'The Whole Search Never Really Ends': Poet Richard Blanco On Home And Country

Apr 2, 2019

Richard Blanco is coming home. Wherever that is. What the poet has learned -- as the son of Cuban exiles growing up in Miami, then wandering, traveling and living around the country, and getting chosen to read his poem "One Today" at President Obama's second inauguration -- is that the idea of home is something that shifts. 

Now he's in Miami to discuss his new collection of poems, "How to Love a Country," at Coral Gables Congregational Church. In the fall, he's moving back from Maine to teach full-time at Florida International University, his alma mater. 

"How to Love a Country" (Beacon Press) tackles a lot about life in this country: being an immigrant, both documented and undocumented, being the child of immigrants, what it feels like to leave a country, Native American history. There's his poem he read at the re-opening of the U.S. Embassy in Havana, and a poem about Ireland, and the experience of Chinese immigrants at the "Ellis Island of the West." There are wrenching poems about gun violence (Pulse and Parkland), gay marriage and what it was like to live through a time when the whole country was debating whether Blanco, essentially, would be allowed to get married.

You can listen to our conversation on Sundial and read some excerpts below. 

WLRN: The title of the book is "How To Love a Country." It's really such a beautiful title. And there are so many layers in that phrase. What did you want to capture in this book?

Blanco: I think in part it's a statement, in part it's a question, and part it's a how-to book (laughs). And it's really of course my own questioning and my own discoveries and my own relationship to this country, especially in the context of having grown up as a Cuban American, gay and all the rest, thinking about how all of that fits together. You know, many dimensions of what it means to belong to a country -- or not -- or not feel like you do, or struggles with it. But also to celebrate our hopes and our ideals at the same time, too.

You did make one joke that I have to mention, on social media. You held the cover of your book up next to a "¿Qué Pasa, U.S.A.?" mug. 

Credit Richard Blanco

... which is my favorite mug (laughing).

I can understand why that would be your favorite mug -- the beloved bilingual television show that was on in the 70s and 80s. 

Of course, a classic. In a way, they're both very similar titles. Just like, qué pasa, U.S.A.? It's sort of like, how do you love a country? (laughing)

The longest poem in the collection is in the middle of the book. It's called "American Wandersong" and it sort of feels like a short memoir, I think. There's a section where you talk about feeling like you have to leave this place. You knew you had to leave Miami. (Listen above to hear Blanco read from the poem.)

This poem, it's sort of thinking about all the emotional and physical landscapes of trying to find my place in America and Miami and traveling, and all the places I've lived -- always with this question of home and identity and belonging. 

(Excerpt of "American Wandersong")

For the day I had to drive away: nine hundred miles for seventeen

hours straight to New Orleans in my convertible: top down,

wind tousling my hair and mind, my ears breathing in the melancholy

notes of any sad song I could find on the radio: Fire and

Rain, Landslide, Dust in the Wind. Singing along into the windshield,

my eyes catching themselves in the rearview mirror,

then looking away to keep speeding away from the self I was in

Miami toward another self I wanted to bump into striding down

Royal Street. Treat him to a swig of bourbon at a jazzy lounge,

tell his eyes: I love you, man, you belong here with me.

... and it ends in this momentary sort of sense of peace when I get to Maine, but also realizing that that whole search never really ends. Home is like asking: What is love? And it's a question that never quite get answered, or changes as we change, or landscapes change, and we re-evaluate what we mean to place. And I'm fascinated what makes us feel we [where] belong, whether it's you know your neighborhood in Westchester where I grew up or whether that's a whole country.

You live in Maine now and you've spent a lot of time living away from this place [Miami]. I wondered how living in a place that is really not defined by the Cuban exile and Cuban American experience in the way that your upbringing here was -- how that impacted you as a poet.

One big thing I realize is that I always thought the question at the heart of much of my writing always had to do just with this idea of cultural identity as like just Cuban or American. It a question that only had two possible answers, and exploring other cultures, other places, realizing that the question of home is really universal. And especially after the inauguration where you're sort of speaking for, to and about such a much larger audience than my Cuban American community, which of course I adore and is my muse still in many ways, but I can speak to this in many other ways that aren't always autobiographical -- although the book has some of my favorite are autobiographical pieces, so it maybe stretched my writing.

You write about your father and how he thought about living in this country and what mental and emotional sacrifices that entailed. There's a poem called "My Father In English, Indeed." (Listen to Blanco reading his poem below)

That is a beautiful poem. I have to tell you, ever since I read this poem, every time I hear the word "indeed," I think of your father. ... You sent me an email saying, “I’m coming home.” Tell us about the FIU (Florida International University) job, and when you’re coming home.

I’ve taught two falls in a row as a visiting professor, and so I have fallen in love with FIU all over again, and with the students that are just so amazing, and it feels like coming home. Because they are still me, they’re still like little Ricky that went to his undergraduate and graduate school, and so I just feel a sense of just this incredible connection with school. And I wasn’t planning on teaching full-time, I don’t need to, but ... I accepted a full-time professorship, and I’m so excited just to be back in in the community and back in a whole new phase of Miami for me. I had my little like Miami-how-dare-you-change-on-me and now I’m right now I accepted it on its own beautiful new terms.

Richard Blanco is discussing his new poems with Mitchell Kaplan from Books & Books Wednesday, April 3, at 7:30 p.m. at Coral Gables Congregational Church. 

Watch him read his poetry in the WLRN studios below.