BETHEL, Maine — The doorman at the Washington, D.C., hotel wanted a big hug. “Gimme some love!” he demanded.
The nation’s capital was full of people eager to embrace Richard Blanco after he read his poem “One Today” for President Obama’s second inauguration last month. When he got home to Bethel, Maine, the letters started pouring in. One, from a woman living in a senior center, said “it felt like the atoms were all rearranged” as he read.
“That’s what I wanted the poem to do,” Blanco said recently. “I wanted everyone to breathe.”
There hasn’t been much time for that since. On a recent Friday, having just finished taping an interview for NPR’s “Fresh Air,” the poet spent much of the day at his house with a crew from a network news program. That evening he was honored at a hometown event called “Celebrating Richard Blanco.” It was his birthday — his 45th, and the first since the shock of his sudden fame.
Among those most surprised about Blanco’s catapult into celebrity were his new-ish neighbors in the quaint mountainside village of Bethel, where the poet and civil engineer has lived with his partner, molecular cell biologist Mark Neveu, for three years. Though Blanco immersed himself in civic life immediately upon arriving, few knew the extent of his reputation as a poet, until the inauguration.
“I knew him from the sign committee,” said Jessie Perkins of the town’s Chamber of Commerce.
Addressing an audience of friends, colleagues, and well-wishers in an auditorium at Gould Academy on his birthday, the personable poet joked about it. “I never came out of the poetry closet in Bethel for some reason,” he said to hearty laughter. “I was waiting for the right time.”
What Blanco appreciates about Bethel, he said, is “not so much the cuteness but the incredible energy, and the people. Bethel is a state of mind more than a town.”
In his poems he captures the emotions of a particular moment in time — the aching bond of sitting with an emotionally distant father in a hospital room, or the black humor of imagining the worst when a loved one is late coming home. Or, in the case of “One Today,” the glory of watching the sun rise over a diverse yet communally linked population — “millions of faces in morning’s mirrors.”
If he has no time to write right now, Blanco is undoubtedly having his moment. And if he’s growing weary of the attention, he has no intention of letting on. The reaction he’s gotten, he says, means that people have been reminded what a good poem can do for community.
“The idea of service is very important to me,” he told the Globe on the night of the Bethel celebration. “Every time I open a letter, I start bawling.”
Since the inauguration he’s been making as many appearances as he can manage. He traveled to Connecticut earlier this month to address an audience alongside Yale professor Elizabeth Alexander, who wrote a poem for Obama’s first swearing-in. Together they represent two of only five poets in history to write an original poem for a presidential inaugural (the others: Robert Frost for John F. Kennedy, and Maya Angelou and Miller Williams for Bill Clinton). Blanco is working with the state of Maine’s school competition Poetry Out Loud, and he’ll read at Portland’s Merrill Auditorium Tuesday night.
“I have to learn to say no,” he said with a smile. “I can’t go to every grade school and Rotary meeting.”
It was at a Rotary breakfast where he first met Bethel’s young town manager, 35-year-old Jim Doar. Blanco said he wanted to get involved in town planning, and he gave Doar his card.
Doar went to the newcomer’s website, where he learned of his “other” life, as an award-winning poet. (Blanco published his first collection in 1998; his third, “Looking for the Gulf Motel,” came out last year.)
“I don’t know much about poetry,” Doar said at a reception after the Bethel reading.
Though Blanco soon joined the town Planning Board and has become an active presence in town since, the town manager learned his neighbor would be reading at the inauguration the way most acquaintances did — he read about it in the newspaper.
At the reception, held at the Bethel Inn, just down Church Street from the auditorium, a birthday cake the size of a ping-pong table was decorated with the entire text of the inaugural poem. A projector rolled a continuous slide show of family photos — the man of honor relaxing with a cat on his head and, as a boy, riding a coin-operated “Killer Whale.”
Locals presented the poet with gifts. A representative of Sunday River gave him a season’s pass, teasing him about his admitted reluctance to learn to ski, and Maureen Lally of Mt. Abram presented him with a custom-made sign reading “One Today” — an in-joke about his work on the town’s sign committee.Continued...