Richard Blanco, who wrote the poem “One Today” for Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2013, still has high aspirations for the country. Photo by Sarah Beard Buckley

Despite everything, Richard Blanco is optimistic about the future of this country. Cautiously optimistic, but optimistic nonetheless.

“Poets and artists, when things seem to be going well, we’re always looking under the hood to see what’s not working. But when things are really bad, we try to find the light at the end of the tunnel,” said Blanco, the poet from Bethel, who eight years ago this month spoke his aspirational poem “One Today” at Barack Obama’s second inauguration.

He delivered his poem from the U.S. Capitol, and offered a message of hope and belonging: “We head home: through the gloss of rain or weight of snow, or the plum blush of dusk, but always – home, always under one sky, our sky.”

Holding fast to the idea of home, Blanco – interviewed Monday before the upheaval at the Capitol – said he is peering out from the long, dark tunnel of 2020 with hope for a better, brighter 2021. From his perspective, the upheavals and disruptions of the past year, from the pandemic to Black Lives Matter to still-tense post-election machinations, brought fundamental change to this country and to the world. Blanco sees a positive side to all of it, including the pandemic, because it forced us from our old routines and habits, laid bare our failures and shortcomings and showed the path toward a more compassionate, inclusive future.

“It seems like we are turning the corner in many ways. There is so much coming to the surface. There is still a lot of reckoning to be had and a lot of reconciliation to be had, but we are reaching some reckoning points for some issues that we have swept under the rug,” he said. “I find great hope in that. It’s interesting to me, but there is something beautiful happening. I hate to say that in the middle of all this chaos, but there is real change, and change comes with a lot of agony and trial and tribulations. I think we’re all going through that now. Psychologically, it affects us all.”

Blanco Photo by Jacob Hessler

In that sense, the message of “One Today” is still his message today: We’re in it together, and we’ll come out of it together. The pandemic has reinforced his belief that each of us matters, that each of us has a vital role to play, and it has highlighted the important work of many, including nurses and grocery store clerks, who are often underpaid and unheard. “Suddenly, the Amazon delivery person is your lifeline to the world,” he said. “It takes us all working in concert, and everybody brings something to the table. That has become glaringly obvious today, with the pandemic. We are realizing how important we all are to society.”

Blanco, who turns 53 in February, likes to say that more people have walked on the moon than delivered a poem for a U.S. presidential inauguration. He’s one of only five, the others being Robert Frost, Maya Angelou, Miller Williams and Elizabeth Alexander. He was also the youngest, the first Latino, immigrant and gay person to serve as inaugural poet.

He has been home in Bethel since March, filling his time with remote teaching, Zoom calls, webinars, lectures and interviews. He’s taken many long walks in the woods, accomplished a lot of writing, and learned to celebrate the daily act of going to the post office as an affirmation of place and community.

But being still is not easy. He is reminded of the Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.”

“It’s been interesting, to say the least. One on hand, being a writer is always solitary and you’re somewhat in confinement. So it’s not as much a shock as for some people who are used to being out in the city doing their thing all day long. So that is somewhat OK. But even as a writer and as someone used to spending a lot of time alone, I am going stir crazy, mostly realizing how much we are social beings. Even if we consider ourselves introverts or recluses, we miss going out to dinner and having a laugh with our friends and doing all the stuff we took for granted. We miss those daily routines.”

Since he delivered “One Today” before an audience of millions, Blanco has spent most of his professional life traveling to readings, keynotes and workshops. He also teaches in Florida. “I wasn’t bored,” he said with a laugh. “I still love hopping on that plane at PWM and that sense of adventure. I love being on the road, love engaging with audiences. I do miss it, and I’ve gotten quite used to it for eight years. That kind of connection makes us feel alive as human beings, period. What I miss is the ceremony of it, the ritual of it, the book-signings afterward, the chitchat, the drink at the hotel lobby bar with your host, talking about the poems, and the readings. It’s the same with teaching. I miss the small talk with students after class or grabbing a coffee.”

Because those rituals are so deeply missed, Blanco thinks they will become more meaningful when they resume. We will take less for granted.

Richard Blanco’s 2013 memoir may become a TV show.

He has written several books since his appearance at Obama’s inauguration, including a memoir, “The Prince of Los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood,” about coming of age in a Cuban immigrant family, finding his place in the United States and exploring his identity and sexuality. The memoir is in development for TV, though he can’t say much about it. “Hollywood jinx,” he said. “They like to keep things quiet. There’s nothing signed. It’s purely in development.”

The fine-art book “Boundaries,” published in 2017 by Maine-based Two Ponds Press, was a collaboration with photographer Jacob Hessler about the boundaries of race, gender, class, and ethnicity in U.S. culture. In 2019, Beacon Press published “How to Love a Country,” in which Blanco reconciled hope with reality and navigated the fine line between patriotism and nationalism.

The pandemic has forced a pause to his never-ending activities and circuit of travel, and given him time to observe, reflect, comment – and collaborate. Soon after the shutdown, he worked with Portland Stage on a video for “One Today,” with participants from across theater and literary worlds contributing lines of Blanco’s poem, recorded in their homes and neighborhoods, and stitched together. He is working with playwright and award-winning novelist Vanessa Garcia on a play “about what happens when a Cuban moves to Maine.” It’s very much a work-in-progress. He and Garcia are tossing around ideas that will eventually find shape as a play that will reflect the changing cultural dynamics of Maine.

He’s also begun writing another memoir about identity, belonging and place, and he’s been writing poetry. In June, The Atlantic published “Say This Isn’t the End,” which he wrote in response to the early days of the pandemic. “Say we live on, say we’ll forget the masks that kept us from dying from the invisible,” it begins. “But say we won’t ever forget the invisible masks we realized we had been wearing most our lives, disguising ourselves from each other.”

In the poem, he hopes that his last goodbye to his mother won’t be their final goodbye, that restaurant chairs “will get back on their feet,” and he will continue to walk “alone and gently” through his neighborhood.

He ends the poem looking forward to a time of healing, evolution and reach.

“Say This Isn’t the End” echoes themes of “One Today,” which speaks to the idea of becoming one. “We’re still not quite there yet,” Blanco said. “We have not quite fulfilled our motto, ‘Out of many, one.’ ”

Blanco has no inside knowledge about President-elect Joe Biden’s plans for an inaugural poet. He assumes there will be poetry and is excited about the prospect of poetry returning to the national stage, so citizens will have something other that rhetoric to consider and “something to aim for, something to make us hope again.” He half-suspected someone from the Biden camp would have called for a recommendation. “But he’s a literary guy. He likes poetry. He has poets in mind, just like President Obama did,” Blanco reasons.

Had they called, Blanco had an idea.

“I was thinking we have not heard from a Native American voice at an inauguration,” he said. “That would be a beautiful thing right now, and an interesting perspective to take us both way back and forward. That would be a beautiful voice to share at this moment in our country.”


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