Two inaugural poets shared one stage for the first time in history at the Ezra Stiles Master’s House Tuesday afternoon.
Students, alumni, professors and the media packed the Stiles Master’s House to see Richard Blanco’s first public appearance since his recitation of “One Today” at President Barack Obama’s second inauguration on Jan. 21. The nation’s fifth and youngest inaugural poet is also the first Latino and openly gay poet to receive the honor. Elizabeth Alexander, chair of Yale’s African American Studies Department and the inaugural poet at Obama’s 2009 inauguration, joined Blanco. Following a reading of “One Today” and other selected poems, Blanco described his role as an “emotional historian” and the task of encapsulating the national condition in poetry. Alexander led the discussion with questions of immigration, nostalgia, patriotism and Beyoncé.
Blanco said he was shocked to receive the honor of crafting the inaugural poem.
“I had to pull over and sit on the side of the road and basically weep,” he recalled.
According to Blanco, the process of writing the inaugural poem began in some sense during his time at college. His first assignment in a creative writing course was to answer the question: What is America? Blanco read the resulting poem, which is titled “América” and describes his Cuban family’s celebration of Thanksgiving, for Tuesday’s audience.
“It really was almost fate that that very first poem started me writing on that theme of cultural identity, cultural negotiation and really asking what is America,” he said. “Though that didn’t make the inaugural poem much easier to write.”
Blanco said the White House gave him two to three weeks to write three different poems for the inauguration. He began writing at his kitchen table. Drawing from inaugural poets who came before him, including Maya Angelou and Alexander, Blanco said he included imagery related to nature and the common American people. He added that including autobiographical elements was intimidating due to the public nature of the address, yet necessary in order to take an emotional “snapshot” of the country.
In his inaugural address, President Obama referred to contentious national issues like immigration reform and made a historic mention of gay rights. When asked how the president’s words affected Blanco as an openly gay immigrant, he said the speech made him feel welcome and gave him “the chutzpah to go on stage.” Blanco said he had never completely embraced being American until that day. Following his recitation of “One Today” at the inauguration, Blanco turned to his mother and said, “Well, Mom, I think we’re finally American.”
At the end of the Tea, Alexander expressed her pride in Blanco as a representation of American poets. She added that she hopes the inaugural poem can serve as an “assertion that poetry has a place in political and civil discourse.”
Blanco also discussed his method for writing poetry, explaining that his training in civil engineering at Florida International University helped his editing process by allowing him to look at a poem analytically with a keen eye for structure, pattern and logic. He advised students interested in poetry to write about subjects they really care about.
Three students interviewed said the two poets renewed their interest in poetry. Katherine Barnes ’16 said she appreciated the sense of family and community Blanco fostered in the inaugural poem.
Blanco said he plans to publish a memoir and a book including the three poems he wrote for the 57th presidential inauguration.
Robert Frost served as the first inaugural poet at President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inauguration.