There are pieces of acclaimed Miami-reared poet Richard Blanco — gay, immigrant, Hispanic — that have helped the nation define him. But they have also confined him. That may be changing.
Blanco came to the nation’s attention in January, when, as the U.S. Presidential Inaugural Poet, he helped usher in President Obama’s second term with a poem written for the nationally televised occasion, “One Today.” Much was made of the symbolism in the White House’s decision to pick the relatively unknown Blanco, born in Madrid 45 years ago to Cuban exiles who subsequently resettled in Miami.
“One Today” was hailed for its plainspoken universality and optimism. Blanco says the experience continues to resonate in his life (his hectic reading schedule includes appearances in Fort Lauderdale on Saturday, Miami on Sunday and Manalapan on May 1), but more importantly in how he’s thinking about his work.
“It has opened a creative pathway for me,” Blanco says by phone from an airport in Portland, Ore. “I have always looked at things through the lens of being a Cuban-American in America. But this [the Inaugural reading of “One Today”] has opened a creative avenue for me to think bigger, about America, in a way that I have never given myself permission to speak. Of course, the immigrant story is a great American story.”
If there is anyone equipped to build metaphorical bridges in the contemporary debate over gays and immigrants in American society it is Blanco, who is a civil engineer by day. For the past five years he’s focused on city planning and “urban village revitalization,” including a major project in South Miami.
“I find there’s a nice, peculiar balance” between poetry and engineering, he says. “As an engineer, I create three-dimensional spaces that people walk into. As a poet, I create three-dimensional places for people to imagine themselves in.”
Blanco’s latest book of poetry, “Looking for the Gulf Motel,” is a personal collection of snapshots of life growing up and coming out in South Florida, but they resonate in ways that transcend geography and sexuality. Family, friendships and the folly of youth are celebrated. Death, prejudice and the loss of homeland (Cuba) are mourned.
Blanco says Saturday’s reading at the Museum of Art, Fort Lauderdale will feature his “greatest hits,” including two poems that have produced a surprising response from audiences, he says.
“One is ‘Killing Mark’, which is a poem about my partner. It’s a humorous look at myself and him, and our differences. He’s always a half-hour late for everything,” Blanco says. “I thought it was a very gay-themed poem, but everyone has responded to it. Senior citizens, straight couples, lesbian couples. It’s really a poem about relationships. There’s always one partner who’s early and one who’s late.”
The other is “Queer Theory: According to My Grandmother,” which Blanco describes as “an angry poem” that lists his grandmother’s many admonitions to a young Blanco, including this passage:
Don’t watch “Bewitched” or “I Dream of Jeannie.”
Don’t stare at “The Six-Million Dollar Man.”
I’ve seen you …
Never dance alone in your room:
Donna Summer, Barry Manilow, the Captain
and Tennille, Bette Midler and all musicals —
Posters of kittens and “Star Wars,” or the Eiffel Tower —
“It has connected in an amazing way,” Blanco says. “Everybody has someone in the family who loves you the wrong way, who rejects you in the name of love.”
Saturday’s reading will be followed by a Q&A session that includes an element that distinguishes this appearance from all others: The Museum of Art has in its collection a large portrait of Blanco taken by Miami artist and photographer Carlos Betancourt. The photo, titled "Magic City (Ciudad mágica)," depicts a shirtless, perhaps anguished Blanco on the beach, his torso and face inked and painted in text and symbols. (A detail of the photo is shown above.)
Blanco says the photo is part of a series of images he took with his former partner on Miami Beach more than a decade ago. Blanco is looking forward to seeing the image, and excited about the discussion.
“Carlos and I talked about creating these fractured scenes of identity,” Blanco says. “The bits and pieces that I try to braid together in my work, he wants to break apart to show all the things we are made of, psychologically, emotionally, sexually. … I’m eager to speak about that, and the interesting metamorphosis we all go through, putting on a mask trying to become someone else.”
IF YOU GO
Richard Blanco will read and discuss his works at three upcoming appearances around South Florida:
Saturday: Blanco will read at the Museum of Art, Fort Lauderdale (1 E. Las Olas Blvd.) during a 6 p.m. appearance inside the museum’s Horvitz Auditorium. The evening includes an audience Q&A, followed by a book-signing for “Looking for the Gulf Motel” at Books and Books at the Museum in the adjacent lobby. Tickets cost $10, but are free with the purchase of “Looking for the Gulf Motel.” To enter the signing line, you must purchase your book at Books and Books at the Museum. Info: 954-262-0255, firstname.lastname@example.org and MOAFL.org.
Sunday: The New World Center Symphony Hall (500 17th St., Miami Beach) will be the setting for a 7 p.m. appearance as part of the month-long O, Miami poetry festival. Also reading that night: Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Megan Amram of NBC’s “Parks and Recreation” and Twitter. Tickets: $20, $30 (with tote gift bag) and $50 (with tote gift bag and copy of Blanco's inaugural poem, “One Today”). Info: Omiami.org.
May 1: Blanco will read during the Plum Blush of Dusk Soiree for the 25th anniversary celebration of the Palm Beach County Human Rights Council, beginning at 7:30 p.m. at the Ritz-Carlton Palm Beach (100 S. Ocean Blvd., Manalapan). Tickets: $40, $250 VIP (includes pre-reading meet-and-greet reception). Info: 561-586-0203, PBCHRC.org.
Photo: Detail from "Magic City (Ciudad mágica)," by Carlos Betancourt, courtesy the Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale