WASHINGTON — From the moment Barack Obama burst onto the political scene, poet Richard Blanco, a son of Cuban exiles, felt “a spiritual connection” with the man who would become the nation’s 44th president, he says.
Like Obama, who chronicled his multicultural upbringing in a best-selling autobiography, “Dreams From My Father,” Blanco has been on a quest for personal identity through the written word. He said his affinity for Obama springs from his own feeling of straddling different worlds; he is Latino and gay (and worked as a civil engineer while pursuing poetry). His poems are laden with longing for the sights and smells of the land his parents left behind.
Now Obama is about to pluck Blanco out of the relatively obscure and quiet world of poetry and put him on display before the world. On Wednesday the president’s inaugural planners announced that Blanco is to be the 2013 inaugural poet, joining the ranks of notables like Robert Frost and Maya Angelou.
“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,” Blanco said in a telephone interview from the rural village of Bethel, Maine, 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.”
Blanco, who grew up in Miami, must now compose an original poem for the president’s ceremonial swearing-in on the steps of the Capitol on Jan. 21. (Obama will take the official oath at the White House on Jan. 20, as required by the Constitution.) Addie Whisenant, the inaugural committee’s spokeswoman, said Obama picked Blanco because the poet’s “deeply personal poems are rooted in the idea of what it means to be an American.”
Blanco’s friends and fellow poets say the president could not have found a more perfect fit.
“I think he was chosen because his America is very similar to the president’s America,” said Liz Balmaseda, who met Blanco in the mid-1990s when he was emerging as a poet and she was working as a columnist for The Miami Herald. “You don’t have to be an exile, you don’t have to be Latino or gay to get the yearning in Richard’s poetry.”