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One City, One Book fêtes inauguration poet

by Jordan Green

 jordan@yesweekly.com

The poet Richard Blanco took a call from a reporter from his home in Bethel, Maine after a week on the road.

He said he was trying to catch up on bills, walking the dog and relaxing at home.

In two days, he would be on tour again to read his poems, eventually arriving in North Carolina for an engagement with the Greensboro Library’s One City, One Book program. He expected to be “pretty rumpled” by the time he made it to Greensboro, Blanco joked.

Blanco’s life has taken a dramatic turn since he was selected to read his work at President Obama’s Second Inauguration.

“It still is a great mystery,” the poet said.

“We don’t know exactly what the inner workings are and how the gears work. I understand there was some kind of vetting process. I don’t know if one of [Obama’s] daughters brought home a poem or what.”

The son of Cuban exiles in Miami and an openly gay poet, Blanco is also a professional civil engineer. Those markers of identity resonated with significance in tandem with the president’s inaugural address, which referenced Seneca and Stonewall, Martin Luther King’s vision of mutuality and hospitality to immigrants, while hammering home a message of can-do optimism.

“I’ve been writing about America since the first book I published, including a poem entitled ‘America,’” Blanco said. “The question of what it means to be American, identity and national loyalty — being an immigrant and the child of exiles, those have always been important questions for me. Of course, the scale of what the conversation has gotten to be is very surprising. As a poet, it pleases me very much that poetry can be part of our dialogue as a nation.”

The words of “One Today” — read with President Obama on his right shoulder and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia on his left — resonate with a familiarity that must be composted into the American soil, calling up the expansive vision of Walt Whitman, the celebration of common workers by Carl Sandburg and the inclusive message of Dr. King:

… Thanks the work of our hands: weaving steel into bridges, finishing one more report for the boss on time, stitching another wound or uniform, the first brush stroke on a portrait, or the last floor on the Freedom Tower jutting into the sky that yields to our resilience.

Since the inauguration, Blanco said he hasn’t had much time to work as a civil engineer. Fortunately, he already had a memoir and a children’s book completed and ready for publication. He finished a book chronicling his journey as an inaugural poet, For All of Us, One Today, which is scheduled for publication on Nov. 19 by Beacon Press. He said he sees public appearances as a part of his poetic mission rather than as a conflict with his writing discipline.

The Greensboro audience can expect to hear poems from Blanco’s most recent collection, Looking for the Gulf Motel, and selections from For All of Us, One Today, with the reading culminating in the inauguration poem.

Coming from a family of limited means, Blanco said he studied engineering at his parents’ suggestion. But he continually wrote poetry in his twenties and went back to get his MFA in creative writing in 1997.

“You have to face your financial reality, but the idea is to never let go of the dream,” he said. “I worked full time as an engineer. Stick to it. Do it out of sheer love and passion. Don’t let go of it. Life always makes demands on us. The hardest thing is to sit down and write a poem, or paint a painting, or write a score. Make every decision in your life based on supporting that vision.”

WANNA go?

Richard Blanco reads his poems on Oct. 14 at Bluford Library on the campus of NC A&T University at 3 p.m. and at the Carolina Theatre in Greensboro at 7 p.m., preceded by a reception at 6 p.m. Both appearances are free and open to the public.

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