The town planning board in Bethel, Maine, isn’t the most obvious perch for a gay Latino poet from southern Florida, but Richard Blanco’s literary reputation rests on his being pulled in many directions at once. Organizers of President Obama’s second inauguration announced last week that Blanco, 44, would read a poem at the ceremony. Blanco is the Obama coalition embodied; he represents not just demographic groups but also geographic areas that came through for the incumbent in November. But the deeper affinity is between Blanco’s verse and Obama’s own prose: Both hint that the writer’s life could have taken plenty of other paths.
Blanco’s playful official bio declares that he was “made in Cuba, assembled in Spain, and imported to the United States” — which is to say, his mother left home while seven months pregnant, gave birth in Madrid, and eventually raised Blanco in Miami. According to family lore, The New York Times reported, his resolutely anti-Castro father named him for Richard Nixon. Told to choose among law, medicine, and engineering, he trained at Florida International University as an civil engineer and worked on roads and bridges.
In his 20s, news articles indicate, he found a gift for poetry, went back to school, took a variety of teaching positions, and eventually published three books. But for years he continued work as an engineer. After moving to Maine with his partner in 2009 he immersed himself in the nuts-and-bolts side of civic life. Around rural Bethel, he was modest about his writing career; “he kind of kept it to himself,” a town planning official told the Portland Press-Herald.
Perhaps because Blanco has kept a foot outside the literary world, his writing seems refreshingly light on pretension or willful abstruseness. He let a friend use his poems in her book “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing Poetry.” Accompanied by an avatar showing Blanco with an open-neck shirt and a beefy forearm, his social-media posts late last week seemed torn between disbelief at his sudden celebrity and anxiety at the task of writing a good poem for such a high-profile setting.
Blanco is only the fifth poet to be asked to write for a presidential inauguration, making him a successor to the likes of Robert Frost and Maya Angelou. And if not for Blanco’s unusual example, there would be no overlap between Bethel’s Committee for Sign Ordinance Reform and the writers featured in the charitable “Most Intriguing (and Sensual) Male Poets Calendar of 2006.” Such an intersection of talent seems all the more remarkable in an age of increasing specialization — when one might be expected to disgorge insightful poems or workable site plans, but never both.