Celebrated poet Richard Blanco coming to town for two events

Celebrated poet Richard Blanco coming to town for two events


STONINGTON — Noted poet Richard Blanco, who joined the ranks of Robert Frost, Maya Angelou and Elizabeth Alexander when he read — so memorably — at President Barack Obama’s 2013 ceremonial swearing-in ceremony, will be in town next week for a double-header.

The celebrated poet will read from his work in one location on May 19 and teach a writing class in another the following day.

Blanco, the first immigrant and first openly gay poet to read his poetry at a presidential inauguration, will headline the final program of the Arts Café Mystic’s spring season on Friday night, May 19.

On Saturday, Blanco, whose first book of poetry, “City of a Hundred Fires,” was published to critical acclaim in 1998, and won the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize from the University of Pittsburgh Press, will lead a writing workshop at the Riverlight Wellness Center in Stonington.

Center Director Jane H. Percy said she first met Blanco at a conference in Boston in the middle of a blizzard.

It was shortly after the inauguration that “made him famous overnight,” she recalled.

“He was engaging and we connected easily,” Percy said. “He connects thoughtfully, genuinely with people.”

“I told him about our ‘Writing At Riverlight’ programs and said we hoped he would teach a workshop one day,” she said.

When Percy heard that Blanco was coming to Mystic, she wrote to his agent and “extended an invitation for him to stay in Mystic a bit longer and work with local writers.”

“Writers of all abilities are invited to attend,” said Percy. “Ideally [they] would have a creative non-fiction project in mind or even well under way.”

Poets will also get a great deal out of the workshop, Percy said.

“I might add that Blanco was also the youngest poet and the first Latino immigrant to read his poems at a presidential inauguration,” said Christie Max Williams, the artistic director of Arts Café Mystic. “And he’s also had a career as a civil engineer.”

According to his biography, Blanco’s mother was seven months pregnant when she the rest of her family arrived as exiles from Cuba to Madrid where Blanco was born on Feb. 15, 1968.

Forty-five days later, the family emigrated once more to New York City. Only a few weeks old, Blanco already belonged to three countries, a foreshadowing of the concerns of place and belonging that would shape his life and work. Eventually, the family settled in Miami, where Blanco was raised and educated.

Growing up among close-knit Cuban exiles, he has said, instilled in him a strong sense of community, dignity, and identity that he has carried into his adult life as a writer.

As a child, said Williams, Blanco leaned towards the arts but also excelled in math and the sciences. Encouraged by his parents, he studied engineering and became a consulting civil engineer in Miami. In his mid-20s, while working as an engineer, he returned to Florida International University, where he was mentored by the poet Campbell McGrath, and earned a MFA in creative writing.

“City of a Hundred Fires,” his first published collection explored his cultural yearnings and contradictions as a Cuban-American and captured the details of his transformational first trip to Cuba, his figurative homeland.

After the success of his first book, Blanco took a hiatus from his engineering career and accepted a position at Central Connecticut State University as a professor of creative writing.

Driven by a desire to examine the essence of place and belonging, Blanco traveled extensively through Spain, Italy, France, Guatemala, Brazil, Cuba, and New England. Eventually he moved to Washington, D.C., where he taught at Georgetown and American universities, The Writers Center, and the Arlington County Detention Facility. Poems relating to his journeys comprised his second book of poems, “Directions to The Beach of the Dead,” which received the PEN American Beyond Margins Award.

In 2004, Blanco returned to Miami and resumed his engineering career. Engineer by day, he designed several town revitalization projects; poet by night, he began working on another collection before moving once again, this time to Bethel, Maine. While in Maine, he completed his third book of poetry, “Looking for The Gulf Motel” (2012), which related his complex navigation through cultural, sexual, and artistic identities, and received the Paterson Poetry Prize, the 2012 Maine Literary Award for Poetry, and the Thom Gunn Award.

In the meantime, Blanco was been named a Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow and has received honorary doctorates from Macalester College, Colby College and the University of Rhode Island.

His memoir, “The Prince of Los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood,” an exploration of his coming-of-age as the child of Cuban immigrants, received the 2015 Maine Literary Award for Memoir and the 2015 Lambda Literary Award for Gay Memoir. His most recent publication is a children’s book of his presidential inaugural poem, “One Today,” illustrated by Dav Pilkey.

Blanco has also continued to connect communities through the art of his occasional poetry. To help heal the emotional wounds of the Boston Marathon bombings, he wrote “Boston Strong,” a poem he performed at the TD Boston Garden Benefit Concert and at a Boston Red Sox game at Fenway Park.

Williams said Blanco will headline the Friday event where Glenn Shea, “the best unknown poet in New England,” will be the Opening Voice, and read from his second book, “The Pilgrims of Tombelaine.”

The Arts Café Mystic takes place on May 19, at 7:30 p.m. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets are $10. Students under 21 are admitted free. For information, call 860-912-2444.

The writing workshop on Saturday, May 20, called “Life into Art:Translating Memories into Memoir,” will take place at 107 Wilcox Road, from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. and will include exercises and discussions about the relationship between author, memoir and reader.

The cost of the workshop is $65, and $30 for students. Space is limited, Percy said.

For more information or to register, send email to Percy at janepercy@sbcglobal.net.


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