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Richard Blanco: The High, Low and... the Middlebrow!

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Richard Blanco, the inaugural laureate, took the stage before a national audience at our great nation's domed capital to deliver his oration. His poem, intoned in a solemn voice, had all the bells and whistles: epic and cinematic and patriotic -- it opens with the light of the rising sun filtering Westward through America, retracing the passage of Manifest Destiny, alighting upon thronging crowds, staining glass windows and, periodically, touching upon the poet himself: gay, Cuban, immigrant, working class. It was intended to be a touching poem -- a crowd pleaser.

The entire time I was watching, I kept thinking on something not so august and grand. And I will share it with you, not to be snarky, but to be honest: I thought of the time I spent three months in New York and, while taking the subway, watched a woman read a book -- almost as if she was transported from the din and clatter and stink. Her face was beatific, like one of those martyrs in medieval paintings -- who are ecstatic in their gory death. The cover had the image of a handsome young man with a striking resemblance to Tyson Beckford, rendered in highly shaded pencil -- regular, soft features; devilish eyes; and a head cloth that in the street slang of the urban culture is referred to as a "do rag." The title of the book was Homo Thug.

Don't get me wrong. This anecdote is not leading to a meditation on Blanco's sexuality, which the press already has much ballyhooed. It is not an attempt to make light of his brave act of self-display, of coming out -- an act which never happens once but over and over again.

But truth be told, Homo Thug flashed before my eyes at that moment. And it speaks less to the issue of sexuality and more to the striking difference I see in the way that people react to literature in this time when the Internet inundates us with verbiage. Most of my friends admit on Facebook that they left the room -- pee break! -- when Blanco took the stage. And it fascinated me that we can find high brow entertainments so inaccessible -- as compelling as steel cut oatmeal, as satisfying as wheat germ.

Everybody turns their nose at an inaugural poem. Everybody makes sure to come back for Beyonce. So, what I was really thinking about when these two figures flashed in juxtaposition -- like all moments of epiphany -- was the high and the low brow... and this lead me to wondering if there was a place for the middlebrow. If so, what is the middlebrow? Let me explain.

The high brow is something that is relatively new to American culture. For centuries, we couldn't do anything but imitate Merry Old England. And it made us always seem second-class and kind of sucky. You see, poetry was considered a sign of great civilization and so the presence of great poetry was like the proliferation of a nuclear arsenal: a logical extension of the arms race: a sign of might. So, the absence of the nuclear warhead of poetry bugged us then just as it probably bugs North Korea now. Why wasn't there a poetry that was distinctly American? Why were we still copying things written over a century ago and long gone out of fashion by people across the great pond whom we were supposed to be independent from? Why did we keep on trying yet never get it right? People spent a lot of time wondering about this predicament and, frustratingly, couldn't find the solution. So though we forget, this much is true: Blanco's poem is a sign of America's might -- as powerful as bombs bursting in air and as potent as Beyonce's highest note. It's just that now: nobody gives a darn... at least on the national stage.

Among community's of color, though -- Latino, African-American, Asian -- the high brow still matters precisely because it is a display of a certain kind of power: a legitimacy. It is the low brow that is all around, which is cast off and derided, even as it is eagerly consumed in subways and buses and waiting rooms -- a treat that, no doubt, will cause spiritual diabetes. My own community -- Vietnamese-American -- has all sorts of low brow entertainments. But we find acceptance, worthiness, accomplishment in the high brow: award winning novels and poems and films. They may be boring and hardly consumed by any but a few... but they signal a stage: a moment of entering into the mainstream, the rise of an aspiring 1 percent. They are mighty works, like the pyramids of Ozymandias.

So where is the middlebrow in all of this? What does it mean to have a middlebrow literature? Does it mean that minority communities have entered into a new stage of development? Well, I'm not sure. It's an open question. To be fair, I should now make my full disclosure and tell you this: I'm writing a middlebrow book -- the first Vietnamese-American detective novel with a Vietnamese-American detective, written by a Vietnamese-American. That's how I'm billing it. So understandably that is what is on my mind, nowadays. That's all I think about night and day. And everything, even the words read at the inauguration of the first ever black second term president gets sucked into my obsessive vortex. I'm wondering what it means when a new figure with a new kind of story takes the stage. Will people pay attention? Will it speak to them? Or are they all going to go out to pee?