Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Of poets and presidents: Miami man's road to inauguration

MIAMI — When Richard Blanco decided to become a poet, he didn't waste time. 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?' " recalls 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 openly gay man 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 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 America — 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, Tio 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."

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."

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