January 10, 2013

Mainer chosen as inaugural poet

Richard Blanco will write an original poem to recite at President Obama's swearing-in ceremony on Jan. 21. His hometown of Bethel is abuzz.

By Tom Bell tbell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

On the Bethel Planning Board, Richard Blanco is known as a wordsmith, helping his colleagues draft language on board decisions, such as the approval of a sign application for Inman’s Diner on Route 2 or the site plan for the new mineral and gem museum under construction on Main Street.

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Richard Blanco has said he relates to Obama's writings about his search for his own multicultural family history and personal identity.

Photo by Nico Tucci

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Interview with Richard Blanco on NPR

Excerpt of "Looking For the Gulf Motel," by Richard Blanco

There should be nothing here I don't remember . . .

My mother should still be in the kitchenette
of The Gulf Motel, her daisy sandals from Kmart
squeaking across the linoleum, still gorgeous
in her teal swimsuit and amber earrings
stirring a pot of arroz-con-pollo, adding sprinkles
of onion powder and dollops of tomato sauce.
My father should still be in a terrycloth jacket
smoking, clinking a glass of amber whiskey
in the sunset at the Gulf Motel, watching us
dive into the pool, two boys he'll never see
grow into men who will be proud of him.

Still, it was quite a surprise on Wednesday when the Presidential Inauguration Committee announced that Blanco will serve as the inaugural poet during the swearing-in ceremony on Jan. 21 of President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden.

“Very few people knew he was a published poet before this,” said Vicki Rackliffe, the town’s planning assistant. “He kind of kept it to himself.”

Not anymore. With the nation watching, the relatively obscure poet will recite an original poem on the steps of the Capitol. He will be the nation’s fifth inaugural poet since Robert Frost recited a poem at the inauguration of President Kennedy in 1961.

“I am thrilled,” Blanco said in an email, adding that he is already busy working on the poem for the inaugural.

Blanco, who refused several requests for a telephone interview, told National Public Radio on Wednesday that it’s a difficult assignment.

“But luckily, I really sort of have keyed in to the theme of the inauguration, which is Our People, Our Future, and writing about America is a topic that obsesses me in terms of cultural negotiation and my background as a Cuban-American.”

Still, he told NPR, his big challenge will be to maintain a sense of intimacy and conversational tone in a poem that “obviously has to sort of encompass a whole lot more than just my family and my experience.”

At age 44, Blanco will be the youngest inaugural poet, as well as the first Hispanic and the first gay person to recite a poem at the swearing-in ceremony.

Obama chose Blanco because the poet’s “deeply personal poems are rooted in the idea of what it means to be an American,” said Addie Whisenant, the inaugural committee’s spokeswoman.

Blanco told The New York Times he related to the president’s life story, given their shared multicultural backgrounds. “There has always been a spiritual connection in that sense,” he said. “I feel in some ways that when I’m writing about my family, I’m writing about him.”

Blanco’s poems often speak to the immigrant experience. Born in Spain to Cuban exiles, Blanco’s parents emigrated to New York City days after his birth and eventually settled in Miami.

His parents named him after Richard Nixon, a Republican leader who railed against Fidel Castro, according to The New York Times.

Blanco moved from Miami to Bethel in 2009, shortly after he presented a poetry reading at the University of Maine Museum of Art and the English Department’s New Writing Series program.

At the reading, Blanco read his poem “Looking for the Gulf Motel,” which was published in a book of the same title in 2012. The poem recalls Blanco’s childhood, when his parents, while on vacation on a Florida beach, cooked Cuban food in the hotel’s kitchenette using an espresso pot and a pressure cooker:

“All because we can’t afford to eat out, not even
on vacation, only two hours from our home
in Miami, but far enough away to be thrilled
by whiter sands on the west coast of Florida,
where I should still be for the first time watching
the sun set instead of rise over the ocean.”

The poem speaks about families who are struggling economically but still creating meaningful memories for their children, said George Kinghorn, executive director of the University of Maine Museum of Art and a friend of Blanco’s. He said he sees how Obama would be captivated by a poem with that kind of message.

(Continued on page 2)

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