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Inaugural poet addresses CLC audience

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Growing up as a “barely middle class” immigrant in Miami, poet Richard Blanco said there were pressures that led him toward the practical choice of an engineering degree. He’s worked, on and off, for 20 years in that field, but most Americans know him as one of only five poets to be asked to read his work at a presidential inauguration.

“One Today,” the poem he wrote for President Barack Obama’s 2013 presidential inauguration, catapulted Blanco to the forefront of American poets and brought his earlier publications recognition that other poets might work a lifetime to achieve.

“It’s interesting” he said Friday at a brunch that preceded his Central Lakes College poetry reading at Chalberg Theatre. “It’s really the same poetry.”

Describing himself as an A and B student who was interested in just about everything, Blanco said he was always drawn to the beauty of language. On lunch hours at his day job he would write poems, eventually returning to a Miami-Dade County junior college where he took creative writing classes and interacted with vibrant, fun students.

“It was where I first got my feet wet,” he said of his junior college experience.

Eventually, he received a master’s degree in fine arts and last week, he received his first honorary degree, a honorary doctorate from Macalester College.

“I always thought poetically,” he said. “Images ... rather than long story-telling.”

He said he liked the immediate gratification a writer could achieve from completing a poem.

Many people, he said, have a disdain for poetry because of a misconception that the genre is often inaccessible. Yet, he finds when people are exposed to good poetry it receives a great, if somewhat surprised response.

“Wow, I understand that poem,” is a comment he’s heard from people discovering poetry.

Blanco, a resident of Bethel, Maine, said it wasn’t until after earning his bachelor’s degree that he ever read a living, contemporary poet.

“That’s not right,” he said. “That’s pretty sad.” He said there is a vicious cycle that gets repeated because teachers who never felt comfortable with poetry are reluctant to teach it to their students.

While Blanco had received honors and acclaim for his poetry, it paled in comparison to the recognition that followed his selection to be an inaugural poet.

When he received a text from his agent that he had been chosen, he initially thought it was a joke. However, once the reality of the honor set in he said his thoughts went to his parents and grandparents and the sacrifices they had made for him. He went to the best schools as a child, he recalled, even if that meant the family ate mostly rice and beans.

In his poetry reading Blanco said he was “made in Cuba, assembled in Spain and imported to the United States.” His mother was seven months pregnant when she and the family left Cuba for Madrid. Forty-five days after his birth the family moved to New York City and then later to Miami where he was raised.

“My first baby picture is my picture on my green card, which I still have.”

Blanco was the youngest, the first Latino and the first openly gay person to serve as a presidential inaugural poet.

He told the CLC audience that much of his work deals with the navigation of identification.

“Not just identification but belonging,” he said. Growing up in community where almost everyone was Cuban, the poet said he felt apart from the ideal America he saw on television describing his own Cuban-influenced world as a cultural purgatory. The line he often heard while growing up was “We like living in Miami because it’s so close to the United States.”

In an early poem, he wrote about an America in which he observed that “Everyone was white, cold and perfect.”

The question “where are you from?” is a theme of his poetry and a query that affects most people more than they realize, he said. He told the students in the audience they would likely come to the realization some day that their parents “are just like you, trying to do the best they can.”

Blanco’s poetry reading, meet-and-greet and book signing and poetry workshop were sponsored by the Central Lakes College Foundation, the Five Wing Arts Council and the state of Minnesota’s Legacy Fund.

In a limited question-and-answer session that followed the poetry reading he talked about preparing his inauguration poem.

He said it was the first poem he had ever written that would be heard and not read first. It had to be crystal clean, rhythmic, he said, devoid of tongue twisters. He practiced delivering the poem to snowmen in his rural Maine yard.

He said the Obama administration didn’t screen the poem or make any changes to it.

“It spoke to the amazing trust they had in me,” he said.

MIKE O’ROURKE, associate editor, may be reached at 855-5860 or mike.orourke@brainerddispatch.com. He may be followed at www.twitter.com/MikeORourkenews.

Mike O'Rourke
Mike O'Rourke began his career at the Brainerd Dispatch in 1978 as a general assignment reporter. He was named city editor in 1981 and associate editor in 1999. He covers politics and writes features and editorials.
(218) 855-5860
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