When Richard Blanco decided to become a poet, he didn’t waste time. A Christopher Columbus High class of ’86 graduate who lived in Miami, he learned that poet Campbell McGrath would be leaving Northwestern to teach at Florida International University, so he wrote a letter to the man who would become his mentor.
“He said, ‘I want to be a poet, and you’re a poet; can I take your class?’ ” remembers McGrath, a professor of creative writing. “He was literally my first student at FIU before I was even teaching there. I thought, ‘Wow — anybody that eager must be someone I need to let in my class.’ ”
McGrath’s suspicions proved correct: Blanco was eager, and Blanco was good. Good enough that on Wednesday he was named the 2013 inaugural poet, joining an elite group that includes Robert Frost, Maya Angelou, Miller Williams and Elizabeth Alexander. He’ll compose an original poem for President Barack Obama’s swearing-in on Jan. 21. He also notches a number of significant firsts: He’s the youngest inaugural poet at 44; he’s the first Hispanic (he was born in Madrid to Cuban exile parents and raised in Miami); he’s the first gay person to be chosen (he lives with his partner in rural Maine).
Blanco, who worked as a civil engineer before concentrating on writing, didn’t grant interviews on Wednesday but told National Public Radio earlier that inspiration struck quickly once he heard the news. (His publisher, University of Pittsburgh Press, learned he had been chosen when Barnes & Noble ordered a batch of his latest work, Looking for the Gulf Motel.)
“I think I started writing it right there in my head,” Blanco told NPR. “Images just started coming to me. What’s interesting, as I think every inaugural poet has said, it’s a very difficult assignment because it is an occasional poem. But luckily, I really sort of have keyed in to the theme of the inauguration, which is ‘Our People, Our Future,’ and writing about America is a topic that obsesses me in terms of cultural negotiation and my background as a Cuban American. And so it wasn’t a completely unfamiliar topic.”
Blanco’s work has long explored cultural touchstones and questions through the lens of family. In his poem América — from his first book City of A Hundred Fires, which won the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize — he writes about begging his grandmother to cook a turkey along with the traditional pork for a disastrous Thanksgiving dinner: “Abuelita prepared the poor fowl/as if committing an act of treason.” No one is too happy with the result: “DRY,” Tío Berto complained, and proceeded/to drown the lean slices with pork fat drippings …”
Such detail is what draws readers to his work, friends and colleagues agree.
“His poems are full of people — a child, a grandmother, a father, kids playing baseball, neighbors. It’s a world full of human beings,” McGrath says. “In a sense it’s true he speaks eloquently to the Cuban-American experience. But everybody knows those dynamics of joy and sorrow and conflict, and that’s really what’s at the heart of Richard’s poems.”
“I think people connect with his work because the particular is universal,” says poet and memoirist Mia Leonin, who has known Blanco since he was at FIU and she was a graduate student at the University of Miami. “The concrete details of his work connect him to a time and place — Miami and being the son of Cuban immigrants. But it allows you to step into that world and relate to him as human. … I think it’s great to have a son of Miami speaking to the country and world through a poem that addresses what it means to be American.”
Blanco’s facility with the multicultural clearly contributed to his selection. In a news release, Obama said, “His contributions to the fields of poetry and the arts have already paved a path forward for future generations of writers. Richard’s writing will be wonderfully fitting for an Inaugural that will celebrate the strength of the American people and our nation’s great diversity.”
Part of that diversity is the fact that Blanco is gay. This was deeply moving to writer Achy Obejas, who knows Blanco and wrote an emotional blog post at www.wbez.org about what his nomination means to her as a Cuban-American lesbian.
“When my wife told me about it, I was very happy, but as it sank in that this gay Cuban man is going to be talking to the world, it just became hugely moving to me,” Obejas says. “I found myself crying very unexpectedly. There are a lot of firsts that still happen. In the 21st century you’d think there wouldn’t be too many firsts left, but every now and then something happens, and it reminds you that the journey is ongoing, that the shining city on the hill, that place of paradise where we’re all equal, is not quite here. But we’re getting closer.”
But while his friends and colleagues applaud his selection, Blanco still has to finish an inaugural poem. In a brief email he said only that he’s still working on it.
How do you write a piece the whole world is destined to hear?
“It’s daunting,” admits Alexander, Obama’s first inaugural poet. “But at the same time, you just do it. I think Richard is a wonderfully accomplished poet who is ready to step into the moment. There is a tremendous amount of pressure, but again, there’s no choice once you’ve said yes! What you realize is that all of the lines and lines and lines of verse that you’ve written and read over your life prepare you for it.”
After Alexander read her inaugural poem, she says, she received emails and letters — “actual letters on paper, which seems wonderfully careful to me in an era where people don’t always put pen to paper” — from all over the world applauding the United States for placing poetry in a place of cultural prominence. Now, “it’s more understood that poets are part of our central conversation here,” she says. “And President Obama’s decision to have a poem on the inaugural stage — presidents don’t have to do this — says he understands that art does something that everyday speech cannot, that art has a place in moments of state.”
Les Standiford, director and founder of FIU’s creative writing program, has no doubt that whatever Blanco writes, it will have an effect. Maybe even an unexpected effect.
“This is a person who can take the apparently ordinary and remind us of the hidden significance and the emotional power of the simplest things in life,” he says. “That’s his gift. That’s the kind of writing we promote at FIU. [Novelist] Jim Hall likes to call us the blue collar school of creative writing. We approach writing in that down-to-earth fashion, and Richard, that’s what he revels in. We’re going to have to reopen the poetry applications after this.… When your football team goes to a bowl game applications increase. Maybe that will be true for us.”