burke

Poet Richard Blanco was the Artist in Residence at the Lunder Institute in the spring. Michael D. Burke, Professor of English at Colby, sat down with him and talked about his career, occasional poems, and teaching poetry. Below is an excerpt of the interview. You could read the full interview on the Lunder Institute’s website:

Photo courtesy of Micky Bedell.

Michael Burke: How does one get to be selected the Inaugural Poet? There’s nothing that poets submit.

Richard Blanco: No, there’s no application process. There’s no shortlisting. There’s no committee. You just get a call early one day from the White House saying you’ve been selected. It’s kind of a little secretive. I’ve had an opportunity to sit with the President and almost asked him, but I think the White House kind of likes to remain with that mystique, like “This is the poet we selected.” And I prefer to remain with my romantic version of him sitting in the Oval Office, absorbed in my poetry, and canceling his meetings with Putin. (Laughs). What I will say is this: in conversations with him, I get a sense that if you look at President Obama’s biography as a person who grew up questioning his place in America—in terms of his cultural identity, in terms of his race—that’s mostly what I write about: what is home? What is my place in America? What is the American Dream, and do I belong to that? Does it belong to me? And that’s certainly a connection that I felt with him outside of politics. He is in a way a quintessential American Dream story.

MB: So they sought you out? That’s even cooler than applying!

RB: Yeah, it’s like winning the lottery without buying a ticket!

MB: I assumed that it had been a committee—that you had to submit work.

RB: No, they just pick you out. The only thing we ever heard was that one of the representatives for my mother in Miami—he told us that someone reached out and asked us about our family. That was about the only thing we ever heard back.

MB: So what was your journey as a poet like before that?

RB: Well, it’s not the usual journey, I think. I came to poetry through the backdoor. I’m a civil engineer, a practicing civil engineer all my life, and it was actually when I was working in my engineering office that I started falling in love with language. Engineering, in a way, paved the road for poetry because there was so much writing involved: writing reports, studies, letters; all sorts of oral and written communication skills. And I started excelling at my job because of my writing. The guy that writes the proposal gets the $40 million job, and a proposal’s nothing but a narrative, using words to tell a story—to articulate a vision for the project. That’s actually the person that excels in an engineering office. I should say, though, that I was always the left-brain/right-brain kid, so I loved everything. But as the child of a working class, immigrant family, the arts weren’t really in the realm of possibility. It wasn’t something that was encouraged or even known how to encourage, so I picked sort of a traditional career at a public institution. And when I was falling in love with, and thinking about, language, I was thinking “Hey, what else can I do with this? What’s the weirdest thing I can do? Let’s write poetry!” And I started doodling poetry—really bad poems. You know, “rhyme-y” poems. I still thought a poem had to do with daffodils or something from “101 Famous Poems” or those outdated anthologies from high school. Of course, I was about 25 or 26, so it was kind of a quick learning curve eventually. I went and took a couple classes at community college, and then I eventually applied to an MFA program at my alma mater. It went sort of like clockwork from there: I got my first book published, second, third, all while I was working as an engineer. I took a hiatus for about five years and taught at Connecticut State, American, and Georgetown, then went back to engineering. But that’s where I was, I had a nice balance: I had my poetry, I had my workshop gigs, I did a few speaking engagements, and then everything changed. By that I mean everything. Not only in terms of my career but in terms of the things I’m thinking and writing about. In terms of the things I’ve started to care about and stumbled upon in terms of my mission. In fact, that’s part of why I’m here at Colby: what can I do to make poetry more public? What is the civic role of the poet? How can poetry be made more relevant in the lives of students and the community? How can the arts, in general, do that? Because, again, I was one of those kids who was denied the arts or didn’t have access to the arts. And I love that about the Museum’s mission: how much outreach it does, how much it tries to work about community and realizes that the institution is here for us all. That’s also part of why I’m here, aesthetically and what I write about: poetry that deals with civic issues, poetry of social conscience, poetry that deals more with social justice, things that I never really thought I would write about. And yet, they’re the same question I’ve always had about “What is home? What is America? Do I belong here?” Just sort of in a larger spectrum of not just the poetry of “me” but the poetry of “us,” the poetry of “we.”