Alumnus Richard Blanco ’91, MFA ’97 will take to the steps of the United States embassy in Havana Aug. 14 as the American flag is raised in Cuba for the first time in more than 54 years.
The poet earned national acclaim in 2013 when President Barack Obama selected Blanco to read an original poem at his second inauguration, making Blanco only the fifth inaugural poet in the nation’s history. He was the youngest person ever selected for the honor, the first immigrant and the first Latino. In fact, he is Cuban-American.
The latest honor, to compose and deliver a new poem for the reopening of the U.S. embassy in Cuba, will be an honor all his own.
“It’s one of the most of emotional and complex poems I’ve ever had to write,” Blanco told MSNBC this week. “It seems like so much of what all my writing has been about leading up to this very moment, the negotiation of cultural identities. This just seems so surreal still. This is really in some sense just the beginning, the dawn of new things to come. I’ve always felt like my heart has been split between two countries, two heritages, two loyalties. And so the poem is in a way reconciling that part of me, personally.”
Blanco said he believes poetry has the ability to bring people together, creating an emotional place of reconciliation. Blanco first came to the United States in 1968 — only 45 days old — from Spain with his Cuban-born parents. He grew up in Miami, a child of exile.
He 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. But his artistic spirit led him back to FIU in the early 1990s, only this time it was the Department of English’s Creative Writing Program.
Blanco’s first class was also the first class taught at FIU by then-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. It was in his class that Blanco caught the poetry bug.
“Cuba has a very rich literary and poetic tradition, including that of Jose Marti. Richard can attest to what it means to be Cuban and what it means to be an American,” McGrath said. “When you have both countries returning to this level of positive communication, it makes sense to have Richard there.”
Through his writings, Blanco explores the collective American experience of cultural negotiation through the lens of family and love. This includes how his mother’s life was 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.
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.
FIU recently launched the Richard Blanco Fellowship in Creative Writing to honor the alumnus and celebrate the Creative Writing Program’s 25th anniversary. The fellowship, which is currently in the fundraising stage, will support master’s students in the program.
“As I look back on my education, I realize FIU truly prepared me in mind, spirit and heart to be all I can be in my professional and personal life,” Blanco said. “I hope the fellowship we have created will help many students like myself achieve their fullest potential and dream big.”
Evelyn S. Perez contributed to this story.