Inaugural poet Richard Blanco at home in Bethel, Maine
Since he answered the call to read at President Obama’s inauguration, his life hasn’t been quite the same
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“We wanted to think of something that’s eternal,” Lally said later.
Nearby, Holly Roberts beamed. “I’m so proud of him it’s weird,” said the salon owner, who has become good friends with Blanco and Neveu since they moved into town from Miami. She reads his poems to her customers and sells his books at the shop.
On the night before Blanco and Neveu headed to Washington, they were at her business after hours, tanning and getting last-minute haircuts. Roberts made corn chowder for them — Neveu, who acts as Blanco’s personal manager and has been frantically trying to keep up with all the requests, has been losing weight, she said.
She was working during the inauguration, so she pulled up a live stream on her laptop. Her clients were forbidden to talk while Blanco spoke in the cold on the Capitol steps.
Watching him address the president and a million or so spectators was thrilling, she said. “That’s us,” she told her clients, “and he’s up there!”
Bethel native Mark Bennett, a 70-year-old upholsterer with grown children, remembered a time when the town was not so welcoming to different lifestyles. When he came out as a gay man, he said, “I was the talk of the town for a while.
“Times have changed,” he said. “It’s nice to feel free to speak your mind.”
For Blanco, who was conceived in Cuba, born in Spain, and raised in Florida, moving to Bethel has connected him with the heart of America. Norman Rockwell himself couldn’t have made up the fact that the poet practiced his inaugural poem by reciting it to a snowman built by his visiting nephew.
Yet he recently told his mother he feels “more Cuban” in Bethel. Growing up in Miami felt like a kind of “purgatory,” he told the audience at his reading. He was caught between two imaginary worlds — his parents’ idealized memories of Cuba in the 1950s and the United States he struggled to understand by watching “The Brady Bunch” and “Leave It to Beaver” in his neighborhood of immigrants.
It wasn’t until a grad-school assignment that he truly discovered his affinity for poetry. He wrote about his family and that sense of longing to belong that has infused so much of his work since.
“I was trying to write like other people — Whitman, Wordsworth,” he said at the reception. “Suddenly I realized what I really care about.” It’s his feel for place, and the work that it takes to make a “home,” that undoubtedly appealed to the inaugural committee.
The style of Blanco’s poetry — direct, unfussy — was another likely key to his selection. Writing a simple, accessible poem, he argued, “is harder than writing a fancy poem — you have to really crystallize your thoughts.” He noted the genius of the stark imagery of the great New England poet Elizabeth Bishop in “The Moose”: “Every single article in that poem has a meaning.”
A poem like that, he said, can be a powerful antidote to the belief that poetry holds no place in the modern world. For some reason, Blanco said, schoolchildren tend to be turned off for good when they’re confronted with one poem that rubs them the wrong way.
“If you see a bad movie, you don’t say, ‘I’m never going to see another movie again,’ ” he pointed out. “There’s poetry I can’t stomach, but it’s a chorus of voices that make art.”
He still claims to have little understanding of the inaugural selection process. “Part of me doesn’t want to know,” he said. “I have this fantasy of Obama and Michelle tucked in bed, reading my books.”
In fact, his own story might be just universal enough to speak for multitudes.
“I really identify with Obama’s biography,” he said. “I feel he asked some of the same questions.”
Yet despite all the elbow-rubbing, sharing the stage with celebrities such as Beyoncé, he has no illusions about his own accelerated importance. “The poet laureate of England gets greeted by the queen off the plane,” this country’s poet du jour said with a laugh. “Here, you’re lucky if you get a couple of Godiva chocolates.”