On Jan. 21, the entire world will be watching as President Barack Obama is sworn in on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. While the audience will be counted in hundreds of millions, only a handful of people will speak during this historic inauguration, the 57th in U.S. history. One of them will be FIU alumnus and poet Richard Blanco ’91, MFA ‘97.
On Wednesday, Jan. 9, the FIU community celebrated when the news broke in The New York Times that Blanco had been asked by the White House to be the Inaugural Poet for President Barack Obama’s Jan. 21 swearing-in ceremony. The two-time FIU graduate will write and deliver an original poem, joining an esteemed list of four poets that includes Maya Angelou and Robert Frost.
The story was quickly followed by a press release from the White House: Richard Blanco is the Youngest and First Latino or LGBT Person Selected as the Inaugural Poet. President Obama was personally involved in the selection of Blanco, who at 44 will have a world stage on the historic day, which, rather poetically, happens to be Martin Luther King Day.
“I’m beside myself, bestowed with this great honor, brimming over with excitement, awe and gratitude,” Blanco is quoted in the press release. “In many ways, this is the very stuff of the American Dream which underlies so much of my work and my life’s story, really. I am thrilled by the thought of coming together during this great occasion to celebrate our country and its people through the power of poetry.”
By 9 a.m. the university was buzzing with excitement as Blanco’s many friends, teachers and collaborators opened their email and checked Facebook. Blanco’s roots at FIU are deep and the New York Times story went viral in FIU circles. From the Honors College where the portraits of Blanco that Professor John Bailly painted are on display, to the Department of English’s Creative Writing Program where he got his MFA, the announcement was greeted with a surge of university pride and, for many, like Bailly, straight up joy.
Bailly has known Blanco for 20 years and has used his books in his Honors College classes for the last five. “I imagine professors all over the country will soon be doing the same as they discover Richard’s poetry,” Bailly said. “To me, the most important thing is Richard’s poems are incredibly specific about his life but at the same time embody the universal search for identity. After today, I hope everyone will go read his poems.”
The White House described his work this way on Wednesday: “Blanco explores the collective American experience of cultural negotiation through the lens of family and love, particularly his mother’s life shaped by exile, his relationship with his father and the passing of a generation of relatives. His work also explores the intersection of his cultural identities as a Cuban American gay man.”
Born in Spain to Cuban exiles, Blanco’s parents emigrated to New York City days after his birth and eventually settled in Miami. Blanco earned an undergraduate degree at FIU in engineering and has spent much of his career as a civil engineer, designing bridges and even an architectural plan for City Hall in South Miami.
In 1991, he decided to explore a different path. He came to FIU to earn an MFA from the Department of English’s highly regarded Creative Writing Program. Blanco’s first class in the MFA program, in 1993, was also the first class taught at FIU by the newly hired Campbell McGrath, a critically acclaimed writer whose achievements include numerous books of poetry, most of America’s top poetry prizes, and a treasured MacArthur “Genius” grant.
Blanco and McGrath connected from the start and have maintained a friendship ever since. Blanco’s master’s thesis became his first book.
“From his first poetry class, it was clear Richard was talented, hard working and dedicated,” McGrath said Wednesday. “Every poem he wrote in my graduate poetry workshop went into this book. He published his first book faster than anyone of his cohorts. The book was accepted for publication after he graduated and took another year for it to actually get published. It usually takes 4-5 years of sending out your work to different publishers and hoping it gets picked up. Many people never succeed. Richard did it in one year.”
Blanco’s first collection, City of a Hundred Fires, won the Agnes Lunch Starrett Poetry Prize from the University of Pittsburgh. He went on to receive a prestigious “Beyond Margins Award” from PEN, the international writers’ organization, in recognition of his work. Some 130 books of poetry by writers of color were nominated for the 2006 awards; Blanco’s second book of poetry, Directions to the Beach of the Dead, published in 2005, was one of five winners. His third collection, Looking for the Gulf Motel, was published in 2012.
With the crush of media attention, the coming week will be a whirlwind for Blanco, who must compose three poems, from which the White House will select one. Through Bailly on Wednesday, Blanco said he wasn’t immediately available for interview because he was busy working on his third poem.
“Richard will need to write a poem that speaks to all of us as Americans,” said McGrath, who wrote and delivered the inaugural poem for President Mark Rosenberg’s installation ceremony. “It will be uplifting and speak in powerful terms to everyone. This type of poem is difficult to write. It’s an honor to Richard to read the inaugural poem, but it’s a big challenge.”
Bailly has insights into what might be happening with Blanco as he completes his trio of poems. The two have worked together in an artistic collaboration for years. In 2006, they began a two-year project that resulted in an art and poetry exhibit that traveled from Miami Dade Public Library to the University of Maine Museum of Art and is now on display in the FIU Office of the Provost, the Green Library and the Honors College. One of the works in that exhibit is an ink portrait of Blanco that Bailly painted in 2007. It’s hanging in Honors College Conference room alongside the Blanco Poem, Some Days the Sea. Blanco uses that portrait on his homepage: richard-blanco.com.
“I got to see the way Richard works,” Bailly said. “He would send one poem in 10 different versions. Rewrite them over and over. It was an obsessive and beautiful thing. I know because of a similar experience, that struggle is what makes the poems great.”
While Blanco’s selection was widely hailed by national media for its many firsts – first Latino, first gay man, youngest ever – it was being recognized locally as a point of pride for the institution that has been a constant in Blanco’s life.
“In South Florida, people know we’re an excellent writing program with great faculty and successful alumni. But how do you let the rest of the world know?” McGrath said. “Richard will be standing on the steps of the Capitol reading to millions of people in America and worldwide. This is an amazing platform to tell the rest of the world who FIU is.”
Creative Writing Director Les Standiford noted that Blanco is one of a long line of successful FIU MFA graduates. They include fiction writer Dennis Lehane, poet Elisa Albo and author Sandra Rodriguez Barron.
“We’ve been touting Richard as one of our best for a long time now, and if anyone has ever wondered why, here is a reminder,” Standiford said. “And did I mention that it couldn’t have happened to a finer guy?”
To see poetry being showcased through Blanco is also significant, said English Department Chair James Sutton.
“A lot of times, folks ask, ‘What does poetry do? Why is it important?’ ” said Sutton. “Most Americans don’t read poetry every day. To have Richard read his poem at the inauguration is a significant moment, because it shows Americans that poetry does matter and it needs to be paid attention to.”
–By Deborah O’Neil MA ’09 and Evelyn Perez
Related: NPR interview with Richard Blanco