When President Barack Obama selected Richard Blanco to serve as the Fifth Presidential Inaugural Poet, he was aware that he was setting an important precedent and tone for his term: Blanco, being the youngest poet to ever fulfil this post, is also an immigrant, Latino, and gay. His poem “One Today” expresses America as a place where the power and beauty of our country is reflected in the contributions, struggles, and histories of its unique inhabitants. This poem opened the door for further “firsts” in a country hopeful to grow in awareness and compassion.
Awareness and compassion are two of the most pressing themes in Blanco’s poems, which explore, among other things, his unique background: his parents emigrated from Cuba to Madrid, Spain, while his mother was seven months pregnant with him. He was born in Madrid, and before he turned one, they would emigrate again, this time to New York City. They finally settled in Miami, with other Cuban exiles, and Blanco grew up hearing about the culture and traditions of his parents’ homeland often. This would later inspire him to visit Cuba, and he would write his first book of poetry about his experiences as a Cuban-American, in touching detail on this life-changing trip.
Growing up, Blanco excelled at math and science in school, and in college he studied to become a civil engineer. In his twenties, he finally decided to follow his creative passion and went back to school to get his Masters of Fine Arts in poetry. The rest, you could say, is history. He has written and published numerous collections of poetry since his first one, City of a hundred fires, came out in 1998; in 2015, he wrote a memoir about his childhood in Miami called The Prince of Los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood. In addition to his literary pursuits, he is a prolific public speaker and for a long time continued to work as a civil engineer. His writing has won dozens of awards, including the International Latino Award for Best Biography, the Thom Gunn Award for Gay Poetry, and the PEN/Beyond Margins Award. He has been awarded an Honorary Doctor of Letters, the equivalent to a PhD, from five American universities. Currently, Blanco and his partner Dr. Mark Neveu live in Maine.
Part of what makes Blanco’s writing so engaging and evocative is its balance of the personal with the communal. Whether he is exploring the painful longing for a homeland, bridging the disparate traditions of two countries, or navigating his sexual identity in a country that only recently legalized gay marriage, the complexity and beauty of our individual and shared identities shape his writing in a way that welcomes us generously. “We all belong to the sea between us,” he was quoted as saying of Cubans and Americans. For Blanco, this sea could also be said to include the everflowing, powerful tide of words.