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PALABRAS: Inaugural Poet Richard Blanco Follows His Spirit, Creative Curiosities

First Posted: Nov 19, 2015 05:00 AM EST

This article is part of "Palabras," the Latin Post Latino Author Series. 

Richard Blanco, author of "City of a Hundred Fires" and "The Prince of Los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood," is "a reluctant poet" who habitually seizes the adoration of the American public with winning, relatable poetry. With a great deal of success under his belt already, the 47-year-old inaugural poet is just getting started.

Blanco was raised in the thick of Miami-Dade County, brought up by men and women who still thirsted for the island of Cuba. His memoir, "The Prince of Los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood" depicts him navigating those waters as a young Cuban-American, much like "Looking for the Gulf Motel" explored his understanding of being gay with regards to his ethnicity and the American mainstream. Nevertheless, no matter the topic, his writing tends to have a singular focus: browse the mysterious and the magical, and dig through ideas of home and belonging to find the answers to stubborn questions.

"At the core, it's about a sense of identity, place and belonging, and these are questions that are never really settled. They're never really resolved," Blanco told Latin Post. "So, I will continue to ask questions about what all those things mean in our life, the past, in the present and into the future. The treatment of my obsession with home may have evolved into more mature questions, but it's the same obsession. I don't know that I will every really figure it out, or if I'll move on to something else. Home superficially changes, so we always go to the past as a reference point."

When Blanco first began writing, he was an amateur who felt that he had to write like a "bunch of British dead white guys," and he frequently penned poems about birds, daffodils and other things typical to Anglo poetry. Then, he read "House on Mango Street" by Sandra Cisneros, and authors like Julia Alvarez and poet Jimmy Santiago Baca.

"They gave me emotional permission to write about my story, and made me realize that my story was a story worth telling because it was an honest one," said Blanco. "Not only is it worth telling, but it's universal. It made me realize the universality within the particulars of one's story. Reading them changed what I write about."

The author continued, saying he believes that young readers want and need writing that's relatable, immediate, contemporary, and "in context with one's life." He believes literature is taught backward. He stated, "We should teach from now, and then go back, and search for more distance or context students are in college, where we can, with more maturely, embrace things. In high school, we should be reading real life literature, and poets and writers that started in the same communities we're from. We should turn students on to literature early from that lens. And then we can go back and discuss where it comes from to establish some kind of continuity." 

With regards to his journey as a published author, he called it "a complete surprise" and called himself a "reluctant poet." Curious about every subject in school, including literature, if you would have told him in high school or grad school that he would be a poet today, he would have responded, "Yeah, whatever." However, in following his spirit and creative curiosities, he became interested in poetry and writing just as first started his career as an engineer.

"About 60 percent of my work at my engineering office was writing studies, reports and letters, and I really dove into language, and really looked at language in a way that I never had before," said Blanco. "It was a experience with language that I never had before. I saw language as something that was malleable or something that was alive. From that moment forward, I started diving into poetry as my main expression. I wanted to see what that would grow into. I'm not doing this as a career, but as a vocation and a calling."

Some of Blanco's proudest moments are fairly obvious and high profile. Writing a poem for the inauguration and reading it in front of 40 million people ("and pulling it off and not tripping over my words or over my feet") is certainly one of them. As well as making history in way that most people only dream about. Yet, there are other moments that inspire great pride. Completing his first book and his first poem, as well as the very first time he submitted his manuscript for publication. He still has the answering machine cassette tape that recorded the call from the University of Pittsburgh when they agree to publish his book. He also has the stub for $1,000 check that was sent to him.

"Those moments are great, but they're not what really keep you going," said Blanco. "It's the quiet moment that really make you understand, make you feel like what you're doing is worthwhile...and that's often at a poetry reading when a mother tells me about the death of her son, and how a particular poem offered her relief of closure. It's when housekeeping or hotel staff recognizes you and says, thank you for making me feel like i belong in this country. Those are the moments, the one-on-ones, those are the moments that make you feel like what you're doing is important. It's what keeps you going in many ways. Not the awards.  I'm not saying I don't appreciate those, but I don't strive for those, I do my personal best to make sure that my work is it's best."

The author has a number of projects in the works. In addition to helping high school and middle grade teachers learn how to teach poetry as the Education Ambassador for The Academy of American Poets, he's completing a fine art book with the photographer Jake Hessler. Together, they will produce a photograph and poem book about borders of all kinds: virtual, psychological, physical and overlapping. His children's book version of the inaugural poem was recently published. Also, his memoir was picked up by a producer, and could be produced as a television show. 

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