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Richard Blanco becomes America's first Latino, openly gay inaugural poet
Richard Blanco will become the first Latino and openly gay poet to read an inaugural poem this month.
January 9th, 2013
12:44 PM ET

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.

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Filed under: Culture • Diversity • Ethnicity • Latino in America • Who we are
soundoff (45 Responses)
  1. letmeeatcake

    if it isn't supposed to matter if a person is gay or not, then why the headline? as if the picture isn't enough to tell me that he's tuti and fruti

    February 2, 2013 at 7:10 am | Report abuse |
  2. someguy

    Ok. There's nothing so special about this guy except that he's gay and latino. Don't take special as meaning good, either. I'm a Christian and don't believe in that stuff. Celebrating diversity is great and ok, but if the diversity is moral degradation, then of course no. That is anti-American. That's why people who don't belive the Bible think that being gay is ok. If you don't have a set standard of rules to abide by, anything can slide.

    February 1, 2013 at 5:59 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Mack

    I, I, I, me, me, me – this is the sort of unstructured self-indulgence emperor's-new-clothes adolescents tap into their me-phones, hardly poetry.

    January 11, 2013 at 7:34 am | Report abuse |
  4. GO_GOP

    This is sad. Our Lord does not approve of his ugly, unholy lifestyle. All in the name of political correctness? This makes me sick. We need our Christian country back – NOW.

    January 11, 2013 at 5:39 am | Report abuse |
  5. miscreantsall

    Nice poetry.

    It's good that he is Latino, is he from Italy and will the poems be in LATIN?

    lol

    January 11, 2013 at 3:01 am | Report abuse |
  6. JRYDAF

    His poetry sounds kind of gay

    January 10, 2013 at 10:15 pm | Report abuse |
  7. jusme101

    Well, so much for my attention span.... Read the word GAY...... and that was it.... later....

    January 10, 2013 at 9:34 pm | Report abuse |
  8. CarrotCakeMan

    Ever since Anita Bryant, anti-gays have sought to keep LGBT Americans at the fringe of American society, but today they find that they themselves are at the fringe, as we saw from the withdrawal of the hateful, anti-gay minister just as this poet is at the very center of our country's public life. Whining from the fringe will not change your fringe status, anti-gays, your whining is why you were shoved there in the first place. Face the fact, Americans on the whole have just had it with whining anti-gays.

    January 10, 2013 at 9:19 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Observer

    TheBigSarge,

    "so, his only claim to fame is that he is a poet that got the nod for being gay?"

    No. He's an award-winning author.

    Next time, read the story before making foolish comments.

    January 10, 2013 at 7:09 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Struve

    Yea when they say gay poet, I'm like, "I don't want to hear that poem, NASTY!"

    January 10, 2013 at 4:51 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Jimbob

    His poems are about the lack of glory holes in modem day America.

    January 10, 2013 at 3:37 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Ashamed of Europe

    Certainly no looker! The dude is ugly.

    January 10, 2013 at 3:19 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Arkmark

    Well he can not be any worse than the incohearant drivel the the "poet"( and I use the term Loosly) that was selected at his last inaugeration if any of you recall. LOL

    January 10, 2013 at 11:17 am | Report abuse |
  14. spent

    Now are we being so friggin politically correct. Obama, you are a piece of work!

    January 9, 2013 at 5:54 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Cambridge Ray

    @naija folk: "who is Obama gaining votes for?"

    All tolerant people in America, which happen to be the majority.

    January 9, 2013 at 5:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • cedar rapids

      'It's about the "victim group" identification strategy designed to make a majority out of minorities.'

      what, you think that if they do this long enough we will all become gay latinos?

      January 9, 2013 at 5:46 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jim

      "All tolerant people"? Man, are you misguided.

      January 9, 2013 at 5:52 pm | Report abuse |
    • Reader

      Hm, do you know his poetry?

      I find his poetry to be beautiful and inspiring (along with a few other people including critics and award givers).

      January 9, 2013 at 6:16 pm | Report abuse |
    • Moni Basu

      I don't think Blanco was picked because of who he is but rather, his writing reflects a modern-day American experience. And some of you have said his poetry is not that good. But I think his way with words is quite powerful.

      January 10, 2013 at 10:42 am | Report abuse |
      • Archer

        Really!? I'm surprised Obama didn't find a gay, Latino, disabled veteran to do this for even more votes

        January 17, 2013 at 9:29 pm | Report abuse |
  16. truesinger

    Many Americans were schooled only in English and American poetry. But now there are wonderful translations available that allow us access to unique and splendid poetry of other nations. Latin America has some fabulous poetry and you would do well to listen to it. Don't limit your world to what is familiar to you; new horizons are available.
    I am not Latin American but I am so grateful for how their poetry has enriched my life and that of friends.
    Keep an open mind to beauty; that is the American way at root anyhow. Enjoy !

