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Obama taps Latino poet for inauguration

CNN Wire Service | 1/18/2013, 8:17 a.m.

Richard Blanco, the poet who likes to describe himself as being made in Cuba, assembled in Spain and imported to the United States, will serve as the inaugural poet when President Barack Obama takes the oath of office for a second term this month.

Blanco will be the first Latino, the first openly gay person and the youngest poet to serve in the highly coveted role.

A statement from the inaugural committee said Blanco was chosen because the power of his poetry is rooted in American identity.

"Richard's writing will be wonderfully fitting for an inaugural that will celebrate the strength of the American people and our nation's great diversity," Obama said in a statement Wednesday that announced his selection.

With that announcement, Blanco will surely be catapulted to fame in the vein of Natasha Trethewey, 46, who this year was chosen to become the nation's poet laureate, the youngest and first African American to fill that prestigious post.

"I'm beside myself, bestowed with this great honor, brimming over with excitement, awe, and gratitude," Blanco, 44, said in a statement.

"In many ways, this is the very 'stuff' of the American Dream, which underlies so much of my work and my life's story--America's story, really," he said. "I am thrilled by the thought of coming together during this great occasion to celebrate our country and its people through the power of poetry."

Blanco was conceived in Cuba to parents who fled Fidel Castro's authoritarian rule. He was born in Madrid, but grew up in the United States, living first in New York and then in Miami.

His first book of poetry, "City of a Hundred Fires," was all about a Cuban-American immigrant's quest to define a cultural identity. It won the prestigious Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize from the University of Pittsburgh.

But his musings on identity led him to writing, and he enrolled in a master's program in fine arts and creative writing at Florida International University. His mentor there was Campbell McGrath, who himself has written several books of poetry.

Even before McGrath had moved from Chicago to start a teaching job in Florida, he received a letter from Blanco.

"I'm not a poet, but would you let me into your class?" Blanco asked McGrath.

McGrath thought Blanco sounded ambitious, but the very first poem he wrote in class, "America," became the first poem in "City of a Hundred Fires."

"From the get-go, his poems were good enough to be published," McGrath said.
He brought to his poetry the structural, analytical abilities of an engineer. He was able to go beyond the beauty of the words, to look beneath the surface and examine the engineering of the poem, McGrath said.

But more than anything, McGrath felt that the power in Blanco's poems lie in the universal messages he conveys. Yes, he writes about identity, but he does so in a deeply personal way: through family and relationships.

Obama's inaugural team has asked Blanco to write three poems, McGrath said, from which they will choose one for him to read out on the steps of the Capitol on Jan. 21 at Obama's swearing-in ceremony.

There have been only five inaugural poets in American history. Robert Frost was the first at President John Kennedy's 1961 inauguration. The others were Maya Angelou in 1993 for Bill Clinton; Miller Williams in 1997, again for Clinton; Alexander in 2009; and now, Blanco.