WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama plucked Richard Blanco out of relative obscurity in rural Maine to put him on the national stage to deliver the inaugural poem.
Mr. Blanco is virtually unknown outside poetry circles, but the University of Pittsburgh Press has had an eye on him for years.
Contemporary poets credit the academic publisher with discovering Mr. Blanco when its editors selected him for its 1997 Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize and published "City of a Hundred Fires," his first full-length book of poems. It also published his most recent collection, "Looking for the Gulf Motel," last year.
Mr. Blanco's talents were obvious to poetry editor Ed Ochester, who selected him for the prize from five finalists that Pitt professor of English Judith Vollmer culled from several hundred entries.
"One of the things that struck me was there was a sense of humor in his work that was wonderful," Mr. Ochester said. "The stuff was very well done and very carefully done."
Among his favorites was the poem "América," detailing a child's attempts to persuade his Cuban elders that turkey, not pork, makes for a proper Thanksgiving dinner.
"It's the kind of immigrant story that we probably all have a version of," Mr. Ochester said.
Don Share, senior editor of Poetry Magazine, a publication of the Chicago-based Poetry Foundation, said Mr. Blanco has a knack for artfully slipping easily between English and the Spanish phrases that punctuate his poetic narratives.
"It's just what would happen in so many families, the interchange of different languages," he said. "It's wonderful that the president picked someone representing a mixture of different worlds and cultures and languages."
The son of Cuban exiles, Mr. Blanco will be the youngest ever inaugural poet and the first Hispanic or gay person to recite a poem at a presidential swearing-in ceremony.
"His contributions to the fields of poetry and the arts have already paved a path forward for future generations of writers," Mr. Obama said Wednesday. "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."
In a statement released by the White House, Mr. Blanco, 44, said he was "brimming over with excitement, awe and gratitude" and that he is "thrilled by the thought of coming together during this great occasion to celebrate our country and its people through the power of poetry."
The president's pick makes perfect sense to Mr. Share.
"There's this stereotype of poets being these old guys with beards staring out the window and gazing at their navels, but Richard is what a real poet is. He's like a lot of people. So many different kinds of people can see themselves in him," Mr. Share said. "They could have picked anybody, and it's really delightful that they found somebody who wasn't picked because he has a famous name but because of who he really is."
Mr. Blanco, whose voice mail was full, could not be reached for comment. He may be busy tweaking the poem he will read Jan. 21 from a podium at the U.S. Capitol, a tradition started for President John F. Kennedy's 1961 inauguration. Robert Frost was chosen for the honor and, blinded by bright sunlight that day, famously could not read the poem he had composed -- "Dedication" -- so he recited "The Gift Outright" from memory.
President Bill Clinton brought back the practice with his first inaugural in 1993, enlisting the celebrated African-American writer and activist Maya Angelou. She wrote "On the Pulse of Morning" for the occasion; at the swearing-in for Mr. Clinton's second term, Arkansas poet Miller Williams delivered "Of History and Hope." Yale professor Elizabeth Alexander read "Praise Song for the Day" at the first Obama inauguration in 2009.
Mr. Ochester expects the Blanco poem to be engaging and accessible to the masses.
"His poems are very readable, and they deal with a variety of emotions," he said.
"Having him as the inaugural poet is going to be very good for poetry in general because there are going to be a number of people who listen to what he says and say, 'I "get" it, and maybe I get other poems as well.' "
His selection is good for the University of Pittsburgh Press as well.
Already bookstores are calling to request more copies of Mr. Blanco's books.
"Poetry fans know about the Pitt series and our sales are pretty good, but the public in general doesn't know about these books until someone is selected to do something like the inaugural poem," Mr. Ochester said.
Mr. Share said university presses play a vital role for emerging poets and that the University of Pittsburgh Press is one of the best.
"They identified [Mr. Blanco's] talent before everybody else. ... It's quite an investment to make to publish a first book by a young poet nobody knows, so it's really to their credit for starting him off on this career," he said. "Having a strong first book from a notable poetry press really got him going, and his subsequent books and this great gig all flowed from those beginnings."
Still, it's unlikely Mr. Blanco ever imagined being selected to write an inaugural poem.
"Most of us might dream of having a book with our name on it, but most of us don't dream of being an inaugural poet. You don't walk around thinking maybe someday that will happen," Mr. Share said.
Mr. Blanco was born in Spain and emigrated to New York City with his parents days after his birth. The family settled in Miami, where Mr. Blanco worked as a civil engineer until 1999 when he joined the creative writing faculty at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain.
He left after two years to teach at universities across the country while maintaining his engineering career. His writing explores the intersection of cultural identities as a Cuban-American gay man.
"It's remarkable that these presidents have incorporated [poetry]," said Mr. Share of the Poetry Foundation, whose mission statement calls for "the vigorous presence for poetry" in American life. "It's a wonderfully inclusive gesture that says politics isn't the only way to speak for people; poetry is also a way to speak for people.
"It signals something about their presidencies, about the way they look at the nation. These are guys that care about culture and music and it reminds you that this nation has problems but also great accomplishments."
Washington Bureau Chief Tracie Mauriello: firstname.lastname@example.org or 703-996-9292. First Published January 13, 2013 5:00 AM