I had never heard of Cuban American poet Richard Blanco until the news feeds began reporting President Obama’s decision to feature him as the official poet for his second inauguration later this month. From what I have read, he is a child of Cuban exiles who grew up in Miami and graduated from Columbus High School. Oh… and he is also openly gay and an ardent Obama supporter who “identifies” with our president. Imagine that: A gay Latino poet that supports Obama and he is a Cuban American to boot!
Personally, I could not care less about his sexual orientation and political leanings. However, it would seem that those are extremely important points for the press to consider since virtually every single news story about the choice of Blanco centers around not his poetry, but his ethnicity, sexual orientation, and admiration for Obama. As for me, I prefer to judge a poet by his poetry, but we will discuss that later. First, the news…
Poet Richard Blanco’s road from Miami to presidential inauguration
Born to Cuban exiles and raised in Miami, Richard Blanco also notches a number of firsts: First Hispanic, first gay person and youngest person to ever be named inaugural poet.
When Richard Blanco decided to become a poet, he didn’t waste time. A Christopher Columbus High class of ’86 graduate who lived in Miami, 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?’?” remembers 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 gay person 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 on 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.”
Continue reading HERE.
So what do I think of Blanco’s poetry? From the few poems of his I came across on the internet, I found his work to be interesting though not my cup of tea. I am not saying he is not talented; I am just saying there are other poets I would prefer to read. But since the whole Cuban American dynamic appears so important to everyone, I thought it would be interesting to provide our readers with a sample of Blanco’s poetry addressing the Cuban exile experience in Miami.
Here is an excerpt from the poem América so you can judge for yourself:
Although Tía Miriam boasted she discovered
at least half-a-dozen uses for peanut butter–
topping for guava shells in syrup,
butter substitute for Cuban toast,
hair conditioner and relaxer–
Mamà never knew what to make
of the monthly five-pound jars
handed out by the immigration department
until my friend, Jeff, mentioned jelly.
There was always pork though,
for every birthday and wedding,
whole ones on Christmas and New Year’s Eves,
even on Thanksgiving Day–pork,
fried, broiled or crispy skin roasted–
as well as cauldrons of black beans,
fried plantain chips and yuca con mojito.
These items required a special visit
to Antonio’s Mercado on the corner of 8th street
where men in guayaberas stood in senate
blaming Kennedy for everything–”Ese hijo de puta!”
the bile of Cuban coffee and cigar residue
filling the creases of their wrinkled lips;
clinging to one another’s lies of lost wealth,
ashamed and empty as hollow trees.
As a good friend of mine says when coming across things such as this… ya tú sabes.