October 14, 2014

Richard Blanco

A young poet searches for a place to belong
Interview by

Inaugural poet Richard Blanco talks about his hilarious and moving new memoir, The Prince of los Cocuyos.

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Richard Blanco first became widely known when he was selected to write a poem for Barack Obama’s second presidential inauguration in 2012. Blanco, who was working as a civil engineer and writing poetry on the side, had been born in Madrid to Cuban immigrant parents and come to the U.S. as a child, eventually settling with his extended family in Miami. His selection as the inaugural poet marked a number of firsts: He was the first Latino, first immigrant and first openly gay writer chosen for the role.

In an alternately hilarious and moving new memoir, The Prince of los Cocuyos, Blanco looks back on his childhood in Miami: his close family, his domineering grandmother, his struggle to be a "real" American (one who ate Easy Cheese and went to Disney World) and his conflicted feelings about his emerging sexuality.

We caught up with Blanco at the 2014 Southern Festival of Books to find out more his fresh and vivid portrayal of "becoming."

First I’d like to ask about the title of the book. What is the significance of it and why did you choose it?
There are two reasons. “El Cocuyito” is the name of my granduncle’s Cuban grocery store, where I started working when I was 12. And it’s the proverbial village where, as I like to say, I learned to be Cuban, learned to fall in love with my Cuban heritage and really learn about it beyond the nostalgia and beyond the misconceptions I had about where I was from. So the grocery store plays a big role in the book, and the “prince” idea relates to the idea of the village, which raised me in a way. And the cocuyos are fireflies, so of course there’s the magic of that. They’re lightning bugs, and like every kid I used to trap them in jars.

Did your publisher give you any pushback on using Spanish words in the title?
Not at all.  I was very surprised because it’s something I’ve always heard is met with horror—a bilingual title. But they didn’t blink. They loved it. And I knew it was a chance, but I also feel like it’s time. We obviously have text that’s in Spanish and English; this has become commonplace. But it’s interesting how few Latino authors dare to put Spanish in a title. I wanted to take the dare. And cocuyos is just a funky, cool, kooky word and in some ways, the fun part is people trying to pronounce it.

On a related question, I noticed that you mostly don’t translate the Spanish words that you use in the memoir. What was your thinking behind that?
It’s really annoying to translate everything that someone says in Spanish. When you use Spanish in a text, it’s not just for meaning but for sound. But I always try to set it up contextually, so that you’re never lost, or translate it in context, which is the real challenge of writing in that way. I don’t have a choice because my family and my community—I don’t hear them in English, I hear them in Spanish. And so the compromise is to have some English and some Spanish.

Why did you decide to write a memoir, to translate your experiences “not into poetry but into prose”?
I actually started this project about four years ago. Part of it, at first, was just creative curiosity and wanting to see how it is that prose worked. And I was also driven by a sense that every genre has its limitations—its strengths and its weaknesses. There were so many stories that I still wanted to tell and unpack from the poetry. And you can’t really do that kind of broad characterization in a poem—characters like my mother and my grandmother. My poems are narrative so they’re story-like, but of course, even that has its limitations.

Part of what I learned is that poetry is super-compressed; it’s about the emotional core of people in a situation. And writing in prose is more about storytelling, and that’s fun too. I always had to be cautious about not going down the poetry wormhole, and going on for three pages describing the sofa. It was interesting to challenge myself to adhere to a narrative, to try to construct a narrative out of pieces of memory. And that was fascinating. I also learned by contrast more of what poetry is all about—by working in another genre.

Was there anything in your personal life that you struggled with whether to reveal?
Yes and no. Part of it is that I’m insulated by language. A lot of the elders in my community and in my family have a working knowledge of English but they wouldn’t read a whole book of mine in English. For that matter, they wouldn’t read a whole book of poetry. So I’ve always had a little bit of a barrier, a little bit of a cushion, so to speak.

I don’t know if I could have written this book if my grandmother were still alive. I think everything happens the way it’s supposed to happen. But then again, the book is not about family scandal or gossip. Part of why I like to tell stories is to, in a sense, revere and honor my community. And so there’s always a tone of love and honesty in my work, even though the memoir gets a little more dangerous (laughter).

You mentioned your grandmother, who is such a big part of your story. You write that this book let you “hate her, understand her, forgive her, and thank her.” How do you think she would react to your characterization of her, and would she understand you better if she were able to read it?
I think she would understand more of what I was going through. As an adult, you sometimes treat children as adults and you don’t realize that the words coming out of your mouth are 10 times more significant when you’re 7 years old than when you’re 17 or 27.

