Politics And Poetry
5:06 pm
Mon January 21, 2013

Richard Blanco, Inaugural Poet, Lived 'The Quintessential American Experience'

President Obama chose FIU graduate Richard Blanco as the 2013 Inaugural Poet.
President Obama chose FIU graduate Richard Blanco as the 2013 Inaugural Poet.
Credit Photo by Michael Upright

Richard Blanco is home now, back in Miami after a six-year journey that launched the award-winning poet and FIU double-graduate into what was supposed to be the “real America.”

“The great prodigal return,” he calls it, the irony evident in his voice – not only about the places he’s been, but about the place he’s come back to. The journey has shaped much of Blanco’s recent poetry, and his evolving sense of identity as a writer, as the son of Cuban immigrants and as an American.

Blanco, now 39, came to the United States in 1968 from Spain with his Cuban-born parents when he was 45 days old. He grew up in a Cuban neighborhood in Miami, worked in his uncle’s mercado, and learned all his parents’ stories about their lives in a Cuba he never knew, but to which he would someday return. Or so he was taught.

When he finally did visit Cuba, on a trip with his mother when he was in his late 20s, he was drawn to the people and places he had heard so much about, but he also experienced a keen sense of disappointment that the place that was supposed to be his true home, wasn’t.

In 1999, Blanco tried a different direction: this time north.

When many Cuban immigrants leave Miami to visit anywhere else in the United States, they say they’re “going to America.” The problem with that America – the one Blanco thought he knew from the Anglo TV shows he watched as a boy – is that once he was there, teaching at Central Connecticut State University, the idyllic America of his imagination didn’t exist any more than his parents’ native Havana – at least for him.

What he found instead was a complicated New England city – Hartford – working class, racially and ethnically mixed, dirty and deprived. “I was expecting sleigh rides, Jingle Bells,” he recalls. “Boy was I wrong.”

A child of exile

The struggle for him now, in what has been a lifelong search for home, is that the Miami of his childhood has been transformed from Cuba Norte into a “Pan-Latino” metropolis that, as Blanco wryly describes it, “changes every 24 hours.”

On the one hand, Blanco, acknowledges being frustrated, “robbed of my city,” and says he feels the way his parents must have felt when they were finally allowed back into Cuba to visit, decades after fleeing on one of the famous Freedom Flights in 1968.

On the other hand, Blanco recognizes that in many ways, his life as a child of exile – conceived in Havana, born in Madrid, raised in Miami – has been “the quintessential American experience.”

“There are real consequences to being a child of exile,” he says. “There’s always an absence of home. You have instilled in you a sense that home is this place you have to go back to, to regain, and you’re always looking for that place.”

That search has been a dominant theme in Blanco’s life, and in his work.

The old Miami, and what Blanco calls “the myth of a Cuban home,” have been the subjects of much of the poetry in his two published collections.

Since his return to South Florida, though – and to his career as a civil engineer, designing roads, parks and schools – the search has seemed less urgent. He’s found common cause in his dual careers as an engineer and as a poet – both, as he now sees, defined by issues of place and, through that, issues of identity.

And in a heady achievement announced late last year, Blanco received 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.

“The award taught me that I am a Cuban-American writer,” Blanco says. “It’s not what I write about, it’s who I am. I’m not just working on ‘Cuban stuff.’ And it’s the quality of my work that is significant, not just the subject matter.”

A poet’s journey

Blanco credits FIU – a near-constant for him, virtually since childhood – with helping launch both his careers. He lived half a mile from the campus while growing up in nearby Westchester, at the time a neighborhood in transition. “You could tell where the Anglos lived,” he jokes, “because there were still trees in their yards that weren’t for consumption.”

In 1986, he enrolled at FIU, and he graduated with a civil engineering degree in 1991. Two years later, uncertain about his vocation, and motivated by what he calls “naïve arrogance and creative impulse,” he applied for admission into FIU’s Masters of Fine Arts program in creative writing. He was turned down, but invited to take courses as a special student and reapply a year later.

So that’s what he did.

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 six books of poetry, most of America’s top poetry prizes, and a treasured MacArthur “Genius” grant.

Blanco and McGrath connected from the start.

Blanco describes McGrath as “the little editor in my head.” As for McGrath’s teaching style: “Just enough praise to give you confidence,” says Blanco, “but not too much to keep you from reaching.”

The first assignment on Blanco’s first day of class with McGrath was to write a poem about America. Blanco’s effort, “America,” later became the first poem in his first published collection, which won the prestigious Agnes Starrett National Poetry Prize in 1998 and was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press.

Blanco’s next assignment became the second poem in that book, and the pattern continued throughout McGrath’s inaugural poetry class and the classes that followed until Blanco graduated in 1997.

McGrath says he’s still impressed by Blanco’s accomplishments. “When Richard’s first book came out, it included every poem he wrote in those years,” he says. “I don’t get many students who will publish even one out of five of the poems they write for classes. What Richard did was remarkable.”

And what Blanco has done since then has been no less so, with the PEN and Starrett prizes, poems in “Best American Poetry,” and numerous other grants, fellowships, and awards. He has helped boost the FIU MFA program, already recognized for its prominent faculty, into the top tier of creative writing programs in America. And he has continued to see his alma mater – and McGrath – as touchstones for support in what can be the lonely business of poetry.

Blanco recently called McGrath for advice as he pondered the next phase of his career on the heels of the PEN Beyond Margins award.

“I call Campbell at least once a year when I’m freaking out,” Blanco says. “We have lunch and he picks me up for another year of writing poetry.”   

This article was reprinted with permission from FIU Magazine. Steve Watkins teaches creative writing, journalism, and Vietnam War literature at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va. He is the author of a non-fiction book, The Black O: Racism and Redemption in an American Corporate Empire, and the recent short story collection My Chaos Theory.