Richard Blanco, First Latino Inaugural Poet

richard-blancoNPR reports that the Presidential Inaugural Committee has announced that this inauguration’s poet will be Cuban-American Richard Blanco, author of City of a Hundred Fires, Directions to the Beach of the Dead, and Looking for The Gulf Motel. At 44, Blanco is the youngest poet, as well as the first Latino and the first openly gay poet to take part in an inaugural ceremony. He now joins the list of the few poets that have taken part in inaugural ceremonies: Robert Frost Maya Angelou, Miller Williams, and Elizabeth Alexander. NPR’s Renee Montagne spoke to Blanco about his plans for the inaugural poem and his own story of coming to America. Here are excerpts of the interview highlights:

On how it feels to be asked to read at the inauguration: Even though it’s been a few weeks since I found out, just thinking about my parents and my grandparents and all the struggles they’ve been through, and how, you know, here I am, first-generation Cuban-American, and this great honor that has just come to me, and just feeling that sense of just incredible gratitude and love.

On writing the inaugural poem: I think I started writing it right there in my head [when I got the news]. 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 … So as a subject I felt somewhat comfortable; but the challenge of it was how to maintain sort of that sense of intimacy and that conversational tone in a poem that obviously has to sort of encompass a whole lot more than just my family and my experience.

On being “made in Cuba, assembled in Spain and imported to the United States”: My mother … was seven months pregnant with me when she left Cuba, and at that time, in 1968, since there were no diplomatic relations, everybody had to go through what they called a third country, so we ended up in Spain. Forty-five days later I was born, and a few weeks after that, we got in a plane and immigrated once more to New York City. So 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. And then eventually when I was about 3 or 4 we settled down in Miami. And it’s kind of, you know, as I look back on my life, as we all do, you kind of think, ‘Is this some kind … of foreshadowing, of course, of what my work as a poet would be obsessed with?’ This whole idea of place and identity and what’s home and what’s not home, and which is in some ways such an American question that we’ve been asking since, you know, since [Walt] Whitman, trying to put that finger on America. [. . .]

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