Bethel's inaugural poet recounts experience
“I feel like I dreamed it,” said Bethel poet Richard Blanco. “It was such a high.”
Back home after reading his poem “One Today” at President Barack Obama’s inauguration, Blanco last week reflected on the experience.
He had learned on Dec. 12 that he had been chosen to become only the fifth poet to participate in an American presidential inauguration. And he doesn’t know how it happened.
“It’s a mystery unto itself,” he said. “I still don’t know.”
There was no application process, no competition. He simply got a call from his agent.
“I felt an incredible sense of gratitude,” said Blanco. “Thought about my parents and grandparents, and all the sacrifices and hard work for the sake of giving my brother and me a better life.”
The presidential Inaugural Committee told him to keep his selection as poet secret – even from his mother – until an official announcement was made.
The vice chairman of the Bethel Planning Board, Blanco told his fellow planners that he would likely not be able to serve as chairman for the board’s new term in January because “something big was going on.”
Blanco didn’t have long to ponder his newfound status. He had to get busy writing three poems, so the Inaugural Committee would have choices.
He said the tight time frame was in some ways better than a six-month warning, which might have given him too long to ponder his words.
But, he said, “Two more weeks would have been a bit better.”
Within two weeks he had sent two poems, followed a short time later by the third.
“The one they chose was in the first two,” he said. “The third was the most autobiographical.”
“One Today” became his favorite of the three because, he said, “It was the most appropriate. It seemed like it would be the right choice.”
The reaction from the White House? “They loved it. They didn’t make me change a single comma,” he said. Blanco said he did not know if the president saw it at that time. The poem shared images and sounds of life in America - including people going about the business of a day at work and school - and intertwined them with those of Blanco’s own family. He concluded with a message of unity.
Blanco said some of the natural images he used in the poem had roots in Bethel. “The mountains, the sunrise I see every morning,” he said.
The announcement of his choice as poet was made Jan. 9. On the 17th, he was off to Washington. The day before the ceremony Blanco went to the Capitol for a brief rehearsal and “sound check.”
He said he benefited psychologically from having lived in Washington for three years. He was familiar with the city, “and I had been on the steps of the Capitol,” he said.
Blanco stood on the platform set up for the inauguration and read a practice poem – about a beach.
A TV crew on the Mall in front of the Capitol was waiting to interview him and heard it.
At first they thought the poem was the inaugural composition, he said, and told him they liked it. He had to break the news it wasn’t “the” poem.
Blanco said that while he felt some butterflies leading up to the big day, once he was on the platform with the president and all the other dignitaries, “your artistic persona, some other part of your brain, takes over. I felt like, ‘Let’s do it.’”
His reading would come after the president’s Inaugural speech. As Blanco listened to the speech and thought of his poem, “it almost seemed like we were in cahoots,” he said, because both pieces had themes of unity and conveyed the sense that “all of us are a vital part of our society.”
Making his way to the podium, Blanco was greeted and encouraged by both the president and vice president. Although he doesn’t recall exactly what either said, “I felt like they had my back,” he said.
The reading went well. “I was thankful I didn’t trip over the words,” he said. And, he joked, “I didn’t lip synch,” referring to debate afterward over the singer Beyonce lip-synching the National Anthem.
“I would have been more nervous if I was reading to 10 people right in front of me,” said Blanco. On the platform, he said, “I couldn’t see faces.”
He said there was a bit of an adjustment to the sound delay between his words and the return applause of the audience. At the end of the poem, he started to walk back to his seat, “and then I heard the applause.”
He remembers one of the Supreme Court justices telling him he did a good job. Singer James Taylor, who performed ahead of him, reached over and tapped him as he walked by, praising the poem. “I thought, ‘OK, now I can die,’” said Blanco.
After the event media interviews, which started before the Inauguration, continued back-to-back.
“I was swept from one interview to another,” he said. His only previous media experience had come on public television and radio.
“It was interesting to see how TV works behind the scenes,” he said.
Because of Blanco’s Hispanic background, the requests for interviews came from both main-stream media and Hispanic networks.
The poet also found himself drawing attention as he walked around Washington. “People would come up and hug me,” he said. “I felt they liked the poem. They would tell me anecdotes from their lives.”
Since his return to Bethel, residents have treated him very respectfully and have not cornered him for long conversations, he said. “They’re very polite. They tell me they liked the poem,” he said.
He said “One Today” and perhaps the other two poems written for the Inaugural Committee will be published in the near future.
The requests for interviews, poetry readings and speaking engagements continue to come in, he said. On Feb. 26, for instance, he will do a poetry reading at Merrill Auditorium in Portland.
But Blanco is ready for the sudden change in his life brought about by writing a poem for a president.
“It’s amazing what the experience does for your career,” he said.
Blanco began writing serious poetry after first pursuing a career as a civil engineer in his hometown of Miami, Fla.
He enrolled in poetry classes in community college and found he had a talent for writing poetry.
Since then, he has taught at colleges and universities and written three poetry books that explore subjects including his family and his experience as a Cuban-American gay man. (For more on Blanco, see his website at www.richard-blanco.com. )
He moved to Bethel in 2009 with his partner, Mark.
How did Blanco end up living in rural Maine?
Mark, a consultant, had a business relationship with a resident here, Blanco said, and they came to the area initially to visit.
They liked Bethel and, he said, “We thought it would be good to have a change of pace. And it’s in my nature to explore.”
Blanco said he fell in love with the property they bought, which overlooks the White Mountains.
But it’s the people that have really sold him on Bethel.
”I love the people more than the town itself,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting such a great community. I felt a human connection - how we all need each other.
“I lived in a close community of Cuban exiles. We had just left a country we could never go back to, and we needed to help each other. Bethel reminded me of that and made it more tangible.”
A poetry reading by Blanco and a reception will take place Feb. 15 at 6 p.m. at Bingham Auditorium, Gould Academy. More details next week.