Like President Obama, poet Richard Blanco has been tormented by questions of race and identity.
“By the time I was about 2 or 3 months old, I had figuratively and literally been in three countries, and could probably have claimed citizenship in any one of the three at that moment,” Blanco said in a recent interview with National Public Radio. “This whole idea of place and identity and what’s home and what’s not home—[it] is in some ways such an American question.... It makes for a very confusing childhood.”
The 44-year-old Blanco—who will recite an original poem at next week’s inauguration ceremony—is Cuban-American and gay. His verse is an exercise in “cultural negotiation,” he says.
The son of Cuban exiles, Blanco was born in Spain and raised in Miami. Named after President Richard Nixon—who endeavored to topple Fidel Castro’s regime through paramilitary activity—Blanco was told he could be a doctor, lawyer, or engineer. An able mathematician, he received an engineering degree from Florida International University and later established a practice in Miami. According to a White House press release, “Writing about abstract concepts and preparing arguments on behalf of his clients helped Blanco think about the ‘engineering’ of language.”
Blanco returned to FIU to earn a master’s degree in fine arts and creative writing and converted his graduate thesis into City of a Hundred Fires, his first collection of poetry. His verse is saturated with sensual imagery, much of it related to the paradox of being a gay Latino. Ever present in his work is his imperious grandmother, or abuela, who regarded him as too effeminate, Blanco told The New York Times.
Ultimately, Blanco fused these elements—his Cuban heritage, adoptive homeland, homosexuality, and affinity for numbers—winning plaudits from the literary community. City of a Hundred Fires received the 1997 Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize, and Blanco has since published two more collections. He currently lives in Bethel, Maine, with his partner.
When he speaks at Obama’s swearing-in ceremony on Monday, Blanco will be the fifth such poet to do so. The practice was initiated by President Kennedy, who asked Robert Frost to read at his 1961 inauguration. It was then resurrected by President Clinton, who asked Maya Angelou to recite an original poem at his first inauguration, in 1993, followed by Miller Williams, in 1997.
The most recent inaugural poet, Elizabeth Alexander, was a colleague of Obama at the University of Chicago and currently chairs the African-American Studies Department at Yale University. Speaking to National Journal Daily by phone, she talked of the pressures incumbent on the inaugural poet.
“I probably wrote a hundred drafts of my poem,” she recalled. “I saved them—they’re in a huge manuscript box. The process of writing poetry is always difficult, but when you add to that the pressure of the occasion—poets don’t usually have anybody waiting for their work on the other side—it makes it all the more serious as an endeavor.”
In his interview with NPR, Blanco recounted the moment he was told of his selection. Overnight, the little-known poet had been whisked from the grottoes of contemporary poetry into the national spotlight. “I got a text message from my agent, who is usually very calm and very well-together fellow,” he said. “And he texted me and said, ‘You need to call me immediately.’ So luckily, I got in a traffic jam, and I was able to call him, and I heard the news. And, of course, it took me 10 minutes still of just being stunned, just thinking about my parents and my grandparents and all the struggles that they’ve been through.”
Speaking to NPR, Blanco likened the project of reconstituting himself to the country’s founding. “Writing about America is a topic that obsesses me,” he said. “I really sort of have keyed in to the theme of the inauguration, which is ‘Our People, Our Future.’ ”
Add to this the president’s own lyrical gift. Apart from his memoirs—which helped catapult him into the Senate and later the White House—a young Barack Obama wrote short stories and poems, including a meditation on his Seagram’s-swilling grandfather that the literary graybeard Harold Bloom, speaking to The New Yorker in 2007, admitted was “a good enough folk poem with some pathos and humor and affection.”
According to the White House, the president was personally involved in Blanco’s selection. He and his staff will choose from among three works submitted by the poet.
This article appears in the Jan. 16, 2013, edition of National Journal Daily as Obama’s Bard.