Hometown: Poet Richard Blanco Discusses Home, American Identity

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Courtesy Timothy Greenfield-Sanders
Courtesy Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

For poet Richard Blanco, one question has fueled his occupation: What does it mean to be home?

Blanco spoke at the College of William & Mary on Tuesday to an audience of students and members of the community. He read nine of his poems, and also discussed their meanings and his motivation as a writer.

Conceived in Cuba, born in Spain, and immigrated to the U.S. when he was 45 days old, Blanco went on to be the fifth poet in American history to recite at a presidential inauguration Jan. 21 for the second inauguration of President Obama. At age 44, Blanco is also the youngest poet to hold the distinction.

Welcoming about 50 guests to the evening’s talk, Vernon Hurte, director of the Center for Student Diversity at the college, commented on the many facets of Blanco’s character.

“He is a unique being, in that he has been able to bring the various elements of his identity into his work,” Hurte said.

Blanco, who is also gay, said his work has been a quest to answer the critical questions: “What is home?” and “Where do I belong?”

He said his is a transcendent story—one that can reach beyond his own life. Poetry, he believes, is like a mirror. To his audience, he said, “Hopefully you will see yourself in that mirror.”

Blanco interwove his poetry reading with family history and personal anecdotes.

His poems traced from a childhood spent in Miami, isolated in a Cuban community who needed to be convinced to serve turkey for Thanksgiving dinner, to the dissatisfaction of moving to a New England that did not match the 1960s sitcoms, to finally feeling a sense of belonging on the stage for the inauguration.

At that moment, Blanco said, “I realized I’ve been home all along.”

William & Mary Professor Nancy Schoenberger, who teaches creative writing and screenwriting, said it was an honor to have Blanco at the college.

He taught a master class to writing students prior to the evening reading, and Schoenberger called him a “born teacher.” She explained Blanco has a special talent for finding the emotional heart of a poem, which was apparent both during his class and during the public reading.

Blanco talks with a William & Mary student after the event
Blanco talks with a William & Mary student after the event.

After the event, Blanco stated he was happy to be a part of William & Mary’s Diversity Speaker Series. He said he is taking as many opportunities as he can to travel around the country and connect America with poetry.

Rather than a highbrow or inaccessible form of literature, Blanco argued poetry is a living art, one that has the power to join us as a nation.

“I think poetry is a way to bring communities together,” he said. Blanco called it a way for the U.S. to have a dialogue and visit around a virtual campfire for discussion.

His work was inspired by a tightknit community and Blanco said poetry is very much still relevant to the issues faced across American and in our own “home.”