Richard Blanco: ‘I Don’t Subscribe to the Notion of Writer’s Block’
On Growing Up in Miami and Overcoming the Fear of Poetry
Richard Blanco’s new poetry collection How to Love a Country is now available from Beacon Press.
Who do you most wish would read your book?
Well, I’d say Oprah—who wouldn’t! And of course I’d love for every poet and critic to read my book—and love it! But perhaps more seriously and uniquely, I would love all those who don’t consider themselves poetry readers to read my book. People like me who perhaps had a poor education in poetry, and once suffered from metrophobia, a recognized fear of poetry.
In contrast, as Presidential Inaugural Poet, I’ve crisscrossed the nation and witnessed audiences taken by a newfound connection to poetry. I hear comments such as: That’s not what they taught me in high school; I never knew poetry could be like this; This is my first time at a poetry reading—and I loved it! My hope is that this book continues to do that kind of “work” in the world, converting metrophobes into metromaniacs, turning people on to poetry and its relevant, life-enriching power.
But more particularly with respect to the themes and concerns of this book, I hope it ends up in the hands of all those who are trying to make sense of our trouble sociopolitical times, as well as the politicians we’ve entrusted to protect and uphold the principals of our democracy, with the hope that we may all share in the unique perspectives and dialog that the art of poetry offers. For, as William Carlos William wrote, “It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there” (from Asphodel, That Greeny Flower).
What time of day do you write? And how do you tackle writers block?
Having held a day job as a professional engineer for most of my life, I grew accustomed to writing in the evenings, sometimes as late as midnight! That’s when I’m able to put aside all the distracting noise and busy-work of daily life: emails, bills, Facebook, and changing the cat litter—LOL! Writing has become my reward, my treat for finishing my to-do lists. It’s my quiet, sacred time like prayer or meditation. I light a candle, sit down alone with the rest of world asleep and dreaming as I engage with the divine mysteries of life, like a sleuth spying for clues in the words and images that reveal themselves to me on the page.
Sometimes that process of revelation takes time, and I suppose you could call that “writers block.” But I don’t really subscribe to that notion—I think it’s actually a necessary part of the writing process that I must wade through in order to let go of my egoic fears, and thus allow my subconscious mind to meld with my conscious mind into pure creative flow.
Which book(s) do you return to again and again?
A painter friend once told me that all of one’s work is ultimately simply practice for the creation of the one masterpiece you leave to the world. In that regard, I don’t necessarily return to whole books of poetry as a whole, but I do return to individual poems that are masterpieces, among these: The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock (T.S. Elliot), One Art (Elizabeth Bishop), The Journey (Mary Oliver), A Blessing (James Wright), and Love After Love (Derek Walcott). These poems continue to teach me not only about the craft of poetry, but about the art of living itself, though I suppose living and writing are really one singular inseparable endeavor, one practice.
Which non-literary piece of culture—film, tv show, painting, song—could you not imagine your life without?
I was raised in Miami, a cultural bubble which was relatively un-diverse—most, if not all of my friends and community were Cuban-American. As Miamians like to say, we love living in Miami because it’s so close to the United States. As such, I yearned to experience what I thought was the “real” America that I saw on TV show reruns like The Brady Bunch, The Donna Reed Show and Leave it to Beaver. Those shows contextualized America for me as a child and imprinted a quintessential sense of what it meant to be an American. Although I have, of course, come to understand that such an America was a myth that never really existed, I’m still addicted to watching such shows and secretly wish the fantasy they portrayed was true.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
Oh my, I can’t limit my answer to just one. There are so many mantras and mottos that guide my writing life, and which I constantly return to whenever I get “stuck.” Here are a few: good writing answers questions, but great writing asks them; a poem is the question, not the answer; don’t put the idea of a poem before the poem—let the poem discover the idea; poetry reveals the extraordinary in the seemingly ordinary; it takes so little to make a terrible poem, great, or make a great poem, terrible; the poem is a mirror you hold up to yourself and the reader; what is not said in a poem is as important as what is said.