Inaugural poet . . . and best friend.
I met Richard Blanco -- whom we all called "Rick" back then -- in 1993 when we were both in our early 20s in a poetry workshop at Florida International University with Campbell McGrath in Miami, Florida. It was Richard's second poetry workshop and my first. I had just graduated college and wanted to take a few graduate classes, and Richard was an engineer with an interest in poety.
We all sat in a circle at our desks that first day. I even remember what Richard was wearing -- a white t-shirt with the sleeves cut off so you could see the lion tattoo on his shoulder. He had long hair that he kept sweeping back out of his eyes. Campbell asked us to go around the room and talk about our favorite poets -- or maybe we read some poems -- I don't remember exactly, but something prompted Richard to approach me after class to offer to lend me a book of poems by William Carlos Williams.
I politely said yes, but I did an internal eye-roll. Another guy trying to hit on me, I thought. He followed me to my car, blathering about poetry, and all I could think about was how I would possibly brush off this stalker all semester. That's all I needed.
The next class, we went around the room reading our poems. Richard was one of the last to read. I don't remember the poem exactly, and I don't think it exists today in its same incarnation, but I do remember images of palm trees and sugar cane. And I remember it being the most beautiful thing I'd ever heard.
I underestimated this guy, I thought. I wonder if I can get him to follow me to my car after every class?
As the semester continued, it became clear who was the "golden child" in this workshop. Also, not surprisingly, all of the girls migrated to the side of the room opposite Richard so that we could stare at him throughout the class. Every time he lifted his arm to sweep the hair out of his eyes, his big bicep flexing, lion tattoo roaring, we all swooned. We would literally grab or poke each other to make sure everyone saw it. Miami poet, Emma Trelles, was in that workshop too (also staring at Rick with me), and we all took many workshops together after that, watching each other's poetry grow.
It also became clear, after a while, that Richard and I had a lot of the same poetic sensibilities, and we became good readers for each other, chatting after class when we'd all go out for a drink to talk. Then, one day, he asked me out on a Saturday night.
A date? With the hot, amazing poet? Yes! I couldn't wait.
He picked me up in his white, convertible Miata, and I still remember what he was wearing -- a clingy orange sleeveless shirt and tight jeans with his keys hanging out of his pocket. My mom even remembers it -- I think I was so excited about our "date" that I got my whole family involved.
We went to Pier 66 in Ft. Lauderdale, a revolving bar that rotated one full revolution every 66 minutes. I drank a couple of frozen umbrella drinks and Rick had martinis. We sat there for 5 rotations of the bar, talking excitedly about poetry and our ambitions, about life and love and where we fit in the world.
We went out a few more times, driving along Collins Avenue with the top down, and I still remember how the wind felt in my face and how the air smelled salty and sweet. I'd look over at Rick and couldn't believe that the sexy poet was with me.
In retrospect, these weren't dates (drat it!), but it would be the beginning of a now 20-year friendship based in our commonalities (as different as we are): growing up in Miami, the child of exiles, and the love of poetry.
In 1995, Richard "came out" to me at an Irish bar in Ft. Lauderdale. I smiled as he told me. I knew already -- all of our friends in common knew. He was so relieved he hugged me and tears came to his eyes. I didn't know then -- and still won't really understand -- how important that moment is in someone's life, but I was happy to be a part of it and to provide support to someone for whom this was obviously a difficult subject at the time.
As the years went by, we read each other's work and helped each other with our manuscripts, three of which would become his three books, City of a Hundred Fires, Directions to the Beach of the Dead, and The Gulf Motel. I'm proud to have been the one to name his last book (or suggested the title, at least), as well as to have taken the author photo at the Carnegie Deli in New York City. One of my favorite poems of his is dedicated to me (of course I love it!), "Sketching Palms," in Directions to the Beach of the Dead. He read me this poem at a party in his first little condo in Miami Beach, and stopped the music and the entire party to read it, his voice cracking in the end. I cried. It's beautiful.
Together, we have tried to bring poetry to the masses, to people who would not otherwise read or write poetry. I wrote "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Writing Poetry," and Richard allowed me to use his poems and exercises in the book, and was sweet enough to read a draft before it went to print. He was the first person I called when I won my NEA grant in poetry in 2001.
Our friendship has been filled with long cross-country road trips overflowing with conversations about the nature of the world. We get deep on road trips. I drove him to Bloomington, Indiana, where I was an MFA candidate at the time, to show him his first snow. It was funny to watch him marvel at the trees with no leaves on them.
We had a tradition for many years of spending New Year's Eve together, which we have done in Key West, Miami, and New York. He even has a poem in one of his books about it. We've spent many birthdays together. I remember him taking me to a Mexican restaurant on my 30th birthday in Hartford, CT, where he ordered me ice cream fried in a tortilla with a candle in it, and then took me to a dollar store where he said I could pick out anything I wanted. Isn't he the best?
Richard has also brought me to many other people that I consider dear friends -- his partner, Mark, for instance. Wherever Richard goes, he makes lasting connections with and for people. He's that guy. When I look at all of my photos of the last 20 years, the person in most of them (besides me and my dog, Pepper), is Richard.
"Rick" is now "Richard," though I will always and forever call him Rickster (as he calls me Nikster). He cut his hair long ago, and away went the sleveless shirts and keys hanging from his pocket. We've all matured, and with that time, so has Richard's poetry. He has found himself and his voice, and that's what attracts people to his work. But I know, as well as everyone else in those first poetry workshops in Miami knows, that he always had it.
Having President Obama choose Richard Blanco to write the inaugural poem blew my mind at first. But once it settled in I realized that it shouldn't be such a surprise. Of course he was chosen. Talent, persistence, and hard work pays off. And it's his karma. Not many people know this . . . when Richard won the Agnes Starrett Lynch award for his first book of poems, he was awarded $3000. He decided to take 10% of it, $300.00, and drove downtown where he gave it to a homeless man. He said that he wouldn't feel right about taking the money unless he gave some back. That President Obama has chosen him to read honestly couldn't have happened to a nicer, more talented, genuine, and warm person.
I have written this at the request of his partner, Mark, who wanted people to know more about the "real" Richard. But if you really want to know Richard, start with his poems -- his soul shines through his words.
A best friend is someone who "gets" you . . . and Rick "gets" me. And I "get" him. You're lucky if you have one person in the world who gets you. And I hope that, on inauguration day, everyone will see what I see, and know what I know. And it will come through his words. Everyone will get him.