    January 9, 2013 at 4:35 pm | Report abuse |
    • cane75

      No issues with your statements, but just so that maybe you and others reading understand, Cubans do not consider themselves Latin Americans. They are Caribbeans, primarily of Spanish and African decent.

      January 10, 2013 at 10:05 am | Report abuse |
      • truesinger

        Thanks for pointing out that distinction; I had not realized that. In point of fact, I do not know the work of this poet, nor any Cuban poets (that I am aware of), but I guess I tend to use the term Latin American to distinguish from Spain. I look forward to learning more about yet another cultural group. I am certainly aware of politics, but I wish people would just relax and try something new. Whatever happened to merit? Whatever happened to variety? Whatever happened to being a citizen of the world?

        January 10, 2013 at 11:52 am | Report abuse |
  17. DB

    Check your facts...wasn't Rita Dove the national poet laureate? You reported Natasha Trethewey would be the first African American poet laureate

    January 9, 2013 at 4:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • truesinger

      Yes, you are right; Rita Dove was an American poet laureate, and a wonderful one. Thanks for reminding us.

      January 9, 2013 at 4:36 pm | Report abuse |
  18. JESIII

    WOW!!!! Each and every one of the previous posters is a sour-grapes-fox, raunchy example of Americans.....so sad that anyone, let alone CNN permits you to spew your vitriol rants and venomous opinions.

    January 9, 2013 at 4:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • JESIII

      Except maybe sassysticks53.....

      January 9, 2013 at 4:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • Jim

      So you don't believe in freedom of speech? And I'm sure you figure yourself as "liberal". Yeah, that's what I thought.

      January 9, 2013 at 5:54 pm | Report abuse |
  19. goodbyestarsnbars

    Further proof the US is now being run to the benefit of minorities. This country is so over.

    January 9, 2013 at 3:53 pm | Report abuse |
    • sassysticks53

      lol! Oh, well. See ya!

      January 9, 2013 at 4:12 pm | Report abuse |
    • bannister

      Agreed.

      It's now official: America has jumped the shark.

      January 9, 2013 at 5:29 pm | Report abuse |
    • cedar rapids

      thanks for the hyperbole.

      January 9, 2013 at 5:47 pm | Report abuse |
    • American

      How do you possibly come to this conclusion, what o earth is wrong with this choice of poet ?

      January 9, 2013 at 6:17 pm | Report abuse |
    • Alexandra

      I'm so sorry for all of us that you feel that way.

      January 10, 2013 at 12:37 pm | Report abuse |
    • Ben Rast

      Personally, I think he writes some of the most beautiful and truly American poetry I've read in a long time. His poem "Looking for the Gulf Motel" actually brought a tear to my eye the first time I read it because I could identify so strongly with the sense of an erased childhood caused by the constant redevelopment of "old Florida" into these new, sterile condos built for the tourists and snowbirds. But I wouldn't expect you to actually read his work before passing judgement on his qualifications

      January 10, 2013 at 1:09 pm | Report abuse |
    • MIC

      Your ascendants, goodbyestarsnbars, were once minority, until they annihilated the Native Americans. Don't even forget that......

      January 10, 2013 at 2:23 pm | Report abuse |
    • Geo

      As it should be. The "majority" is the reason everything is so screwed up!!!!

      January 10, 2013 at 6:47 pm | Report abuse |
  20. thebigboot

    Anything Obama can do to make him seem more accepting.

    January 9, 2013 at 3:41 pm | Report abuse |
    • Blah blah the wheel's off your trailer

      No, I believe President Obama was ACCEPTED by the American people on election day and your tax evading outsourcing communist friend was not.

      January 9, 2013 at 6:07 pm | Report abuse |
      • Chicago40

        You mean the man who knew how to run a successful business, and also the man who did indeed paid his taxes, and the man who also gave a far bigger % of his income to charity than our Current President. That guy?

        January 10, 2013 at 3:54 pm | Report abuse |
      • Observer

        Chicago40,

        Romney's religion REQUIRES him to donate 10% to stay in good standings. Presumably he still is in good standings despite falling slightly below that requirement.

        We don't know what he did in 10 of the last 12 years.

        January 10, 2013 at 6:59 pm | Report abuse |
  21. TzionSez

    Not enough votes in that one.

    January 9, 2013 at 3:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • naija folk

      who is Obama gaining votes for? that's what I thought.

      January 9, 2013 at 5:02 pm | Report abuse |
  22. Troy

    No just no talent.

    January 9, 2013 at 3:19 pm | Report abuse |