Part of what I hope the book will do is to let people like my grandmother or parents of gay teenagers understand the psychology of what a gay youth goes through—it’s a very subtle and slow process and you can’t come out until you’re ready to come out. There’s a series of all sorts of negotiations and translations of yourself that you need to go through. And I think my grandmother would understand that a hell of a lot better.

But also, by analyzing it, I now better understand where she was coming from. It’s a different brand of homophobia we’re dealing with, at least in my particular Cuban culture, and I think, perhaps, Latin American culture in general. The idea is not that being gay is an evil thing and you’re going to hell, the crime is really about being effeminate. So what my grandmother was trying to do was to say, “I know who you are, but here’s what we’re going to do.” Because in an odd, twisted way, she was experienced in that generation and culture, and she was preparing me: Be what you need to be, but … pass. The idea was that you behaved like a man regardless of what your sexuality was. You know, machismo, it’s a more important layer than all the rest.

You’re often asked about poets who have influenced you. Now that you’re a memoirist, I’d like to find out if there are memoirs that you especially admire.
Obviously, I read Carlos Eire’s Waiting for Snow in Havana. I thought it was wonderful, of course, but it was another layer of the story. It gave me something to build off of, so to speak. His experience of actually having memories of Cuba was different from my own, because I wasn’t born there. But I feel like I do have [memories of Cuba] at times, because the photographs become so real.

And then, Augusten Burroughs. At one time, as a working title, I would call my book Running with Mangoes. And he ended up doing a blurb for my book, and I think that’s what convinced him. Certainly it’s not the same story, but it has that bizarre, kooky, what-am-I-doing-here kind of feeling. And having come out the other end a much better person for it—I think it shared that. It resonated emotionally with me as well.

And there’s also Richard Hoffman’s memoir, Half the House. The inspiration comes from many sources.

You’ve been promoting The Prince of los Cocuyos for a couple of weeks now. Is there anything you’ve found especially gratifying or surprising about the way readers are reacting to the book?
I’m finding little pieces of the memoir that I never thought would be such a connecting point, like the Easy Cheese. At a reading in Brookline, a man brought me a gift. As soon as I held it in my hands, I knew what it was—three cans of Easy Cheese. I’m still munching on them. Those are the moments that, as a writer, always surprise you—what people connect with.

On the other hand, I have also been surprised by just how connected people still are to the inauguration and my role in that as a poet. It seems like something that will go on for my lifetime, and happily so.

How does your personal coming-of-age story mirror or represent the larger story of America?
The story of “becoming” is primordial; it’s trans-cultural. It doesn’t matter if you’re gay or straight, 50 or 15, we’re always becoming. There’s always a sense of transforming. It’s a fundamental part of the human psyche. We’re never really fully there. Just when you think you’ve got it all done, you have . . . grandchildren. The “you” is always this mirage just down the road, and when you get to it, it slips away from you. You’re kind of following yourself all your life to become who you already are.

I’ve been thinking about this idea of becoming, and in the process of my experience serving as inaugural poet, and if you look at a country, it also has an evolution, and a sense of its own becoming. And America right now is about 13. As a country, we’re young, and we’re still asking all these questions, just like little Riqui is asking in this memoir. Who are we? We’re having all these conversations about labels. Do we use labels? Do we not use labels? Nobody knows the answer.

I find that America is also, as a people, coming of age. We are becoming and deciding. We tend to be very impatient in our causes and the things that we want to see changed. And we think that the story begins and ends in our lifetimes. But the story of America will continue far beyond our lifetimes. And just because we haven’t reached what you thought was the end of the story, you have to realize that all you’re doing is adding a sentence, a word, a paragraph, and that the story continues. We’re not there yet, but that’s not the point. The point is, hopefully, as a democracy, we continue to “raise” this country, we continue to “rear” this country. Some days we go two steps back, some days two steps forward, depending on what side of the fence you’re looking at it from.

The idea of becoming is such an American idea that it parallels very much the personal stories of coming of age. If you really think about it, the questions I was asking as a child are in some ways the same questions that Whitman was asking not too long ago. Who are we? Who are we as a country? Do we distinguish ourselves or do we just blend? Is there a right thing to do? Is the ultimate aim of diversity to be un-diverse? What do we call “American”? We don’t know yet. We’re still a teenager, rambling about and figuring things out.

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