Richard Blanco will likely be Florida International University's most talked-about graduate today.
The 44-year-old is the youngest, first openly gay and first Hispanic inaugural poet.
Blanco has a bachelor's degree in civil engineering from FIU as well as a Masters of Fine Arts from FIU's creative writing program.
If it seems like Blanco came out of nowhere, author and Virginia Tech professor Ed Falco begs to differ.
"Well FIU, first of all," he said, "has one of the best poetry programs in the country."
Falco said because of faculty members and well-known poets like Denise Duhamel and Campbell McGrath (a MacArthur “Genius”), he put FIU at the top of his wish list when his daughter was applying to grad school.
Falco admits FIU might not get the respect it deserves.
The hard truth about MFA programs, he said, is that without lots of full scholarships and fellowships, schools have trouble attracting applicants and cracking oft-criticized “best” lists.
In 2010, FIU was awarded $150,000 from the Knight Foundation to start a creative writing fellowship program. The money, both a prestigious honor and a powerful draw for MFA applicants, still doesn’t put FIU into the same financial arena as a lot of the competition.
Of the top 25 programs listed in Poetry & Writing Magazine’s 2012 MFA Rankings, 23 schools offer “full funding” to all of their graduate students.
Falco said he understands the importance of financial heft, but “I think that when you look at MFA programs and you determine which ones are doing the best work, the only real way of evaluating is seeing who comes through the program. And I think FIU has a pretty good record there."
Indeed, FIU's alumni include Barbara Parker, Dennis Lehane and, now, an inaugural poet who will be regularly mentioned alongside Maya Angelou and Robert Frost.
“We’ve been listing Richard Blanco as one of our more notable graduates for more than a decade,” said Les Standiford, director of creative writing at FIU. “So if anybody ever questioned why that was here’s some more proof.”
The inaugural poem will certainly raise the school’s profile. And perhaps the MFA program should brace itself for a flood of poetry applications. But it’s not fair to mark this as the moment for FIU.
Whether or not the world took note, the school’s been doing just fine for some time. From the roughly 135 graduates to come out of the program, Standiford said, about 90 books have been published. “I’d say that’s pretty good,” he chuckled.
That’s certainly not to take away from the significance of what Richard Blanco has been asked to do. Standiford, a well-known author, admitted he did not envy the responsibility of writing and delivering a poem for 300 million people.
"I'd be clutching that podium on that day saying: Hey, anybody want to hear a limerick?"