For All of Us, One Today: An Inaugural Poet's Journey
Review by Thelma T. Reyna
When Richard Blanco stepped to the podium on January 21, 2013 at the inauguration of President Barack Obama, I rose from my sofa in the living room and stood enthralled as I watched the TV screen. Along with hundreds of thousands of people in the Washington DC mall that day and millions watching this special event around the world, I witnessed history in the making--and this history was made by a poet!
Richard Blanco became the fifth Inaugural Poet in our nation's long history, joining the ranks of such literary greats as Robert Frost and Maya Angelou, two prior Inaugural Poets. But Blanco was more historic than even these venerable giants. He was:
• America's first-ever Latino Inaugural Poet.
• The first immigrant.
• The first openly gay poet.
• The youngest ever, at the age of 45.
His memoir, For All of Us, One Today: An Inaugural Poet’s Journey (Beacon Press, 2013), gives us a behind-the-scenes look at the impact that being brought out of relative literary obscurity (nothing new for poets anywhere in America!) has on an author and how bestowal of a high honor can change a life in the proverbial blink of an eye. But Blanco’s memoir does more than this: it shows us the character and passion of an American rising star against the backdrop of inauspicious beginnings.
Blanco's memoir captures in a mere 112 pages the roller-coaster ride of being selected by the President to address the nation and the world as a poet, and of his preparation for this momentous honor. We learn of Blanco’s disbelief and joy when he receives a phone call on December 12, 2013, from the Presidential Inaugural Committee notifying him of his selection. To this day, Blanco does not know how or why. The important thing he recalls from that life-changing call is that he has three weeks in which to write and submit three new poems to the Committee, one of which will be chosen by the President to be read at the inauguration.
In the memoir, Blanco details the doubts and false starts he has as he creates his poems. Part of this stems from his lifelong struggle concerning his place in America and what it truly means to "be an American." He refers to it in his memoir as "sorting out my cultural contradictions and yearnings" (p. 25). Conceived in Cuba, his parents' homeland, Blanco was born in Spain as an immigrant. He emigrated to the U.S. as an infant and grew up in Florida. He now lives in Bethel, Maine. Blanco's love of country was never in doubt, but what exactly America represents to the huge diversity of people calling it home is a conundrum he's often dissected, and now he is forced to dig even more deeply within himself to find answers.
"Do I truly love America?" he asks (p. 31). "It was a question I had to answer honestly if I was going to write an honest poem. I began thinking of my relationship with America and how it had evolved through different phases, just as my consciousness of love had evolved....I saw parallels between a loving human relationship and the love we hold for our country."
In the memoir, Blanco cycles back and forth between his feelings and reflections in writing the three inaugural poems; and memories of his family life: his childhood, his parents' sacrifices for him and his brother, his experiences growing up in two cultures. Blanco describes how his personal life story sometimes parallels that of President Obama: navigating two worlds on a daily basis as a person of color, and overcoming tremendous odds to be successful. He believes these similarities may have resonated with the President and affected his selection of Blanco.
Blanco’s immigrant parents left their loved ones in Cuba to start a new life with no resources other than their determination and hard work. They purchased a modest home in Florida in a Cuban-American neighborhood after years of labor and thrift. Though Blanco never lived in Cuba, he was surrounded most of his life by neighbors and friends who had, and who blended their new life in America with memories, rituals, foods, and festivities rooted in their native land.
Blanco's image of what it means to be American came from re-runs of popular television shows from his childhood--sitcoms like "Leave It to Beaver," "My Three Sons," "The Brady Bunch"--and the standard history lessons in school about Pilgrims, Washington's cherry tree, and patriotic songs: all packaged, glossy representations. It is not until Blanco is selected as Inaugural Poet that his soul-searching enables him to authentically articulate what America--the only country he has ever known and loved--means to him and to the world.
As the days pass, Blanco decides to weave his personal story only briefly in his new poems because he feels that an autobiographical poem, or a political one, is not appropriate for the occasion. He states: "I came to understand my role--the historical role of the inaugural poet--as visionary, and the poem as a vision of what could be..., reaching for our highest aspirations as a country and a people" (p. 27). The thrust of his message to the world needed to be: "What do I love about America?" (p. 60). "My initial answer was simply the spirit of its people."
For three weeks, Blanco reads favorite poets, meditates, writes and rewrites, working long into the night. He carefully reads the Inaugural Poems of his predecessors. He seeks feedback on his three poems from poets he knows personally, including his professor and mentor at Florida International University, Campbell McGrath; Sandra Cisneros; Julia Alvarez; Nikki Moustaki. As he states in his book: "Most writers I know rely on someone they can trust with their work, which essentially implies someone we can also trust with our lives" (p. 57). This, says Blanco, is also how his career as a poet has been: not as an "all artists work alone" (p. 57) phenomenon, but as "teamwork, ...a reflection of unity and togetherness" (p. 58).
It is this spirit of collaboration and unity that expresses itself robustly in the poem ultimately selected by the Presidential Inaugural Committee, and by the President, as Blanco’s Inaugural Poem: One Today (pp. 87-91). This poem, says Blanco, was born of his personal life experiences watching people helping one another, in good times and bad, always focused on community. Blanco’s love of country, it turns out, is one that "demands effort, asks us to give and take and forgive and constantly examine promises spoken and unspoken" (p. 32). One Today acknowledges this.
Standing at the podium on that chilly day in January 2013, facing an endless sea of humanity silent and waiting, and with the most powerful leaders of America seated onstage behind him, Richard Blanco feels that what he is about to read is his “ gift to America." The purpose of his Inaugural Poem, he states, is to "transcend politics and envision a new relationship between all Americans....I wanted America to embrace itself and...feel how we are all an essential part of one whole."
He succeeds, as thousands of letters show him in the days and months to come, and people's reactions at his subsequent readings, signings, interviews, and travels demonstrate. His message in One Today resonated across the land.
Blanco realizes after the inauguration that his life will never be the same again. "The days ahead proved to be abruptly life changing," he writes (p. 75), "filled with unexpected experiences and realizations that were...unique parts of my journey as inaugural poet." Always concerned that poetry in America is not "part of our cultural lives and conversations; part of our popular folklore as with film, music, and novels" (p. 101), Blanco fondly recalls children's elation at his poetic readings throughout years of sharing his poetry with them. He must build on this.
Touched deeply by people’s reaction to One Today, Blanco relishes the publicity and nationwide exposure that envelops him, sensing a mandate from the people. He states: "The messages from my country speak clearly to me of the great potential and hope for poetry in America... to keep connecting America with poetry and reshape how we think about it....to explore how I can empower educators to teach contemporary poetry and foster a new generation of poetry readers" (p. 102).
On Blanco’s return trip home, he felt "a responsibility to dare and dream up a new chapter that will rekindle poetry into a continuing American folklore--a folklore that would include the stories of gay America, Latino America, and immigrant America--everyone's America" (p. 108). He envisions a resurgence of poetry as a magnificent vehicle "to continue writing together until we are not just one today, but one every day" (p. 108).
If anyone can do this, Richard Blanco can. With his keen intelligence, egalitarian heart, boundless love for his fellow human beings, and a disciplined, devoted poetic soul—all of which gently suffuse his memoir -- Blanco shows us that he has the gifts to do this. It's not immodesty on his part that has convinced us, but rather his modesty and commitment to digging for truth and authenticity. Let us hope his journey promoting poetry for the sake of enriching our lives is long and successful.
[Blanco’s two other poems submitted for consideration were What We Know of Country and Mother Country. These are both included in his memoir.]