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Page 3 Profile: Richard Blanco, poet

Never heard of him. Should I be ashamed?

While it's not too difficult to reel off the names of a handful of the most famous English-language poets – think Carol Ann Duffy and Seamus Heaney – most toil in largely unrewarded obscurity. So although Richard Blanco, a 44-year-old gay writer, has won prestigious awards for his work, he is hardly a household name on either side of the Atlantic. But that's set to change. Blanco has been plucked by President Barack Obama to read a poem at his inauguration later this month. It's an honour that was previously enjoyed by Robert Frost (for John Kennedy in 1961) and Maya Angelou (for Bill Clinton, in 1993 – it's a Democrat tradition).

Why Blanco?

Mr Obama said: "Richard's writing will be wonderfully fitting for an inaugural that will celebrate the strength of the American people and our nation's great diversity." An inaugural committee spokeswoman added that Blanco's poems, which express a yearning for his Cuban homeland, are "rooted in the idea of what it means to be an American". Blanco came from a hard-working immigrant family and he was told he had to be a doctor, a lawyer or an engineer. He suppressed his creativity and homosexuality for the approval of his grandmother. Until recently he supported himself with a job in civil engineering.

So he's found his vocation?

His selection (which he found out about last month and had to keep secret from his mother) is only the first step. Blanco can't simply pluck something from one of his collections, such as Directions to the Beach of the Dead. He must write three "occasional" poems (that is, poems written for a special event, rather than just dashing something off) before the Obama camp chooses whichever they feel is the most appropriate. But he appeared to relish the challenge, telling The New York Times: "Since the beginning of the campaign, I totally related to his life story and the way he speaks of his family, and of course his multicultural background. There has always been a spiritual connection in that sense. I feel in some ways that when I'm writing about my family, I'm writing about him."

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