It was inevitable that Richard Blanco's selection as President Obama's second inaugural poet would provoke a response from a predictably vocal segment of the Cuban exile community. But I was surprised at the shoddy screed Zoe Valdes, a writer of distinction, posted recently on the right-wing website, Babalu Blog. This assault on Blanco (translated from the original Spanish by Alberto de la Cruz) is digressive, self-contradictory and based on false premises. It warrants attention, however, as an admonition against allowing ideologically-driven emotion to overtake stylistic rigor and sound judgment.
After her opening, which insinuates that Blanco shares more than first names with the Cuban apparatchik Ricardo Alarcon, Valdes turns to Blanco's career. "According to what he has said in several interviews, Richard Blanco has been a poet for the last two to four years. In other words, he got a late start in poetry." Ah, but the facts prove otherwise. I'll call myself to the stand. In 1993 the poet Sandra Castillo asked me to help her run a reading series at Tobacco Road, Miami's oldest bar. At one point she introduced me to a young, burly engineer who drove a Miata. I had misgivings (a Miata?), but Castillo had read his work and was impressed. A few weeks later, he performed to a packed house. This wasn't a lightning round open mic; he had half an hour. Nobody walked out. When Blanco finished, the applause was generous and sustained.
I don't know what interviews Valdes is referring to, but I doubt Blanco would say he was new to poetry. Granted, he pales beside Robert Frost's grandeur, longevity and prolific output (who wouldn't?); but he certainly isn't a Juanito-come-lately wannabe. If Valdes had been more curious, she could have visited his homepage, which includes a CV that boasts a solid list of publications and achievements.
The problem is that Valdes builds her case upon this quicksand. She wants us to believe that politics, not merit, was behind Blanco's appearance at the Capitol. He checked off two demographic boxes: gay and Hispanic. But liberals would never have agreed to an unabashedly anti-Castro Cuban, so they tapped someone with "lukewarm points of view," an "Obamanista cynic" whose (fairly benign) criticism of his fellow exiles is, in Valdes' jaundiced eyes, "vulgar." And yet this arbiter of taste is not above resorting to slurs; she calls Blanco a "tacky queer" and a "gay asshole."
Blanco's sexuality is especially concerning; he's too out and proud for Valdes' taste. He can't "stop screaming from the rooftops that he is gay." But don't interpret this as homophobic. Valdes' siblings are gay. (The "some of my best friends" defense.) Not only that, she herself wouldn't mind playing for the other team: "I long to be gay and very promiscuous." What she objects to is Blanco's lack of cojones.
Which brings us to the great Cuban writer and dissident Reinaldo Arenas. Valdes considers him an exemplar. Unlike Blanco, he "did not announce he was gay." She concedes that he was "very queer in real life, but he was also very manly in literature, very manly in politics, and he was not afraid to say it in a thousand different ways. And this is what Blanco is missing: Manliness before the irrefutable truth."
Let's ignore the offensive implication that manliness and queerness are mutually exclusive. Arenas was indeed a brave soul. His memoir, Before Night Falls, recounts his heroic struggle with the Castro regime. He recorded it on 20 cassettes in the throes of AIDS. It's an extraordinary document, a testament to artistic discipline and integrity in the face of dehumanizing oppression. But to claim, as Valdes does, that Arenas "did not announce he was gay," is laughable. He couldn't keep his mouth shut about it. I don't believe he ever spent a day of his adult life in the closet. And it cost him dearly. In Cuba he was persecuted for his sexual brazenness as much as for his "counterrevolutionary" novels and poems.
When he finally escaped to Miami, Arenas become disillusioned with the exile community. A proud child of dirt-eating peasants, he despised Communism but supported socialist reforms. This didn't sit well with the exiles. Nor did his atheism and homosexuality. He soon left for New York. In Before Night Falls and other works, he excoriates Miami and the exiles; the language is sharper and bitterer than anything found in Blanco's poems. And yet Valdes gives him a pass:
What I do find strange is that those who criticized Reinaldo Arenas for leaving Miami for New York, the same ones who criticized his marvelous verses critical of Miami... now applaud a person without a body of work, at least not one that is known, an outsider who shows off by spewing lizards and snakes from his mouth against the Miami exile community. None or very few of them who voted for Obama and call themselves Cuban exiles have had the courage to stand up and tear him apart with criticisms as they have done with others. As they criticized me when I wrote 'Miami is the graveyard of penises' on my blog.
This makes no sense. What reason would a moderate-minded exile have to criticize a critic of the Miami exile community? Since we all hate ourselves, wouldn't we cheer him on? No, the only exiles who would raise a red flag are thin-skinned, insecure tribalists who mistake sarcasm for wit and zealotry for patriotism, the same God-fearing machos who were happy to bid a godless maricon like Arenas good riddance.
Valdes may be right when she wagers that Arenas would have declined the honor of reading at the inauguration. (The man carried an Atlas-sized chip on his shoulder.) But she embarrasses herself further by calling Obama "a president whose only accomplishment has been to sugarcoat Castroism, throwing daisies at pigs under the guise of cultural exchanges and travel." His only accomplishment? Valdes resides in Paris, but even across the Atlantic she must have access to U.S. news reports. Obama has been rather busy these past four years, cleaning up his predecessor's mess, the sixth Republican president, by the way, to talk big about a free Cuba and then leave office with the Castro brothers securely in power.