Ever heard of Richard Blanco, our next inaugural poet? He's about to read a poem on the single most public possible stage any writer could ask for in their lifetime. He's about to become the only living poet many Americans will be able to name. If viewership is anything like the last inauguration, more people will hear Blanco's poem than bought Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. You really haven't heard of him?
You and the rest of the anybody ever. Though it's largely true that poets are really the only people reading poetry anymore, even among his literary constituency, Blanco is no Paul McCartney—but he was picked to read at the Superbowl, nevertheless. Before the White House plucked Blanco from the snowfields of rural Maine, he was just another post-MFA Joe Schmoe with a few solid books and a teaching position. So who is this guy?
For starters, he's gay and Cuban, two things the media just can't stop talking about. Of course, all that excitement seems to be directed at how he's the first gay, Latino inaugural poet, but come on: there have only been five other inaugural poets ever. Kennedy introduced the concept in 1961 by asking Robert Frost to read an original poem at the inauguration, and Clinton revisited it by choosing Maya Angelou in 1993 and Miller Williams in 1997. Elizabeth Alexander read at Obama's 2009 inauguration, and now we've exhausted the entire history of the title. It's not a big deal that Blanco is the “first” gay, Latino inaugural poet. “Firsts” are a big deal when, say, you've had 42 rich white men in a row serve as the president. The line-up of inaugural poets hasn't suffered from consistent, systemic problems of representation, especially because it hasn't happened enough times to even be a “thing” yet. His identity as both gay and Cuban isn't exciting because it's a first. It's exciting because of the way it informs his poetry, and doubly exciting because his poetry is good.
Blanco's verse is gorgeous and engaging, and manages to balance and explore the intersections of numerous identities and cultures without judgement, resentment, or a sacrifice of accessibility. His writing is entrenched in the idea of what it means to be American, especially regarding the crisis of a boy from an immigrant family trying to reconcile his identity as an exile of a country he's never seen and an outcast in the country to which he desperately wishes to belong. There are images of palms, avocados, and bocadito sandwiches that seem exotic until you remember that Miami is part of the union. There is a give and take to Blanco's poetry that will resonate with Americans timelessly—luckily, because he's now been guaranteed immortality.
What's more, Richard Blanco makes a great choice for the inaugural poet because he's worked damn hard for everything he has, including those three books of good poetry. He grew up in Miami in an immigrant family of Cuban exiles. He went to Florida International University and earned a BS in civil engineering. After a few years of working full time as an engineer, he took a class in creative writing at a community college, loved it, and returned to FIU to take night classes toward an MFA in creative writing. He produced his first book, City of a Hundred Fires, only a year after graduation, winning the prestigious Agnes Starrett Poetry Prize from the University of Pittsburgh Press. While still working as an engineer, he lectured at various universities around the country, including Georgetown, where he taught (among other courses) a creative writing class for prisoners. He finally settled in Bethel, Maine, with his partner, where he works on the City Planning Board, helping make decisions like approving a sign for Inmar's Diner on Route 2. Everything I've read from or about him indicates that Blanco is a dedicated partner, student, friend, teacher, engineer, writer, and citizen. He's polite, quick-witted, well-spoken, reverent of his mother, and as handsome as the day is long. (I invite you to check out the 2006 calendar of The Most Intriguing (and sensual) Male Poets or his own promotional pictures, where he looks like a cross between Javier Bardem and Clive Owen, Blanco is the Joe Sixpack that Sarah Palin wished she could be.) There should be no question of whether or not Blanco deserved the honor.
Of course, nothing in politics turns on people getting what they deserve. And as for the arts, there are a lot of poets out there who are never going to get what they deserve in terms of fame and fortune. So why Blanco? Bethel's planning assistant told the Maine Sunday Telegram that before the announcement, “very few people knew he was a published poet.” His self-designed personal website has a background color that could be described as “parchment,” a folder of pictures of his dog, and a banner with a Wordsworth quote across the top. His selection for the inauguration came as a surprise to everyone.
Maybe it's the Latino vote, maybe it's residual guilt over Obama's original position on gay marriage. Maybe it's because Florida is a key swing state and the conservative, Cuban congressman Marco Rubio is probably going to be on the 2016 Republican Presidential ticket. Maybe somebody knew somebody who knew somebody. What's important is that we hear a good poem today, and Blanco's hard-working spirit will deliver. In an interview with The Poetry Foundation, Blanco says he's been writing, “Literally around the clock. I’m a night owl, so that means until 4 a.m., and back up at 9, 9:30, getting back on the computer.” But maybe it's even more important that when Blanco told his mother he was chosen, he had to remember how to say inauguration in Spanish.