Richard Blanco’s sense of duty shifted when he delivered a poem on the steps of the U.S. Capitol for Barack Obama’s second inauguration, an event now distanced by more than six years.

So much has changed since then, in America and in the poet’s life. Blanco’s new book of poems, “How to Love A Country,” reflects his coming to terms with what America has become in those six years, as well as changes he has made and encountered and how his role as a presidential inaugural poet created expectations and a heightened sense of responsibility to see and speak out.

Richard Blanco Photo by Joyce Tenneson, courtesy of Beacon Press

“The inauguration made me think about the civic role of a poet and poetry. I started writing poems that were more socially engaged and socially conscious. Along the way, I was also asked to write several commemorative poems – for Boston Strong, for the freedom to marry and for the reopening of the U.S. Embassy in Cuba,” he said.

“How to Love A Country” by Richard Blanco. Image courtesy of Beacon Press

Those events helped shaped his view of the world and of America. Blanco, 51, writes most often at his home in Bethel – most often at the kitchen table, at night. He got into the routine of writing at night when he worked as a civil engineer. “I always had a day job,” he said in a phone call from his home, where he was enjoying watching the snow melt. “I got used to writing at night. I’m a vampire writer. I sometimes start writing at midnight. It seems to be the same effect as writers who get up early in the morning. There’s a sense of tranquility and mindfulness, once the cat litter is changed, the dishes washed and the busy, mundane stuff taken care of. I can enter this secret sort of ministry of writing, when all the world is asleep. Different kinds of creative juices flow when I am in that mindset.”

The process of writing autobiographical poems forced him to question his own cultural identity and what it means to be an American in the early 21st century. Blanco will read from his book and talk about his life as a traveling poet in a conversation Saturday at Space Gallery in Portland.

The talk in Portland is part of a national book tour that began in March and continues through the spring. His talk at Space is sold out, but he’s scheduled several other Maine appearances, including April 23 at Gould Academy in Bethel and May 2 at Thomas Memorial Library in Cape Elizabeth. He is teaching this spring at Maine Media Workshops in Rockport and has more Maine speaking dates in June.

More often than not, he’s on the road. “My life has been one long book tour, ever since the inauguration. Seventy percent of the time, I’m on the road anyway. With a book launch, it’s a whole other set of promotions and public appearances.”

Being on the road gives him the chance to see America, have conversations about American culture and events, and experience how his feelings about his country have changed since January 2013 when he stood alongside the president and delivered his hopeful, inclusive and triumphant poem “One Today.” As a Cuban immigrant in a country divided by race and class, he understands how much the mood has shifted from hopeful to helpless.

“It’s interesting. The honor of being the inaugural poet made me feel I had arrived as an American. I finally had a place at the American table. I felt that not just for myself, but for millions of people I indirectly represented. It was a great moment. I started thinking about my connection to America in a different way and taking responsibility for what still needs work.”

So much has changed.

“One of the revelations is that America is very much a work in progress. I began to think and understand and feel that we have a role and responsibility in a democracy to participate in whatever way we can to continue that story, that work in progress – a sentence, a chapter or a whole volume. It’s made me think a lot, and I feel stronger than ever that voices like myself need to speak up and do more work and participate more in the democracy and think about how we we are shaping our story.”

As difficult as they are, the conversations about race and gender, which have “been swept under the rug for so long without any real conversations,” are leading to meaningful action and shifting our culture ever forward. Somewhere in that churn of turmoil must be progress, he said.

“Personally, I feel that there is a lot of dismay, and with good reason. But I feel optimistic in the sense that this is part of the process. In some way, I am glad we are in such turmoil because it means we are doing some work and asking questions about things that are not resolved on many fronts, especially race.”

That’s why he wrote these poems. They are about the issues of our times. There are poems about walls, borders and divides, about the high school shootings in Parkland, the nightclub shootings in Orlando, the Boston Marathon bombing. He writes about DACA dreamers, treaty violations and marriage equality. As an American poet of note, Blanco feels an obligation to comment on important American events.

These are the stories of our lives from a writer who brings a unique perspective. He was born in Spain to Cuban exile parents and raised in Miami. He lives as a gay man in rural Maine and benefits from a lifestyle that sends him around the country and around the globe and puts him in contact with world leaders, scholars and policy-makers.

Blanco wasn’t surprised Trump was elected. “I had a suspicion,” he said. “We were heading for a pendulum swing.” He assigned himself to write an inaugural poem for Trump, perhaps a parody of his poem for Obama. But he didn’t do it. He didn’t want to write about Trump.

Instead, he wrote about America and asked larger questions about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

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Twitter: pphbkeyes

 


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