Poet Richard Blanco On U.S., Cuba: 'We All Belong To The Sea Between Us'
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Tomorrow, when the U.S. Embassy in Havana formally reopens, Richard Blanco will read a poem he wrote for that occasion. Blanco was born to a Cuban exile family and was raised in Miami. He was also the inaugural poet at President Obama's second inauguration. Richard Blanco joined us today from Miami before he left for Havana, and I asked him how he felt about this assignment.
RICHARD BLANCO: In some ways, this was one of the easiest and one of the hardest. And part of it, I think there's a lot of - more political complexities involved, and it's a lot closer to me. But the inspiration that first came to me was this idea of those 90 miles that everyone always sort of talks about that's almost at this point cliche - you know, the 90 miles between these two countries that might as well be 9,000 miles. So I started thinking about that and how to make that something not about separation, but about unification. And so it's the sea that separates us, but it's also the sea that unites us.
SIEGEL: These are images that - I know the poem is under strict wraps until tomorrow, but you're giving us a taste of some of the images that you invoke?
BLANCO: Well, the title is "Matters Of The Sea" or "Cosas Del Mar," which I love in Spanish. To give you just maybe the first line - I think it's OK. I'll do it. I'll do it for you, Robert.
SIEGEL: You heard it first.
BLANCO: (Reading) The sea doesn't matter. What matters is this - that we all belong to the sea between us.
So you can see where the poem might take off from there. (Laughter).
SIEGEL: But when you read this poem at an occasion that not all of Cuban Miami is celebrating - you know, there are people who think this is a disastrous moment - do you fear, to put it politely, adverse comment?
BLANCO: No. You know, I think the majority, I would daresay, of Cuban-Americans of my generation and perhaps even the generation of my nephews are even further removed. And, you know, I've always seen in some ways that our charge is in some ways to honor our past and our parents' stories and bring them forward but also always having an eye forward as to what is that Cuba that they instilled in our mind, and how can that be a Cuba of the future?
I think history is telling us that it's inevitable that generations find reconciliation and healing, if anything, for themselves because inheriting the weight of some of that pain and some of that longing is a lot. But I do respect that the elders have had experiences that I can't speak to, and where their anger comes from or where they're hurt or where their sorrows come from, I respect them. But I also realize that my job in my personal life is to take that and move forward to thinking, how can that find a resolution?
SIEGEL: You've talked about anger that exiles have felt toward Cuba. You, as a gay man going back to Cuba, are not going to one of the friendlier environments, one of the friendlier governments for gay people. Do you feel an anger about that?
BLANCO: You know, in all my trips to Cuba, I've always gone to visit with family. And so I'm sort of a little outside of the loop of some of those things because I'm just hanging out with my family, living with them. So the LGBT community was something that I actually had very misunderstood for most of my trips. I just didn't think there was even any kind of LGBT community to be had. But I think there has been a little bit more movement in that direction. However, in general, Latin American countries' sense of homosexuality is very different than the United States or - you know, the sense of homophobia is not a religious-based sort of homophobia but one about machismo...
SIEGEL: Yeah, yeah.
BLANCO: ...And appearance. So I think that's part of why you don't see it as apparent, but it's there.
SIEGEL: I was just curious after reading part of your memoir in which you recall your Cuban grandmother, your abuela, who looms much larger than she did physically over your upbringing because she's a tiny woman.
SIEGEL: Is she going to be inside your head over the next 24 hours?
BLANCO: Not so much (laughter).
BLANCO: My grandmother - well, my grandmother looms large because of the sort of - her homophobia. And she was a bookie, and she was (laughter) she was a character. But the person that has loomed large always in my work and my writing has been my mother because my mother left Cuba, had left her entire family in Cuba, all her eight brothers and sisters, every aunt and uncle, every niece and nephew. And she, in some ways, has been my muse, my storyline and my lifeline to Cuba.
And in some ways, I feel that much of my body of work has been, in a way - I might get a little choked up here - but that in some ways - everything I've been doing is, in a way, to heal my mother. And really, what this poem - what a lot of my poems are and what the poem of the embassy will be is about getting to that space of healing and understanding the real meaning of the world healing, which doesn't necessarily mean forgive or forget, but to find a certain peace within oneself that one's decisions and one's lifetime or whatever still hurts us - that we can be OK with that, that we can live and be healed and be healthy. And I think that's what I'm feeling in the air, even with the elders. That my mother - when the news broke in December, I thought there was going to be sort of this great discussion. And basically, she just said very calmly, well, we'll see, you know? (Laughter).
BLANCO: And in a way, I think she had finally healed. She had said, you know, this has been my life. I've, you know, raised two wonderful children. America has been this amazing place for me, and it's fine.
SIEGEL: Thank you for that scoop on the poem that you've written for the occasion tomorrow in Havana. I know that the poem itself remains under wraps, but you've brought another poem for us.
BLANCO: Yeah, a short poem that - it's one of the early poems from the very first book of poetry. And I think it speaks to the emotional embargo that we've had or the results of the economic embargo that results in this emotional embargo. I'm watching my mother, witnessing her and what she's - what went on through her life, through - well, the title will say it all - "Mail For Mama."
(Reading) For years they have come for you - awkward-size envelopes labeled POR AVION, affixed with multiple oversized stamps honoring men from another country. Monthly, you would peel eggshell pages, the white onionskin paper telling details - Kiki's first steps, your mother's death, dates approximated by the postmarks. Sometimes with pictures - mute black-and-whites, poor photos of poor cousins I would handle looking for my resemblance in the foreign image of an ear, an eyebrow or a nose. When possible, you would parcel a few pounds of your desperation in discreet brown packages - medicines, bubblegum, our family's photos, a few yards of taffeta needed for a Quinces gown - always waiting for your letters, always. Your anxieties locked in the crumbling mosaic of memories you face, like the coral face of a fountain goddess, your stone mouth and eyes in a garden of exile.
SIEGEL: Richard Blanco, thank you very much for talking with us, and good luck tomorrow at the reading in Havana.
BLANCO: Thank you very much, Robert. It's been a pleasure.
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