Poet Richard Blanco scored a list of firsts at President Obama’s inauguration in January. He was the first immigrant, the first Latino, and first openly gay poet to read at a presidential swearing-in. At 44, he was also the youngest poet to do so. Blanco, who lives in Bethel, Maine, will deliver a lecture this Thursday at 6:30 p.m at the Museum of Fine Arts. Tickets are $39 for the general public.
BOOKS: What are you reading currently?
BLANCO: I’ve been reading “Pink Elephant” by Rachel McKibbens. She’s the first performer poet that I love on the page as well as on the stage, maybe more so.
BOOKS: Who are your favorite poets?
BLANCO: What I have are favorite poems, ones that I go back to over and over again. I don’t have to read everything a poet I like has written — for instance I don’t have to read all of Elizabeth Bishop’s work, just a handful. One of my favorites is “One Art.”
BOOKS: What else do you read?
BLANCO: I also love to read, believe it or not, psycho-spiritual books, such as works by Ken Wilber and Eckhart Tolle. Right now I’m reading Alice Miller’s “The Drama of the Gifted Child.” I really love psychology. It makes me reflect on my own life, which gives me poetic inspiration about my own life, my family, my world.
BOOKS: How long have you been reading books like this?
BLANCO: Since my early 20s. I love therapy. It’s like going to church for me. So I read a lot in that realm. I also read about creativity, such as Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s “Flow.”
BOOKS: When did you start reading poetry?
BLANCO: As a pre-teen I would flip through my brother’s textbook. I remember reading “Tintern Abbey” by William Wordsworth. I remember getting teary eyed and not understanding why. That poem was about loss and longing for a place, which was in the air of my Cuban-American community. Later a friend gave me a Norton anthology of modern poetry. I started flipping through that. I’ll never forget “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Willams. But it wasn’t until after I graduated from college and began writing poetry that I really started reading it.
BOOKS: What did you read before that?
BLANCO: Not much of anything because I was immersed in the world of calculus, dynamics, and structural analysis. My first degree is in civil engineering. I spent the last three of college reading another kind of language, math, which I find fascinating. There is one book that changed my life, “The Existential Pleasures of Engineering” by Samuel C. Florman, a book about the role of the engineer from the Romans until the first half of the 20th century. That book gave me permission to be an engineer and a crazy cat.
BOOKS: Do you read much about the Cuban-American experience?
‘I love therapy. It’s like going to church for me. So I read a lot in that realm.’
BLANCO: One influential book about that for me is “Life on the Hyphen” by Gustavo Pérez Firmat. That book was like looking in a mirror. The memoir “Waiting for Snow in Havana” by Carlos Eire, which is about his boyhood there in the 1950s, was a powerful book for me as well.
BOOKS: Any Latino writers you think should be better known?
BLANCO: Ruth Behar. She’s an anthropologist and a poet. “An Island Called Home” is a little jewel of a book. It’s her personal ethnography about herself as a Jewish Cuban. Her latest one is a memoir called “Traveling Heavy.”
BOOKS: Did your family influence you as a reader?
BLANCO: We were a working-class family. There were no books on art, opera, or poetry in the house. Then in college I got a job as a library page. I always got into trouble because I’d flip through the books before I shelved them. I never worked fast enough. It’s how I learned about opera and saw more graphic images of Cuba. The library was a way of understanding that I could learn a lot more, that there was a whole world out there.