Richard Blanco Announced as Inaugural Poet

  • submit to reddit

(Courtesy Richard Blanco)

The tradition of asking a poet to compose and recite a poem for the inauguration began in 1961 with John F. Kennedy, who asked Robert Frost. The idea has been revived twice — first by Bill Clinton, who invited Maya Angelou and then Miller Williams to speak at his first and second inaugurations, and again by Barack Obama, who invited Elizabeth Alexander to speak in January 2009, and now, Richard Blanco.

Blanco often writes in author statements that he was “made in Cuba, assembled in Spain, and imported to the United States” — meaning that he was conceived in Cuba by Cubans, who fled Fidel Castro and lived in Spain as exiles for 45 days, where Blanco was born, before continuing on to America. He was named for Richard Nixon, who took a strong stand against Castro (and who, TIME magazine points out, was born exactly 100 years before the day that Obama’s selection of Blanco was announced). Blanco will be both the first Latino and the first gay poet to read at a presidential inauguration. At 44, he’s also the youngest.

Addie Whisenant, the inaugural committee’s spokeswoman, told The New York Times that Mr. Obama picked Blanco because his “deeply personal poems are rooted in the idea of what it means to be an American.” In this YouTube video, Blanco reads his poem Betting on America:

As the inaugural poet, Blanco is charged with composing an original work for the occasion. On NPR’s Morning Edition Wednesday, Blanco described getting the call from his agent with the news while he was stuck in traffic. He began composing the poem immediately.

“I think I started writing it right there in my head on the way back home,” he said. “Images just started coming to me. What’s interesting, as I think every inaugural poet has said, it’s a very difficult assignment because it is an occasional poem. But […] writing about America is a topic that obsesses me in terms of cultural negotiation and my background as a Cuban American.”

In an interview with The New York Times, Blanco said he is especially honored to be the inaugural poet for this president.

“Since the beginning of the campaign, I totally related to his life story and the way he speaks of his family, and of course his multicultural background,” Mr. Blanco said in a telephone interview from the rural village of Bethel, Me., where he lives with his partner. “There has always been a spiritual connection in that sense. I feel in some ways that when I’m writing about my family, I’m writing about him.”

Obama will be sworn in for his second term on Jan. 21. He plans to take the oath of office with his hand on two Bibles — one owned by Martin Luther King, Jr. and one owned by Abraham Lincoln. The president picked Myrlie Evers-Williams, widow of the civil rights leader Medgar Evers, to deliver the invocation at his swearing-in. Her husband was assassinated 50 years ago, when he was serving as the NAACP’s Mississippi field secretary. The pastor Obama selected to deliver the benediction, Louie Giglio, pulled out of the ceremonies Thursday after Think Progress uncovered a recording of an anti-gay sermon he delivered in the mid-1990s.

  • submit to reddit