Finding out he was named the 2013 Inaugural Poet for President Barack Obama came as much of a shock to Richard Blanco as it did to his friends and colleagues. He was at home in Bethel with his partner, Mark, when he got the call in mid-December, and in the ensuing three months his life has changed forever. Blanco is a civil engineer by trade, a Cuban immigrant who grew up in Miami, and the first Latin American and first gay man to be named the Inaugural Poet. He’s published three collections of poetry, from which he’ll read at next Wednesday’s Poetry Out Loud finals, set for 4 p.m. March 20 at the Gracie Theatre at Husson University.
Poetry Out Loud is the national poetry recitation program organized by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Poetry Foundation, and, in Maine, the Maine Arts Commission, in which thousands of high school students from around the nation recite a poem of their choosing, at the school, regional and state levels. Ten students from Maine have been chosen to compete at the state final; they are Iman Omar of Deering High School, Christian E. Heath of Gardiner Area High School, Skyler Samuelson of Merriconeag Waldorf High School, Jai Aslam of Messalonskee High School, Isabelle Fall of Mt. Ararat High School, Abigail Abbott of Rangeley Lakes Regional School, Brianna Housman of Searsport District High School, Morgan Wiggan of Thornton Academy, Bethanie Brown of Waterville Senior High School and Dyer Rhoads of Waynflete School. The winner of the state finals will advance to the national competition, in April in Washington, D.C. Tickets to next Wednesday’s event are free, but must be reserved by going to the Maine Arts Commission website.
The BDN spoke with Richard Blanco by phone on March 12.
Q: Take us through the weeks from when you were notified you were chosen to be the Inaugural Poet, to the day you got up and read your poem.
A: Well, I got the news on December 12, and of course, my first suspicion was that it might be a prank. But it was confirmed very quickly. The most important thing was, of course, the two or three weeks I spent writing every day. I had to write three poems to submit, and after they got them all they still preferred “One Today.” So then I revised it to point where it got to, and then I started practicing behind my desk here in Bethel, pretending that the pine trees were hundreds of thousands of people. When the news was released I spent a lot of time doing media and press, and after weeks of it being just me and my partner, we had to get used to the attention. Then it was off to Washington.
Q: How has this new found attention affected you, in the two months since everyone found out?
A: The inauguration is like the Super Bowl of poetry. Even people that don’t care about football watch the Super Bowl. [laughs] It’s every writer’s dream to be able to make a living off your writing, and that seems to be what is happening. It’s great that poetry has such a long shelf life, because people are discovering my books that are ten years old now. That’s a wonderful thing. I’ve been doing a lot of speaking engagements. What this kind of honor does is bring poetry to the attention of people that might not otherwise encounter it, so I’m doing readings at engineering firms and chambers of commerce and legal advocacy groups. All those places are opening up for poetry. So much of that has taken up my time, and gladly so. Maybe I’ll buy a bus and call it the Poetry Bus and go around the country.
Q: What did you look towards for inspiration in writing “One Today”? Aside from the obvious – writing and reading for millions of people – what was most challenging about it?
A: I think a lot of the creative process is subconscious. I’m starting to realize that the very strong community-centric world that I grew up in, in Miami in the 1970s, a tight-knit, exiled immigrant community, has had an even bigger impact on me than I ever truly imagined. Everyone helped each other out, everyone was respectful of every other member of the community for what they brought to the table. That was the spirit. That was revived for me when I moved to Bethel, because it’s also a small, tight-knit community here. It’s one big family, even if there are condo buildings in Miami with more people in them than in all of Bethel. [laughs] But part of what you see in the poem is that catalog of people, with the understanding that it really does take a village. The challenge was to write something that was intimate and conversational, and yet all-encompassing at the same time. I think the elements of nature in it are shorthand for the things that we all experience, that connect us all. Big broad strokes, but minute details.
Q: What brought you to Maine?
A: My partner had a business opportunity in Bethel, and we were living in Miami at the time. It seemed like a really perfect opportunity to live in Maine, so we thought, ‘Why not, let’s give it a try.’ And here we are four years later. It’s certainly different from Miami in terms of size and lifestyle, of course, but it’s a wonderful place.
Q: What advice or help do you give to young or beginner poets or readers of poetry who you encounter?
A: I think, as writers, the most important thing is to find that one thing that really speaks to you. It’s easier said that done, but if you keep your eyes open to the core dilemma or core obsession of your life, that will inform your work and give it a reason for being. For me, it was discovering the issue of cultural negotiation and identity, which leads to lots of questions and explorations. That core drive of what it is you want to speak to the world. And then, of course, the flip side is understanding that is is a craft, and it does require a certain disciple. It’s not just about spitting out words. You have to craft it into an art. And we don’t all have to be poets to appreciate poetry. We need to foster a generation of readers as well as writers, and that’s an area where we could use a lot more help. You can appreciate poetry in the same way you would music, or movies, though I think it’s interesting that a bad experience with poetry can ruin it for you, whereas if you see a movie you don’t like you don’t say, ‘I’m never going to the movies again.’ That’s why I like events like Poetry Out Loud. There are so many different types of poets out there that’s there’s something for everyone. There’s a wide spectrum of voices. It becomes less of a mystery. Someone will speak in a way that speaks to you.