On a sunny South Miami morning, Richard Blanco took the podium at a groundbreaking ceremony for his latest project on Sunset Drive. It was spring 2008, and Blanco had directed the renovation of the busy avenue, urbanizing the stretch that serves as the gateway to City Hall.
Next to shovels with yellow ribbons and a mound of rocks and sand, the civil engineer did something few would expect: He read a poem — one he'd written after being inspired by historic pictures inside the municipal center — to the engineers and city officials gathered at the scene.
Less than five years later, he received an invitation to write a poem for a different opening ceremony — this time, Barack Obama's second presidential inauguration.
Blanco, following in the footsteps of Robert Frost and Maya Angelou, is at 44 the youngest person to hold the title of inaugural poet. He's the first one to be Hispanic and also the first to be gay.
"He's been writing nonstop," said his brother Carlos, 51. "He'll stay up until 4 or 5 in the morning."
During the holidays, Carlos Blanco and his two sons visited the poet in Bethel, Maine, the small ski town where Richard Blanco lives with his partner, Mark Neveu.
"Normally when we go up there, we're always together," Carlos Blanco said. "This time, we were on our own, and at night we would get together for dinner. Then he'd go back to his writing."
The poet, who was unavailable for comment, was born in Madrid after his parents fled Cuba in the late 1960s. Less than two months later, the family moved to New York and then Miami, where Blanco grew up. Though he enjoyed sculpting and painting as a student and dreamed of being an architect, his family had different plans, according to his brother.
"Our parents didn't consider a career in the arts as a real degree," the brother said. "They were always pushing engineering, medicine, all that type of stuff. Richard followed their advice and became a civil engineer."
Blanco received his degree from Florida International University and began working full-time at the Miami engineering firm C3TS/Stantec.
Ramón Castella, the poet's boss at the firm, said he wasn't surprised when a few years later, Blanco enrolled again at FIU, this time taking night classes toward a master's degree in creative writing. "Once he started writing and getting into poetry, I realized engineering wasn't what he was all about," Castella said.
In one of his poetry classes, Blanco met Nikki Moustaki, a close friend whom he has called for advice as he racks his brain composing Obama's poem.
"He hasn't really talked about the poem — I don't think he's allowed to," Moustaki said. "But we talk about the features of the poem, or the way things can be written and how to reach the most people."
As students, Moustaki had a "huge crush" on Blanco and said she was excited when he asked her out on a Saturday night.
"I thought we were on a date," she said. "He just wanted to talk about poetry."
She said Blanco later came out to her at a now-defunct jazz cafe in Fort Lauderdale, but she already had found out he was gay.
"He had it all prepared and he was nervous," she remembers. "Finally, I told him we all knew, and he got teary-eyed and hugged me. It was beautiful."
It was a big surprise for the poet's brother, who found out in 1993.
"It was a difficult realization, for my mom in particular," he said. "It wasn't easy, but like everything else in life, it is what it is and we moved on."
In Cuban culture, homosexuality "is not contemplated, and if it is, you keep quiet about it," the brother said.
In 1965, for example, writer Allen Ginsberg was thrown out of Cuba for speaking out against the government's stance against homosexuals. And, even as recently as 25 years ago, the Cuban penal code punished those who publicly exhibited homosexual behavior or made homosexual advances.
The poet told the New York Times that his latest collection, "Looking for the Gulf Motel," explores "how I fit between negotiating the world, between being mainstream gay and being Cuban gay."
His career took off in 1997 when he received the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize from the University of Pittsburgh Press for his first collection, "City of a Hundred Fires."
After that, Blanco taught writing at Miami-Dade College and FIU. He later moved to Connecticut to teach at Central Connecticut State University, where he met his life partner.
"They met at the gym and smiled at each other," says Moustaki. "They felt each other's energy."
Between 2003 and 2004, Blanco lectured on poetry at American University and Georgetown University, both in Washington, D.C. In 2005, he published his second book, "Directions to the Beach of the Dead," which includes a poem, "Sending Palms in a Letter," dedicated to Moustaki.
A few years ago, he and Neveu relocated to the quiet town where he now spends his days writing poems. That's where a call from the White House found him, unprepared — but ready.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times