Obama’s chosen poet has choice words for Trump’s inauguration

Richard Blanco at La Carreta restaurant in Miami.
Richard Blanco at La Carreta restaurant in Miami. Jose A. Iglesias

Richard Blanco assigned himself a writing prompt.

During the most divisive stretch of the presidential campaign, about six weeks before Election Day, the Miami-raised poet asked himself a simple question.

What if he, the immigrant son of Cuban parents, the first Latino and openly gay man asked to write a poem for a president’s inauguration four years ago, were asked to write a poem to read at Friday’s inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump?

And so he began to write.

Blanco turned down the noise from television, radio and the internet and turned up his inner monologue.

“You can’t help but put yourself back in those shoes and ask, ‘How would you approach a poem in this situation?’” Blanco said.

After months of wrestling with what started as an exercise, he will publish his new poem, “Declaration of Inter-Dependence” on Friday at the poetry site SplitThisRock.org. He shared an exclusive excerpt with the Miami Herald.

“We’re them. They’re you. You’re me ... . We’re a poem in progress,” his newest work opens.

Blanco was only the fifth poet commissioned to read a poem at a presidential inauguration. He was the first Latino, the first openly gay and the youngest. And he stands in rarefied company, next to the first inaugural poet, Robert Frost, who performed his piece for the inauguration of John F. Kennedy, and Bill Clinton’s choice for his first term in office, Maya Angelou. Trump’s administration did not designate an Inaugural Poet.

The root of Blanco’s latest poem sprouted when he asked himself what the election of President Barack Obama had meant for America — and what role it may have played in the election of President-elect Trump.

“It made us ask questions we weren’t asking,” Blanco said. “We’re not asking the same questions we were asking eight years ago.”

Obama’s presidency, far from announcing a post-racial America, brought to the surface the messy reality of the deep divisions — from race and ethnicity to gender and sexual orientation — that America continues to grapple with, he said.

“We, as a country, are still a work in progress,” Blanco said. “It comes from the idea that we’re not there yet. This is part of that work — the narrative we’re still writing together.”

Blanco’s shift to writing as “we” instead of “I” is a perspective he hadn’t explored until Obama asked him to write a poem for his second inauguration. In 2013’s “One Today,” he looked in at himself but also out through himself as one man’s experience in a diverse and changing country.

The last line of his inaugural poem read: “hope — a new constellation waiting for us to map it, waiting for us to name it — together.”

He thought about the role a poet’s voice played in other countries’ narratives. And since he is from Cuban stock — his mother, an exile, still lives in Miami and he recently published the memoir “The Prince of Los Cocuyos” — he is aware of the social significance of poets such as Cuba’s own Jose Martí or Chile’s Pablo Neruda in weaving a country’s tapestry.

His inaugural poem opened him to commenting on social issues. He wrote stirring poems on everything from the Pulse nightclub shooting, “One Pulse — One Poem,” to an earlier political piece published in the Boston Globe, “Election Year.

He felt what it meant to wade into a thorny thicket when he read his poem, “Matters of the Sea (Cosas Del Mar),” at the opening of the American embassy in Havana. Some misinterpreted its opening line — “The sea doesn’t matter. What matters is this — that we all belong to the sea between us” — as a betrayal rather than in the spirit of reconciliation and healing he extols.

“It’s important for poetry to add to the public discourse,” he said.

Poetry, he said, can speak the language of protest and healing. It can be an honest voice that speaks louder than pundits and clearer than candidates.

“We’ve come to believe the only process we have in democracy is through politicians,” he said. “If we step back, we can see there is plenty we can do in the world that isn’t filtered through politics.”

Carlos Frías: 305-376-4624, @Carlos_Frias

“Declaration of Inter-Dependence” by Richard Blanco

We hold these truths to be self-evident…

We’re them. They’re you. You’re me. We’re us: a handshake, a smile good morning on the bus, a door held open, a seat we give up on the subway. We tend restrooms or sell art, make huevos rancheros or herbed salmon, run for mayor or restock shelves, work a backhoe or write poems. We’re a poem in progress.

Read the full text of Blanco’s poem Friday at SplitThisRock.org.