watching westerns, or pitying women
crying in telenovelas with my Abuela."
Obama's inaugural team has asked Blanco to write three poems, McGrath said, from which they will choose one for him to read out on the steps of the Capitol on January 21 at Obama's swearing-in ceremony.
As though writing one poem that captured all at once the personal and the grandness of the nation were not enough. But three.
He thought of another friend, Elizabeth Alexander, who was tapped as Obama's inaugural poet in 2008 and has spoken to McGrath about the process.
"Usually when you write a poem, you think first of yourself," McGrath said. "Then you envision a close friend reading it. But now you have to think about reading it on the steps of the Capitol with the whole world watching. So you have to think of it differently."
Alexander, the chairwoman of the African-American Studies Department at Yale University, said she was amazed at the amount of mail she got from around the world -- not just e-mails but letters written on paper. "Who writes letters anymore?" she asked with a laugh.
Some were from people who had written America off as a land of money and power, not one that still appreciated poetry.
"I was so struck," she said. "All these people were taking the time to say that a poem had moved them."
In crafting her own inaugural poem, "Praise Song for the Day," Alexander said she had to think about her words in different terms. She meditated on America and the works of bards like Walt Whitman. She thought of the way Obama had been elected president, by what she felt was a language that was grounded, specific and always looking to higher aspirations.
"The word 'hope' felt tangible and real in his political rhetoric," Alexander said. That was something that resonated in Alexander's poem:
"I know there's something better down the road.
We need to find a place where we are safe.
We walk into that which we cannot yet see.
And this last stanza:
In today's sharp sparkle, this winter air,
any thing can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp,
praise song for walking forward in that light."
In writing his poem, Blanco will have to keep in mind one other key factor: that most people will hear his poem read aloud and perhaps never read it on paper or a computer screen.
"That means there has to be a level of clarity," Alexander said, adding that she was delighted that Blanco had been chosen this time.
"The question of how we become American is an enduring one and one that Blanco is dealing with in the present moment with his particulars," she said.
He is a nuanced poet who deserves this honor in every way, Alexander said.
"The ways in which the voices of a diverse America are being given more space and more time is something that's very exciting to see in the choice of Richard Blanco," Alexander said.
There have been only five inaugural poets in American history. Robert Frost was the first at President John Kennedy's 1961 inauguration. The others were Maya Angelou in 1993 for Bill Clinton; Miller Williams in 1997, again for Clinton; Alexander in 2009; and now, Blanco.
"We need to remember that it's not something you have to do," Alexander said. "You don't have to put culture on the program."
But there are things that can be said in poetry, she said, that can't be said in any other way.
That was the power of words, pulled from the heart and threaded together with utmost care and love. Those who know Blanco know that he will deliver.