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Miami poet Richard Blanco finds belonging in 'Homeland of My Body'

Miami Muse: Poet Richard Blanco (left) receives the 2021 National Humanities Medal from President Joe Biden at the White House in Washington DC, March 21, 2023. (The ceremony was delayed two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.)
Susan Walsh
/
AP
Miami Muse: Poet Richard Blanco (left) receives the 2021 National Humanities Medal from President Joe Biden at the White House in Washington DC, March 21, 2023. (The ceremony was delayed two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.)

Richard Blanco's new poetry explores new muses, especially new notions of home. It moves from rediscovering oneself in Miami to rediscovering oneself beyond Miami.

Miami celebrates poet Richard Blanco not just because he recited his work at President Obama’s inauguration in 2013. Or because in 2021 he received the National Humanities Medal (along with literary luminaries like Amy Tan and Colson Whitehead). Or because last year he was named Miami-Dade County’s first poet laureate.

It’s because, say Blanco fans, he so vividly captures so many layers of the Miami soul — whether it's being a Cuban exile, coming out as gay or, as is so common in this transient subtropical city, surrendering to the urge to recreate oneself.

This week, Blanco, who now teaches creative writing at his alma mater, Florida International University, is releasing a volume of old and new poetry, titled Homeland of My Body. He spoke with me about how his new verse often explores new muses.

Those include especially, he said, finding belonging in middle age in the "sum total part of what 'home' is — digging deeper into the psyche" of what home means. It's an idea that has preoccupied his work since his first collection of poems, City of a Hundreds Fires, was published in 1998, regaling readers with a welcome fresh take on the Miami melting pot, including a more honest and less idealized appraisal of the Cuban exile drama.

READ MORE: Richard Blanco's new Miami memoir explores 'becoming' Cuban-American

Because Blanco is so often identified as a "Miami" poet, it's easy to forget that he's spent most of the past decade living and working in Maine, where he still has a home. Four years ago, he returned to Miami to teach at FIU.

"I'd come as a visiting professor for a couple of fall semesters and fell in love with my alma mater," Blanco told me. "It's just maintained such a wonderful mission, and I see myself in the students: working class, most of them immigrants or children of immigrants.

"Plus, it's still my home city in many ways. My family is here. I always feel like home is where you don't need a GPS."

Miami, however, is more past than current or future home in Homeland of My Body. It contains selections of old Blanco poems bookended by two collections of new poetry — which he titles Radiant Beings and Here I Am. And while it's enjoyable revisiting verse like "Looking for the Gulf Motel" and "América" (probably my favorite Blanco poem), it's the new stuff that's most striking — mainly for the way it seems to move from rediscovering oneself in Miami to rediscovering oneself beyond Miami.

"I always say a poet is writing one poem all their life in some ways — we have some kind of central obsession or question we carry with us all our life," he says.

"For me, it's the question of home, and belonging, identity. So having journeyed through so many different iterations of what home means to me, I've been coming to the conclusion...that home exists inside me.

"Every home I've lost, every home I've gained, every home I've abandoned in some way is all the sum parts of what home is. So I'm digging deeper into the psyche of home now — hence the title Homeland of My Body.

A reader definitely gets that sense following the epic trajectory of the book's title poem, "For the Homeland of My Body," travels from the rains of Madrid, where Blanco was born, to the "stark brick" of New England. It also stands out in poems like "Hineni," a Biblical Hebrew phrase that means "Here I Am." In it, Blanco sees himself as that Cuban kid still on a Miami beach — but now he's a man, praying:

God of the infinite possibilities of sand
I was sculpted from
hinenihere i am— again infinitely
a boy with bucket and shovel still wanting to sculpt
something almight out of the sparkly grains of myself,
something sacred that can't be washed away,
somethin eternal.

"The beach to me since childhood is my church, my God," Blanco says with a chuckle. "So in a way I'm praying to that spirit."

"The new poems," Blanco points out, "are really about surrendering that egotistical need to find home, you know, to live happily ever after.

The new poems are really about surrendering the egotistical need to find home. In middle age I've come to the conclusion that home exists inside me.
Richard Blanco

"Middle age is a time to pause and see what the next phases of one's life are and surrendering all the past, the painful parts, all the inherited trauma of exile. So in that poem in particular, I'm just surrendering to the almighty sea ride, just letting myself be."

Blanco's new poetry is especially assertive about just letting himself be regarding his sexuality. It moves away from the confusion he described in earlier works like his 2014 memoir, The Prince of los Cocuyos — and the rough response of people like his abuela (grandmother) to his orientation — and, in poems like "Weather of My Weathering," he stakes a much bolder claim to who he is.

No apologies

At the risk of mixing politics and poetry, I asked Blanco if recent Florida issues like the so-called "Don't Say Gay" law had any effect on that. He didn't mince words.

After returning to live and teach in Florida four years ago, he said, "what I've seen since then is just insane. My work has always in some ways been political because of who I am and what I write about. But you're right: I've been much less apologetic now about all these issues and especially my sexuality.

Cuban-American poet Richard Blanco at a grocery store during a visit to in his grandparents' home village of Espartaco in Cuba, June 17, 2015.
Desmond Boylan
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AP
Cuban-American poet Richard Blanco at a grocery store during a visit to in his grandparents' home village of Espartaco in Cuba, June 17, 2015.

"It's just: here I am. This is it. I don't have to explain anything to anyone anymore. My husband is my husband. We got married recently, so that might be part of it, too."

But there are a host of other new influences on Blanco's work these days, from the spell of masterful photography to classic art like David's The Death of Marat, which inspired the new poem, "Until This." It reflects on what he calls "history's most constant conceit: that to love/a country justifies killing everyone who does/not love it exactly as we wish."

Blanco acknowledges that's a pretty strong statement about intolerance — and that it's a personal statement as well.

"Definitely," he says. "The polarization we see today is just a result of zero tolerance," the kind Miami wrestles with as much as any place in the U.S.

Blanco said he's also been busy carrying out his Miami-Dade poet laureate duties.

"How most poet laureateships work is, you formulate some kind of project that involves the community. So I did something we called Miami's Favorite Poems Project. You share a favorite poem of yours and the story behind how it changed your life.

"You know, people say: 'Oh, I don't read poetry.' But almost everybody has a favorite poem."

And in Miami — and all his other homes, from Madrid to Maine — Blanco's fans now have a new assortment to choose from.

Richard Blanco will present Homeland of My Body next month at the Miami Book Fair, and in December at Books and Books in Coral Gables.

His new play, Sweet Goats and Blueberry Señoritas, co-authored with Vanessa Garcia, opens Nov. 8 at the Actor's Playhouse at the Miracle Theater in Coral Gables.

Tim Padgett is the Americas Editor for WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida. Contact Tim at tpadgett@wlrnnews.org
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