University of Pittsburgh Press's Renowned Pitt Poetry Series Helped Give Flight to Richard Blanco's Career

Issue Date: 
January 14, 2013

A professional engineer as well a published author, Richard Blanco has cut an unusual path leading to his selection last week by the Presidential Inaugural Committee as the nation’s fifth inaugural poet. As such, Blanco, an English-language Latino poet—who entered the world of words while still working as an engineering consultant—is in the process of writing a poem he will recite during President Barack Obama’s swearing-in ceremony on Jan. 21. 

Blanco’s career gained momentum when his first collection, City of a Hundred Fires (1998), was selected for publication by the University of Pittsburgh Press, which honored the poet and his debut poetry book with the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize. The prestigious award, given annually, recognizes emerging poets and makes their works available to readers across the globe.

“The Press’s Pitt Poetry Series has been in the forefront among general poetry publishers in discovering and printing great work by minority authors—starting with Gary Soto’s The Elements Of San Joaquin back in the ’70s,” recalled Ed Ochester who, as editor of the Pitt Poetry Series, selected Blanco’s City of a Hundred Fires for the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize. Ochester also selected Blanco’s most recent book, Looking for The Gulf Motel (2012), for publication by the Pitt press.

“Among our authors are two Nobel Prize winners, a Pulitzer Prize winner, a U.S. Poet Laureate, and many recipients of Guggenheim fellowships and other awards,” added Ochester, professor emeritus of English at Pitt.

Born in Spain to Cuban exiles, Blanco’s parents immigrated to New York City and eventually settled in Miami. As a writer, Blanco explores the collective American experience of cultural negotiation through the lens of family and love, particularly his mother’s life as it was shaped by exile. His work also explores the intersection of his cultural identities as a Cuban-American gay man. 

The first inaugural poet was Robert Frost at President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inauguration. In 1993, at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton, Maya Angelou became the second inaugural poet and the first to read a specially composed inaugural poem. She was followed by Miller Williams at the second Clinton inauguration, in 1997, and Elizabeth Alexander at President Obama’s first inauguration in 2009.