Not since the days of Longfellow has poetry enjoyed a night quite like Tuesday.
A few hundred empty seats left Portland’s Merrill Auditorium short of its capacity of 1,800, but it was a large crowd nonetheless that turned out to hear Maine resident and presidential poet Richard Blanco read a dozen poems and talk about his life.
The audience rewarded the poet with a superstar’s welcome, as Blanco – trim and tidy in a dark suit – strode confidently to the podium.
Blanco, 44, filled Merrill with his deep and resonant voice, his poems talking about his American existence as the son of Cuban exile, an immigrant and a dreamer. His words stilled the audience, and set a calm, almost reverential tone.
Heather Davis, executive director of the Telling Room in Portland, said Tuesday’s reading was a red-letter day for Portland, something the city should celebrate with pride. “To see a community get so excited about a poet is beyond our wildest dreams,” Davis said, noting that the Telling Room celebrates reading and writing above all else.
Blanco himself was impressed, if not a little shocked. As he stepped from the passenger door of his car on Congress Street in front of City Hall, fans and admirers flocked to him for pictures, hugs and handshakes.
He admitted feeling sheepish and even a little shy. He’s grown accustomed to attention these last few weeks, and has been in such demand that he was worried his voice might be raspy and unfit for the stature of the event. He’s been to Merrill before, “but never on the stage. I feel a little like Beyonce,” he said. “You can’t get 1,800 people to show for God knows what.”
In Portland, they show up for poetry.
Tuesday’s reading was free, thanks to funding from the Quimby Family Foundation. PortTix distributed the tickets two at a time, and all 1,800 were gone in four hours.
Tuesday’s reading was the second-fastest “sellout” of Merrill Auditorium in recent memory, said Janice Bailey of PortTix. The only show that saw its ticket supply claimed more quickly was singer and guitarist Ray LaMontagne, which sold out in an hour.
PortTix waived its usual fees for the Blanco event as a show of support, Bailey said.
“We waived our fees and agreed to handle distribution of the free tickets because we wanted to support the event,” she said. “And believe me ‘selling’ 1,800 tickets in four hours is a lot of work even when they’re free.”
Among those who came was Ann Cornelison of Eastport. She and her friend, Barbara Barrett, made the long drive from Down East for the chance to hear Blanco read. “But I’ve gone further,” Cornelison said, noting that she attended the inaugural in January.
She couldn’t hear Blanco then at all, and was looking forward to the more intimate setting of Merrill.
Until the inauguration in January, Blanco was largely an unknown and mildly successful poet who earned his living as a civil engineer and planner. He and his partner moved to Maine a few years ago to live a quiet life.
The plan worked splendidly until the White House called.
“What a way to come out, right?” he quipped.
At the inaugural, Blanco read a new poem that he wrote for the event, “One Today.” The poem speaks of inclusion, unity and hope. He read it again on Tuesday.
Prior to the reading, Blanco received a key to the city from Portland Mayor Michael Brennan, who spoke for a lot of people in Portland, across Maine and across the country when he said, “On Jan. 21, Richard Blanco spoke to this nation with a simplicity and elegance that touched all our souls and all our hearts.”
Blanco received another gift as well, this one presented by Steve Bromage of the Maine Historical Society, courtesy of state historian Earle G. Shettleworth Jr.’s private art collection: A framed 1880 print of Maine poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his study.
Blanco appeared momentarily stunned by the sincerity of the gift and the connections it suggested between Maine’s most famous literary figure and his own recent success.
Maine Poet Laureate Wesley McNair introduced Blanco from the Merrill stage. Noting the nearly full house and the general hoopla surrounding this event, McNair suggested it’s time to “stop wringing our hands about the loss of poetry. . . . We are the people we have been waiting for.”
Longfellow would be proud.
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or: [email protected]