Fifteen Minutes with Richard Blanco
On January 20, Richard Blanco took the stage at the presidential inauguration and read his poem “One Today,” to the nation. He was the first Latino and first openly gay poet—and the youngest—chosen to write the inaugural poem, and tasked with an impossibly daunting project of depicting today’s America. The night before he was slated to speak at Harvard last week, he spent a few minutes speaking with FM about how his identity and journey tied into his experience at the inauguration.
“My first reaction to being chosen was, of course, that I thought maybe it was a practical joke. It was something so unexpected. But then after it sunk in, I was overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude—I thought of my parents and my grandparents, all the sacrifices and struggle and hard work they went through. I felt like I was the end of a story that began a long time ago, that American Dream kind of feeling, the immigrant story. I thought of all the things my parents went through coming here from Cuba, about how the way I’d gotten to that moment was really because of my parents.
As an immigrant, there’s always still this little thing, where sometimes you feel, you’re not really American. It’s of course a fiction, but you always feel like a little bit of an outsider in some ways—not because of anything somebody does or says to you, necessarily, although that happens as well. But in that moment I felt, I was American all along. My story that was in the poem with my mother, that is America, it’s essential and part of the great American story, and I finally felt like somehow somebody gave me the keys.
The occasion of this poem was about healing, instead of further political divisions—Washington sort of has the upper hand on that. [He laughs] My first impulse was to make this a political poem, representing the struggle of Latinos in America, or gay rights, but at the end of the day I decided that that’s already a conversation that’s being had—very helpfully, I think. I wanted a poem that rose above that, that took another step, toward the idea of embracing America.
Actually being part of the inauguration—besides the reading of the poem—was a really amazing experience, in ways that I didn’t expect it to be. I really understood the ideal, core, essence of what the inauguration was.
I lived in Washington for three and a half years and I never quite understood: Why do people go to the inauguration? But I really, really got it: It’s this idea of bearing witness to something, to this moment—like my poem says, “Breathe.” The country takes a breath.
It’s very palpable, you can imagine it happening a hundred years ago, which is even more startling in a historical context.…That spirit, and you can still feel that sense of everybody coming together for just those couple of hours, and putting everything aside, and saying, ‘We are all here for one purpose.’
It’s really a country, and those ideals that I grew up with, those hyper-ideals, to which over the years I’d sort of thought, ‘Well, I’m just being idealistic, and that isn’t really the way it is,’ but I really, really felt them—it was amazing. I’d never felt more American in my life. And the poem fit into that too.
I hadn’t realized—there was this embrace that I was trying to give America—that what really ended up also happening was America embraced me back, and that was so powerful.
And later on in the streets of D.C., people hugging me and telling me how much they felt part of the poem—that embrace, they’re embracing me back, was something I never really expected.
It was beautiful. I mean, I was bawling up there, even before I read. You know, everybody is there for a moment, where nothing is greater than the country. And all of us together—all of us.
Everyone is at that moment larger than themselves. I did feel it—I don’t know if it was because I was swept away in my own poetic mind, but I did feel it. And I finally understood why all those hundreds of thousands of people come, and why we do it all, every four years.”
This interview has been edited for concision.