Blanco’s poetry has appeared in many literary journals as well as anthologies including The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature (2011); American Poetry: the Next Generation (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2000); and Floating Borderlands (Arte Público Press, 1998). He earned his Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering at Florida International University in 1991, where he also earned his MFA in Creative Writing in 1997. While Blanco has taught creative writing and English composition at various universities, he is a registered professional engineer.
Richard Blanco kindly agreed to discuss his latest book with La Bloga.
DANIEL OLIVAS: Your new collection, Looking for The Gulf Motel (University of Pittsburgh Press), is broken into three, untitled sections. How did you group your poems and what themes did you hope to fulfill in each of the three sections?
RICHARD BLANCO: The three sections are quite intentional, though I prefer to think of them as “movements.” Within each one I was interested chronicling a particular facet of life from childhood into adulthood. I wanted to reach back and then look forward at how family and my culture has shaped and continues shaping who Richard Blanco is. The first movement dives into early questions of cultural identity and their evolution into this unrelenting sense of displacement that haunts me. How could it not, being born into the milieu of the Cuban diaspora? It’s a perennial theme for me that started in the first book and continues to inform my work to this day. The second movement, however, is something new for me; it begins with poems peering back into my family again, but this time examining the blurred lines of gender, the frailty of my father-son relationship, and the intersection of my cultural and sexual identities as a Cuban-American gay man living in rural Maine. In the last movement, which I playfully call the “death section,” the poems focus on my mother’s life shaped by exile, my father’s death, and the passing of a generation of relatives, all of which have provided lessons about my own impermanence in the world and the permanence of loss. Regardless of the focus of each movement, however, I see “family” as the glue that bonds the poems together into one collection
DO: The poems concerning your mother and father are particularly moving and evocative, yet they are quite different from each other: you present your mother as a more active participant in your life (as in “Cooking with Mamá in Maine”), while your father comes across as more of a presence or image (“Papá at the Kitchen Table”). Was this poetic approach to your parents intentional?
RB: Not only was it intentional, but necessary. My father, like many men, especially Latino men of that generation, was emotionally absent. He was s good provider, loyal and hardworking, but he couldn’t express himself emotionally very well. As such, my father—it is sad to report—was very much a stranger to me. I have used my poetry as a forensic tool to study him after he died, examine his life, reconstruct him—all in an attempt to better understand who he was and connect with him through the page at least. My mother, on the other hand, was quite emotionally involved with me and the rest of the family. But aside from this, I portray her differently for yet another reason. In 1968 she left her entire family behind in Cuba—her parents, every brother and sister, every uncle and aunt—never knowing if she’d ever see them again. I connected to the longing and suffering of her exile that I witness all my life—and I wanted to record her “story” which is like so many stories of exile. You could say that I indirectly started writing because of her life and what it meant to me; as such, she is indeed much more “alive” in my poems as she is in my life.
DO: Your poems concerning your identity as a Gay man appear throughout the collection. But one of the most romantic (if I may use that term) is “Love as if Love” which recounts your love affair with a woman which begins: “Before I kissed a man, I kissed Elizabeth.” Thoughts?
RB: I didn’t come out until I was 25 years old. Before then was romantically involved with women; I lived as a heterosexual male, and could have continued to do so. But I finally figured out that while I could love women, I didn’t lust them. And I loved Elizabeth. Besides memorializing my love for her, I wanted this poem in the collection to show how blurred the lines of sexuality/gender can get. I think this kind of blurring is echoed in other poems about my family as well: my macho grandfather’s tenderness, my mother’s manly courage, my brother’s fragility, and my grandmother’s aggressiveness. As a Latino, I hate to be one-dimensionalized and unfortunately I think the same tends to happen when it comes to homosexuality. I wanted this poem to show the various dimensions of what it means to be gay—for me at least. Ironically it was my love for a woman, Christy, that made me finally face my sexuality; I realized that I loved her so dearly that I couldn’t lie to her; I couldn’t live a lie with her.
DO: Cuban culture, music and food appear throughout your writing. Do you consider yourself a Cuban writer, or simply a writer?
RB: This is an easy one! I think. I am an American poet who writes about his life experiences—the things that move and obsess him—like any other poet. In my case, these happen to be those questions of place, home, and cultural identity that arise from my “membership” in my Cuban exile community. I am a writer who happens to be Cuban, but I reserve the right to write about anything I want, not just my cultural identity. Aesthetically and politically, I don’t exclusively align myself with any one particular group—Latino, Cuban, gay, or “white”—but I embrace them all. Good writing is good writing. I like what I like.
DO: You are a professional civil engineer. How does this training intersect, transform and/or influence your poetry writing?
RB: Oddly enough, engineering is largely responsible for me “getting into” poetry. When I began my career as a consultant engineer, I had to work on a lot of permitting jobs, which meant a lot of writing letters back and forth between agencies explaining often abstract concepts and arguing my clients point of view—much like the sonnets which root back to legal pleas exchanged between lawyers. Anyway, this got me paying really close attention to language, how it can be crafted, its nuances, etc. In short, I fell in love with words. Also, the years of higher math and reasoning have instilled in me a strong proclivity for iron-clad logic. I find my poems are somewhat “engineered” in this way, sometimes too much so, I’ll admit. Much like a musician who can “see” the mathematical structures in music, I see the logical patterns in language. I get a very similar kind of creative “kick” whether I am designing a bridge or constructing a poem. As regards subject matter, however, I rarely write about my “other” life as an engineer; it does not serve much as inspiration. I think that is do because while the creative processes for the two overlap, each one has very different concerns.
DO: Who are some of your most important poetic influences? Who do you enjoy reading “just for fun”?
RB: Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Hass, William Wordsworth, Neruda, Sylvia Plath, Sandra Cisneros, Philip Levine. Just for fun I read psycho-spiritual books that keep me sane: Alice Miller, Ken Wilber, Eckhart Tolle. But when the voices get to be too much and I really need to check-out: The Star, People Magazine, or whatever else catches my eye in line at the supermarket.
DO: Do you have a writing routine? Where do you do most of your writing?
RB: I am a vampire writer, often sitting down at my desk after 11pm until 3 or 4 in the morning. Though I’ve heard many writers say they are “morning writers,” getting up at 6 am to polish-off a poem, I think the idea is the same. Namely, choosing a time to write when the day-to-day distractions are at a minimum. I write mostly on the computer at my desk in my home office. However, I scribble all over printed drafts practically anywhere, anytime—even while I’m driving! I find that chaotic, spontaneous editing mixed with the structure of focused, dedicated time at a computer is a good, balanced combination that works my brain in different but complementing ways.
DO: Are you working on a new collection?
RB: No way! Every time I finish a book I give it all I got emotionally. I need some down time to let the well fill back up again. But also, I don’t have a back pile of poems. A downside of having had my first manuscript published soon after it was written is that I have never had another “pile” of poems sitting around waiting to become the next book. Also, I’ve found that I am the kind of poet that has to let inspiration ferment. I often write about experiences several years after they happen. I need to let things “cook” in me first.
DO: Mil gracias for spending time with La Bloga.