Inaugural Poet Richard Blanco On Closets and Miami’s Gay Culture
Over the past two months, there’s been a lot of media coverage about Richard Blanco, the fifth poet to be featured at the inauguration of the President of the U.S. Much of it centered on his identity. Son of Cuban exiles. Cuban-American immigrant who grew up working class in Miami. Young—forty-four years old. Openly gay.
“I’m so used to wearing many hyphens,” Blanco said. He spoke with The Mirror over the phone from his home in Maine, where he lives with his longtime partner, Mark Neveu.
For most of us in South Florida, Blanco’s background could be anyone’s background. The community is built on diversity. What is unfamiliar—to see Blanco representing this diversity at President Obama’s second inauguration, reading his poem, “One Today,” to the world.
“The mere fact that I was up there, that I was chosen, made a statement in and of itself,” Blanco reflected. “I feel comfortable in being multifaceted and I felt it was important that people…see who I am.”
In an email, Blanco’s friend of twenty years, Nikki Moustaki, described what it was like to watch him read at the inauguration ceremony.
“I was so nervous for him because I wanted him to do well—and he did! I was sitting in-between his partner, Mark, who had tears streaming down his face, and Beyonce’s mom. It was a surreal experience,” she shared. “I just said a little prayer that he wouldn’t stumble over any words or get too choked up to keep reading. ‘One Today’ is a very deep poem with a lot going on inside of it, and it’s easy to get emotional when reading it.”
Herb Sosa, President of Unity Coalition|Coalición Unida, a local Latino/Hispanic/LGBT organization, noted Blanco’s influence on LGBT Hispanics: “Seeing someone you can relate to in that position of equality, honor and respect—that looks like you, sounds like you…is always good for how we view ourselves as a community…What the LGBT & Hispanic community can and should see is a mirror of themselves and a glimpse of hope for what can be for each and every one of us—a seat, voice and face at the national table.”
Blanco “came out of the literary closet” as a Cuban-American gay man with Looking for the Gulf Motel. In his other books, his poems stayed “gender neutral.”
“I almost had to exhaust [the issue of cultural identity negotiation], before I could move into issues of sexual identity,” Blanco said. “Possibly the cultural identity was less scary to write about…. Perhaps I needed more maturity to write about myself as a gay man. I just had to walk into it when the time was right.”
In an email interview with The Mirror, poet Campbell McGrath, who taught Blanco at Florida International University’s M.F.A. program and became his mentor, observed that “Looking for the Gulf Motel is really where [Blanco] embraces his identity as a gay man…that’s part of the reason it’s such a wonderful book—the voice is so honest, liberated, compassionate, empowered.”
Blanco traveled a difficult path to get to this place of empowerment.
His recent essay on Huffington Post, “Making a Man Out of Me,” relates the story of how his grandmother abused him: “I became afraid to love, because no one could truly love a faggot like me.”
When asked by The Mirror about the experience of writing with such openness, Blanco replied: “I probably cried through it a couple times…[but] when I feel a story needs to be told, there’s no remorse or shame, I just go for it.” He is also motivated to write about personal subjects when he envisions that “someone will connect with this in a way that’s positive.”
Many years before Blanco fully came out in his writing, he came out as a gay man in Miami. He valued his experiences with gay culture here.
“I’d much rather dance salsa, than any kind of circuit party. I miss that element evident in South Florida, that cultural layer superimposed on our gay community. It makes for a more diverse, interesting community.”
When asked about LGBT writers and literary influences, Blanco named Peter Covino, an Italian-American poet; the “beautiful Walt Whitman poems”; transgender poet, Eli Shipley; and Elizabeth Bishop—“I have a closeness to her as an artist and with her life story in many many ways.”
Currently, Blanco is working on a memoir about growing up in Miami, a “cultural, sexual and artistic coming out story, all woven into one.” He found there is “more room… to have fun, and laugh when writing a memoir.”
When asked about any imminent visits to Miami, he only disclosed there are “lots of possibilities.”
“I am really yearning to go back to my home away from home,” he added. “I miss everyone dearly and I’m dying to come visit, to ground myself in that city of cities.”
One sun rose on us today, kindled over our shores,
peeking over the Smokies, greeting the faces
of the Great Lakes, spreading a simple truth
across the Great Plains, then charging across the Rockies.
One light, waking up rooftops, under each one, a story
told by our silent gestures moving across windows.
My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors,
each one yawning to life, crescendoing into our day:
pencil-yellow school buses, the rhythm of traffic lights,
fruit stands: apples, limes, and oranges arrayed like rainbows
begging our praise. Silver trucks heavy with oil or paper –
bricks or milk, teeming over highways alongside us,
on our way to clean tables, read ledgers, or save lives –
to teach geometry, or ring up groceries as my mother did
for twenty years, so I could write this poem for all of us today.
All of us as vital as the one light we move through,
the same light on blackboards with lessons for the day:
equations to solve, history to question, or atoms imagined,
the “I have a dream” we all keep dreaming,
or the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won’t explain
the empty desks of twenty children marked absent
today, and forever. Many prayers, but one light
breathing color into stained glass windows,
life into the faces of bronze statues, warmth
onto the steps of our museums and park benches
as mothers watch children slide into the day.
One ground. Our ground, rooting us to every stalk
of corn, every head of wheat sown by sweat
and hands, hands gleaning coal or planting windmills
in deserts and hilltops that keep us warm, hands
digging trenches, routing pipes and cables, hands
as worn as my father’s cutting sugarcane
so my brother and I could have books and shoes.
The dust of farms and deserts, cities and plains
mingled by one wind — our breath. Breathe. Hear it
through the day’s gorgeous din of honking cabs,
buses launching down avenues, the symphony
of footsteps, guitars, and screeching subways,
the unexpected song bird on your clothes line.
Hear: squeaky playground swings, trains whistling,
or whispers across cafe tables, Hear: the doors we open
each day for each other, saying: hello, shalom,
buon giorno, howdy, namaste, or buenos días
in the language my mother taught me — in every language
spoken into one wind carrying our lives
without prejudice, as these words break from my lips.
One sky: since the Appalachians and Sierras claimed
their majesty, and the Mississippi and Colorado worked
their way to the sea. Thank the work of our hands:
weaving steel into bridges, finishing one more report
for the boss on time, stitching another wound
or uniform, the first brush stroke on a portrait,
or the last floor on the Freedom Tower
jutting into the sky that yields to our resilience.
One sky, toward which we sometimes lift our eyes
tired from work: some days guessing at the weather
of our lives, some days giving thanks for a love
that loves you back, sometimes praising a mother
who knew how to give, or forgiving a father
who couldn’t give what you wanted.
We head home: through the gloss of rain or weight
of snow, or the plum blush of dusk, but always, always — home,
always under one sky, our sky. And always one moon
like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop
and every window, of one country — all of us –
facing the stars
hope — a new constellation
waiting for us to map it,
waiting for us to name it — together.