Poet Richard Blanco joined the ranks of notables like Robert Frost and Maya Angelou when the White House Wednesday named him the 2013 inaugural poet. Blanco is the first Latino, first openly gay person, and youngest poet chosen for the esteemed role.
As inaugural poet, Blanco, the son of Cuban exiles who has professed a deep “spiritual” connection with President Obama, must compose an original poem to recite on the steps of the Capitol at the president’s swearing-in January 21.
“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.
“I’m beside myself, bestowed with this great honor, brimming over with excitement, awe, and gratitude,” Blanco responded 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. 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.”
Born in Spain to Cuban exiles and raised in Miami, Blanco worked as a civil engineer and composed poetry for two decades before devoting himself to writing full-time in Bethel, Maine, where he lives with his partner.
In an interview with CNN, Campbell McGrath, Blanco’s mentor at Florida International University, where the poet enrolled in a master’s program in fine arts and creative writing, said Blanco brought the “structural, analytical abilities of an engineer” to his poetry. “He was able to go beyond the beauty of the words, to look beneath the surface and examine the engineering of the poem,” McGrath told CNN.
Blanco has also said he feels a deep connection to Obama’s personal history and his roots.
“Since the beginning of the campaign, I totally related to his life story and the way he speaks of his family, and of course his multicultural background,” Blanco told the New York Times. “There has always been a spiritual connection in that sense. I feel in some ways that when I'm writing about my family, I'm writing about him.”
Blanco’s first collection, “City of a Hundred Fires,” which explores his Cuban heritage, won the 1997 Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize, a prestigious literary award for a full-length book of poetry, and was published soon after. His second book, “Directions to the Beach of the Dead,” also plumbs his Cuban upbringing, while his most recent collection, “Looking for the Gulf Motel,” explores his life as a gay man in a conservative Cuban culture.
According to the Times, Blanco learned of his selection Dec. 12 and began drafting three poems, one of which the Obama team will select for him to read at the inauguration.
“The challenge is how to be me in the poem, to have a voice that’s still intimate but yet can encompass a multitude of what America is,” he told the Times. He wants to write about “the salt-of-the-earth sense that I think all Americans have, of hard work, we can work it out together, that incredible American spirit that after 200-plus years is still there," he said.