In America

Richard Blanco becomes America's first Latino, openly gay inaugural poet

By Moni Basu, CNN

(CNN) - Richard Blanco, the poet who likes to describe himself as being made in Cuba, assembled in Spain and imported to the United States, will serve as the inaugural poet when President Barack Obama takes the oath of office for a second term this month.

Blanco will be the first Latino, the first openly gay person and the youngest poet chosen for the coveted role.

A statement from the inaugural committee said Blanco was chosen because the power of his poetry is rooted in American identity.

"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," Obama said in a statement Wednesday that announced his selection.

With that announcement, Blanco will surely be catapulted to fame in the vein of Natasha Trethewey, 46, who this year was chosen to become the nation's poet laureate.

"I’m beside myself, bestowed with this great honor, brimming over with excitement, awe, and gratitude,” Blanco, 44, said in a statement.

“In many ways, this is the very ‘stuff’ of the American Dream, which underlies so much of my work and my life’s story - America’s story, really," he said. "I am thrilled by the thought of coming together during this great occasion to celebrate our country and its people through the power of poetry.”

Blanco was conceived in Cuba to parents who fled Fidel Castro's authoritarian rule. He was born in Madrid but grew up in the United States, living first in New York and then in Miami.

His first book of poetry, "City of a Hundred Fires," was all about a Cuban-American immigrant's quest to define a cultural identity. It won the prestigious Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize from the University of Pittsburgh.

"I always describe this book as a cultural coming of age 'story,' tracing the cultural yearnings and negotiation of growing up Cuban American," Blanco said of the book, named after Cienfuegos, the hometown of his family.

In an interview that aired on NPR on Wednesday, Blanco said he has been thinking about his heritage again in the past few weeks after he learned that he would be writing the inaugural poem.

"Even though it's been a few weeks since I found out, just thinking about my parents and my grandparents and all the struggles they've been through, and how, you know, here I am, first-generation Cuban-American, and this great honor that has just come to me, and just feeling that sense of just incredible gratitude and love," he said.

And in a telephone interview from his home in Bethel, Maine, he told the New York Times that he related to Obama's life story and his multicultural background.

"There has been a spiritual connection in that sense," he said. "I feel in some ways that when I'm writing about my family, I'm writing about him."

Educated in Miami, Blanco began his professional career as a consultant engineer. He wanted to make his family happy by pursuing the sort of career expected in the Cuban-American community.

But his musings on identity led him to writing, and he enrolled in a master's program in fine arts and creative writing at Florida International University. His mentor there was Campbell McGrath, who himself has written several books of poetry.

Even before McGrath had moved from Chicago to start a teaching job in Florida, he received a letter from Blanco.

"I'm not a poet, but would you let me into your class?" Blanco asked McGrath.

McGrath thought Blanco sounded ambitious, but the very first poem he wrote in class, "America," became the first poem in "City of a Hundred Fires."

"From the get-go, his poems were good enough to be published," McGrath said.

He brought to his poetry the structural, analytical abilities of an engineer. He was able to go beyond the beauty of the words, to look beneath the surface and examine the engineering of the poem, McGrath said.

But more than anything, McGrath felt that the power in Blanco's poems lie in the universal messages he conveys. Yes, he writes about identity, but he does so in a deeply personal way: through family and relationships.

"They are deeply humanistic poems," McGrath said.

In "America," for example, Blanco writes about how there was pork served at every family gathering and that one year, he, as a 7-year-old, explained that they should have turkey instead on Thanksgiving. That's what everyone else did.

Abuelita prepared the poor fowl

as if committing an act of treason

faking her enthusiasm for my sake.

McGrath said one of his personal favorites is "El Florida Room," a poem about home and family published in Blanco's latest book, "Looking for the Gulf Motel."

Not a sitting room, but El Florida, where

I sat alone for hours with butterflies

frozen on the polyester curtains

and faces of Lladró figurines: sad angels,

clowns, and princesses with eyes glazed

blue and gray, gazing from behind

the glass doors of the wall cabinet.

Not a tv room, but where I watched

Creature Feature as a boy, clinging

to my brother, safe from vampires

in the same sofa where I fell in love

with Clint Eastwood and my Abuelo

watching westerns, or pitying women

crying in telenovelas with my Abuela.

Obama's inaugural team has asked Blanco to write three poems, McGrath said, from which they will choose one for him to read out on the steps of the Capitol on January 21 at Obama's swearing-in ceremony.

As though writing one poem that captured all at once the personal and the grandness of the nation were not enough. But three.

He thought of another friend, Elizabeth Alexander, who was tapped as Obama's inaugural poet in 2008 and has spoken to McGrath about the process.

"Usually when you write a poem, you think first of yourself," McGrath said. "Then you envision a close friend reading it. But now you have to think about reading it on the steps of the Capitol with the whole world watching. So you have to think of it differently."

Alexander, the chairwoman of the African-American Studies Department at Yale University, said she was amazed at the amount of mail she got from around the world - not just e-mails but letters written on paper. "Who writes letters anymore?" she asked with a laugh.

Some were from people who had written America off as a land of money and power, not one that still appreciated poetry.

"I was so struck," she said. "All these people were taking the time to say that a poem had moved them."

In crafting her own inaugural poem, "Praise Song for the Day," Alexander said she had to think about her words in different terms. She meditated on America and the works of bards like Walt Whitman. She thought of the way Obama had been elected president, by what she felt was a language that was grounded, specific and always looking to higher aspirations.

"The word 'hope' felt tangible and real in his political rhetoric," Alexander said. That was something that resonated in Alexander's poem:

I know there’s something better down the road.

We need to find a place where we are safe.

We walk into that which we cannot yet see.

And this last stanza:

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,

any thing can be made, any sentence begun.

On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,

praise song for walking forward in that light.

In writing his poem, Blanco will have to keep in mind one other key factor: that most people will hear his poem read aloud and perhaps never read it on paper or a computer screen.

"That means there has to be a level of clarity," Alexander said, adding that she was delighted that Blanco had been chosen this time.

"The question of how we become American is an enduring one and one that Blanco is dealing with in the present moment with his particulars," she said.

He is a nuanced poet who deserves this honor in every way, Alexander said.

"The ways in which the voices of a diverse America are being given more space and more time is something that's very exciting to see in the choice of Richard Blanco," Alexander said.

There have been only five inaugural poets in American history. Robert Frost was the first at President John Kennedy's 1961 inauguration. The others were Maya Angelou in 1993 for Bill Clinton; Miller Williams in 1997, again for Clinton; Alexander in 2009; and now, Blanco.

"We need to remember that it's not something you have to do," Alexander said. "You don't have to put culture on the program."

But there are things that can be said in poetry, she said, that can't be said in any other way.

That was the power of words, pulled from the heart and threaded together with utmost care and love. Those who know Blanco know that he will deliver.