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‘Son of Miami’ Richard Blanco talks life, inaugural poetry

On Inauguration Day, poet Richard Blanco belonged to the world. Friday night, he belonged to Miami.

Blanco, who grew up in Westchester, returned to his hometown for a free public appearance for the first time since he read his poem One Today at President Barack Obama’s second inauguration in January. The Columbus High grad and Florida International University alum may live in frosty Maine now — a long, chilly way from where he grew up as the son of Cuban exile parents — but he understands how his roots have shaped him and his work.

“I realized how much of a son of Miami I am,” he told the appreciative crowd, which gave him not one but two standing ovations.

There are those who will tell you a poetry reading is hardly an occasion for excitement, but there was a definite buzz at the Knight Concert Hall at the Adrienne Arsht Center.

“I feel like a little kid,” confessed John Richard, president and CEO of the Arsht, before the reading. “I keep thinking about the Kennedy inauguration and seeing Robert Frost on television, seeing poetry being a part of that ceremony … That has stuck with me.”

As for Blanco, whom Richard called a “literary superstar,” appearing in person a month after the center hosted an Inauguration Day viewing event that drew more than 1,200 spectators? Richard summed it up succinctly: “It’s special.”

Special it was — and strangely inclusive, even a month later. In his amusing introduction, poet and O, Miami founder P. Scott Cunningham talked of Blanco “bringing us, his hometown, with him” to Washington, D.C., to share in the historic celebration.

Blanco, 44, talked about his childhood and how his life has changed in the short time since he was chosen as only the fifth inaugural poet in U.S. history (the others were Maya Angelou, Robert Frost, Miller Williams and Elizabeth Alexander).

He told the audience he learned the news while driving through Massachusetts on the way from New York City to his home in Bethel, Maine, where he lives with his partner. “I needed to pull over,” he said, admitting he got a little “misty.”

“I was overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude, thinking about my parents and grandparents.”

Blanco’s family figures prominently in his work. “I spoke English,” he writes in his poem America, from his book City of a Hundred Fires. “My parents didn’t.”

He read several poems about growing up in a home where ham was served at Thanksgiving instead of turkey, where families and houses and vacations did not look quite the same as they did on the TV shows he watched, where the old Cuba and the new America often clashed. In between them, acting as referee, was Miami, “a benevolent purgatory between Cuba and the rest of the United States.”

Blanco has notched many firsts: He’s the youngest, the first Hispanic, the first gay inaugural poet. When asked by journalist Pamela Silva Conde, who interviewed him on stage, about the complexity of so many identities and which was most significant for him, he replied, “Aren’t we all that complex in some way? All of us wear so many hats … I can go to Bethel, Maine, and put on that hat … and then I can go to Twist and put on another hat.”

As for what’s next, Blanco said he was hoping to find a way to work with middle school kids. “We need more readers of poetry,” he said. “We need a generation of kids that isn’t afraid of poetry.”