Richard Blanco spoke at Nashville’s Southern Festival of Books on October 11, in support of his new memoir, The Prince of Los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood, which was released on September 30. I spoke with him by phone about a week after his visit to Nashville.
Inaugural poet Richard Blanco made history in 2013, when he read his poem “One Today” at President Obama’s second inauguration, as the first immigrant, first Latino, and first openly gay poet to hold the laudable post. Although he made the history books on January 21, 2013 as the fifth inaugural poet of the United States, Blanco was in the midst of drafting what would become The Prince of Los Cocuyos, a book detailing his own history, which he wrote over the course of five years.
Having authored three collections of poetry, as well as a number of powerful commissioned pieces—including “Until We Could” and “Boston Strong”—that, much like “One Today,” made their way into the mainstream of society, Blanco’s poetic work has been critically acclaimed for over a decade. But The Prince would need more than stanzas in order to grow from seed to sapling.
“I just always felt that there’s so much in the poetry [that I’ve written in the past] that I couldn’t unpack,” he explains. “And, you know, every genre has…strengths and weaknesses and there’s so much background story and so many other sort of things that I wanted to develop that I knew that poetry wasn’t gonna be the piece for it.”
While chapters provided more “elbow room” for Blanco’s storytelling, writing about being a gay child—unaware, yet aware of one’s disposition—is no easy task. “You could say I’ve been living a closeted gay life since I was three years old, in a way,” he says with a chuckle, although he did not have his first sexual experience with a man until 21 years later. “We always know…you’re just too terrified to even attach language to it and, in the memoir, that was one of the hardest things to do subtly, to sort of weave in there. It’s that conversation that you have with yourself without talking. That knowing without knowing ‘cause you’re so terrified to even speak words that would mean you’re being honest with yourself, in a way.”
Although The Prince is not a coming-out memoir, it is a coming-of-age story. While the book’s end leaves Blanco at age 17, he did not come out until he was 25. A civil engineer by trade—a profession “manly” enough to garner his father’s and grandmother’s approval—Blanco notes that it was actually poetry that emboldened him to be a man of his word. It was during his coming-out process that he began to write.
“I had some success in my poetry. Being well received, I was able to envision my life as an artist, as a poet, and that gave me the courage, in turn, to then come out,” he remembers. “It was sort of [in] the culture I got to being more honest with myself. And the more I could envision my life as a writer, the more I could envision my life as a gay man, then living my life as a gay man.”
Both humorous and heartbreaking, The Prince is an account beautifully layered with longing, belonging, and language as colorful as its characters, as Blanco struggles to find his place in his Cuban-exile family, in American society, and in his own skin. “You can’t separate my story as a Cuban man from my story as a gay child from my story as an engineer, or poet. They’re all different hats but it’s really one big sombrero.”
Blanco’s bounty of books, including The Prince of los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood, offers an array of gift-giving options as the holiday season approaches.
Photo by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders