In American culture, few things are more obscure and less relevant to life to more people (other than poets) than poetry. Yet on Jan. 21, the world of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson will come alive in the hearts and minds of millions, when poet Richard Blanco, a son of Cuban immigrants who lives with his partner Mark in Bethel, Maine, reads a poem that he wrote at President Obama’s second inauguration.
I’m among the many – from poets to social justice activists to “ordinary” people – who are thrilled that Obama chose Blanco to be the 2013 inaugural poet. We’re excited not only because Blanco’s work is intimate, yet universal; touching and engaging; but by the historic nature of his selection: Blanco, 44, is the youngest, the first Latino and the first openly gay man to be a presidential inaugural poet.
It’s been said that poetry can’t legislate. No poem that any of us poets might write, no matter how great, will undo anti-gay laws, end bigotry or eradicate poverty. Yet, poetry can make us care: it can tell stories. As the late historian Howard Zinn said, poets “wage the battle for justice in a sphere which is unreachable by the dullness of ordinary political discourse.”
“Richard Blanco was made in Cuba, assembled in Spain, and imported to the United States,” Blanco playfully writes in his bio on his website (richard-blanco.com).
Growing up in Miami, Blanco became a civil engineer. Later, he earned an M.F.A. in creative writing at night at Florida International University (where he earned his engineering degree). Recently, Blanco, the author of three poetry collections, began writing full-time.
As a boy, his family cautioned Blanco against becoming too feminine or appearing too gay. “Avoid hugging men, but if you must/ pat them real hard/on the back, even/if it’s your father,” he writes in the poem “Queer Theory: According to My Grandmother” from his latest collection “Looking for the Gulf Motel.”
In the same poem, Blanco writes, “What? No, you can’t pierce your ear/left or right side/I don’t care/You will not look like a goddamn queer/I’ve seen you…/even if you are one.”
Poet Sarah Browning, director of Split This Rock, became friends with Blanco when she took a workshop from him at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda. “He’s been an enthusiastic…supporter ever since, as he is to many poets all over the country,” Browning wrote in an e-mail to the Blade. “Poetry helps tell the truth of our country’s story, in all its complexity and mess and striking beauty. For too long, there has only been one public version of the story – triumphalist, white male. By choosing Richard Blanco – queer and Latino — President Obama recognized that too many of us have been excluded from the official version for too long.”
“Richard and I have something unusual in common; we have both written Latino Thanksgiving poems,” poet and essayist Martin Espada, wrote in an email to the Blade. “His is called ‘America’ from his first book ‘City of a Hundred Fires.’ That poem, and the book itself, should be required reading for anyone who wants to understand the Cuban-American experience or simply wants to read some damned good poetry. ”
It’s groundbreaking that Blanco is a Latino and openly gay poet, Espada, author of “The Trouble Ball,” said. “Poetry humanizes, and the presence of this poet at this inauguration will be a step forward in our collective recognition of Latinos and gays as full-fledged human beings deserving of full civil and human rights.”
Yet first and foremost, Blanco is “a damned good poet, as he will prove to the world at the inauguration,” Espada added.
When he has a good poem day, Blanco does a poetry dance, Blanco writes on his website. On Jan. 21, millions of people will, metaphorically, do their poetry dance when Blanco reads his inaugural poem.