November 29, 2013

Maine poet Blanco recounts ‘inaugural poet’s journey’

The nationally-renowned poet describes his writing process and his relationship with America in a new book from Beacon Press.

By Christine Armario
The Associated Press

MIAMI — The Miami neighborhood where inaugural poet Richard Blanco grew up, in many ways, resembles Cuba his family left behind. Down the street, a man sells avocados from a small table. His favorite bakery, a few blocks north, serves guava pastries and cafe con leche.

click image to enlarge

In this Jan. 21, 2013 file photo, poet Richard Blanco speaks at the U.S. Capitol in Washington during the inauguration for President Barack Obama, left, and Vice President Joe Biden right. Blanco describes writing the inaugural poem in his new book, ìFor All of Us, One Today: An Inaugural Poetís Journey.î A Cuban-American who grew up in Miami, Blanco says he was he was forced to re-examine his relationship with his adopted country in the weeks leading up to the inauguration. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

As a child and even as an adult, this was home. But it wasn’t necessarily what he imagined as America.

“There’s always a little part of you as an immigrant that goes, ‘Well, I’m not really American,”’ Blanco said in an interview Monday with The Associated Press at his mother’s home in Miami. “There’s that other little boy on TV or some place I haven’t been yet.”

That feeling of displacement has been at the crux of his poetry.

When it came to writing the poem for the 2013 inauguration of Barack Obama, however, he was forced to re-examine his own relationship with America and what it meant to be American. Blanco was born 45 years ago in Spain to Cuban immigrants who moved to the United States when he was an infant.

The experience of writing the poem, Blanco said, was transformative.

“I finally realized that my story, my mother’s stories, all those millions of stories of faces that were looking at me at the podium, that is America,” said Blanco, the nation’s first Latino and openly gay inaugural poet. “I finally realized that I’m not the other.”

Blanco describes the writing the inaugural poem and two others – and the journey he has embarked on since – in a book, “For All of Us, One Today: An Inaugural Poet’s Journey,” recently published by Beacon Press.

Tasked with writing three poems in three weeks, Blanco said he struggled initially on the direction to take. He doesn’t know how or why he was chosen though he knew the White House committee’s choice was symbolic. He had published three critically acclaimed poetry books but was only modestly known at the time.

He read the work of other inaugural poets such as Maya Angelou and Robert Frost and of others, like Elizabeth Bishop and Pablo Neruda. But by the third day, anxiety began to set in. During mental breaks, he watched reruns of favorite shows like “Bewitched” and the “Brady Bunch,” characters who encapsulated his fascination with yesteryear America.

Then came the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary that left 26 people dead, 20 of them children.

“The tragedy opened a new emotional and creative pathway for me,” writes Blanco, who now lives in Maine. “Writing the inaugural poem wasn’t the same assignment anymore. I suddenly understood that as a Cuban-American, I hadn’t explored my American side of the hyphen as much as my Cuban side.”

He began asking questions, probing his relationship with America: Was this his country? What is the American dream? What was his place in America?

The result were three works: “What We Know of Country,” which explores the childlike vision he grew up with of America and the more nuanced one he had come to embrace as an adult; “Mother Country,” an autobiographical piece describing his mother’s loss of country and discovery of a new one; and “One Today,” which describes the mosaic of America, united under “one sky, our sky,” and chosen by the White House to be read at the inauguration.

Standing at the podium on that frigid January morning, he said, he felt that the questions he’d been asking were finally resolved, surrounded by politicians, his mother, artists like James Taylor and Beyonce, and the faces of so many Americans who would write him afterward.

“It was such a powerful feeling to be embraced (by) America in a way I hadn’t expected,” Blanco said. “I think I finally feel, as I like to say, I discovered some was right here all the time. Home was in my backyard so to speak.”

(Continued on page 2)

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