Wednesday, January 9, 2013


Photo by Denise Low 2012
The choice of Richard Blanco as 2013 presidential inauguration poet illustrates the deep field of fine poets in America today. Blanco has three books out, all from university presses, not major publishers. University of Pittsburgh Press published Looking for The Gulf Motel (2012), and he toured recently reading from this book. One stop was Kansas City’s The Writer’s Place on Sept. 16 where I saw him (and bought his book). He was reading with fiction writer Fred Arroyo, and that Sunday afternoon readings was a highlight of the autumn.

His second book, Directions to The Beach of the Dead (Camino del Sol) from the University of Arizona Press (2005), won the PEN/Beyond Margins Aware; and City of a Hundred Fires (Cienfuegos) won the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize and was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press (1995).

Blanco engages his readers with his intimate voice. Ripples of memory wash through narratives, along with familiar scenery and images. The result is an apparently effortless voice-over that could narrate a biographical documentary. The vivid writing simulates a cinematic mode. Here is the first stanza of his recent book’s title poem:

Marco Island, Florida

 There should be nothing here I don't remember . . .

 The Gulf Motel with mermaid lampposts
and ship's wheel in the lobby should still be
rising out of the sand like a cake decoration.
My brother and I should still be pretending
we don't know our parents, embarrassing us
as they roll the luggage cart past the front desk
loaded with our scruffy suitcases, two-dozen
loaves of Cuban bread, brown bags bulging
with enough mangos to last the entire week,
our espresso pot, the pressure cooker--and
a pork roast reeking garlic through the lobby.
All because we can't afford to eat out, not even
on vacation, only two hours from our home
in Miami, but far enough away to be thrilled
by whiter sands on the west coast of Florida,
where I should still be for the first time watching
the sun set instead of rise over the ocean. . . .

 The poem continues for four stanzas with the refrain “There should be nothing here I don’t remember.” Blanco uses the conditional mood “should” throughout the poem, which works well in Spanish but usually not so well in English. He translates this effectively, so that by the end of the poem, his memories are both present and past: “I want to find The Gulf Motel exactly as it was/and pretend for a moment, nothing is lost.” Blanco successfully melds his two cultures (his parents are Cuban) as well as his two languages.

Paradox is one of the major themes in this poet’s works. “The Name I Wanted” is an autobiographical monologue about his choice of the name “Richard” over “Ricardo”: “Ricardo De Jesus Blanco, I dub thee myself/Sir Richard Jesus White.”

He also navigates his queer identity in “Queer Theory: According to My Grandmother.” He learns from her “You can’t wear cologne or puka shells/and I better not catch you in clogs.” Rules of conventional masculine behavior are clear in the mind of his abuela, but she loves him in her own way: “you will not look like a goddamn queer,/ I’ve seen you . . . / even if you are one.” His grandmother accepts his orientation in her own way, as she accepts the Miss America contest in “Betting on America”: Grandmother plays the bookie in that family scenario. In “Thicker Than Country,” he revels in the contradictions of “A Cuban like me living in Maine?”

He told New York Times reporter Sheryl Gay Stolberg about the conservatism of Cuban culture: “’It’s trying to understand how I fit between negotiating the world, between being mainstream gay and being Cuban gay.’”

Blanco is multi-talented—he has an engineering degree as well as an M.F.A. in poetry from Florida International University. Blanco’s website is:  Here is an NPR interview/reading with Blanco:!/photo.php?fbid=10151316800518419&set=a.168455698418.118948.575073418&type=1&permPage=1