It’s a rather auspicious date for poet Richard Blanco’s prestigious appointment: his namesake, 37th president Richard Nixon, was born 100 years ago today. The 44-year-old poet, born of Cuban parents, took the name of a Republican leader who railed against Fidel Castro. Now he’s been chosen as the inaugural poet for a Democratic President’s second swearing-in.
Blanco is a wellspring of demographics: he’s an under-50 gay Hispanic born in Spain, later raised in Miami and now living with his partner in a rural Maine town at the foot of the White Mountains. He’s also a civil engineer, teacher and award-winning poet who waxes often of home and family. “Richard Blanco is a good choice,” says English Professor Grace Bauer, who specializes in contemporary poetry at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. “Blanco’s poems speak eloquently of the immigrant experience, which is, of course, the American experience.”
So far the headlines are trumpeting the biographical trailblazing of this fifth inaugural bard, as President Obama’s team no doubt anticipated. Robert Frost was the first inaugural poet, reciting “The Gift Outright” at JFK’s ceremony in 1961. Maya Angelou became the first black and first female inaugural poet at Bill Clinton’s affair in 1993. Now, following Miller Williams and Elizabeth Alexander, Blanco will go down in history as the “youngest-ever Inaugural poet and the first Hispanic or LGBT person to recite a poem at the swearing-in ceremony,” a factoid trumpeted at the top of the inaugural committee’s press release.
Though Blanco will craft a work especially for the occasion, here is a taste of his style from his first published poem, “América,” a piece that highlights the complexities of identity in the big ol’ melting pot that we call the U.S. of A.:
I spoke English; my parent’s didn’t.
We didn’t live in a two story house
with a maid or a wood panel station wagon
nor vacation camping in Colorado.
None of the girls had hair of gold;
none of my brothers or cousins
were named Greg, Peter, or Marsha;
we were not the Brady Bunch.
None of the black and white characters
on Donna Reed or on Dick Van Dyke Show
were named Guadalupe, Lázaro, or Mercedes.
Patty Duke’s family wasn’t like us either–
they didn’t have pork on Thanksgiving,
they ate turkey with cranberry sauce;
they didn’t have yuca, they had yams
like the dittos of Pilgrims I colored in class.
Blanco published his third book of poetry, Looking for the Gulf Motel, last year. One reviewer said of the work that “both social and cultural marginalization are mapped onto an island of individual identity.” That’s the type of sentence that will inspire a lot of eye-rolling about the pretensions of liberal arts majors, but it also explains why Blanco is a deft choice. Showing his fast embrace of previously marginalized Americans was a major theme at Obama’s Democratic Convention; it’s a tacit argument that the country’s tapestry is fundamentally changing and liberals are hip to the program. Obama’s selection says, “Marsha, meet Guadalupe.”
Blanco, of course, is more than just the demographic boxes he checks. But his position on the program sends an unsubtle message about Obama’s America — coming at the beginning of a term in which he’s promised to reform immigration laws. “I’m honored that Richard Blanco will join me and Vice President Biden at our second Inaugural,” President Obama said in a statement. “His contributions to the fields of poetry and the arts have already paved a path forward for future generations of writers. Richard’s writing will be wonderfully fitting for an Inaugural that will celebrate the strength of the American people and our nation’s great diversity.”