Dan and Hannah Spend an Evening with Richard Blanco, President Obama’s Inaugural Poet

When our sister-in-law Becky asked us if we wanted to go to a poetry reading, I thought, Oh no.  Poetry reading?  What could be worse?  How do I back out of this gracefully?  Throughout high school, poetry was a mystery, a code I could never crack.  Much like Shakespeare.  Teachers spoke of symbolism that was as opaque as a stone wall to me.  For example, what do clouds mean in a poem?  What does a ship at sea mean?  I’m told a mirror can denote the sun but when it is broken, it can represent an unhappy union or a separation; violets represent shyness; ravens signify death; fruit is associated with sensuality.  Really?  Good grief.  Where’s the playbook?

At Arizona State I took a course in Writing Poetry.  Mid-semester, the quote teacher of the course quoted for me that my poetry was doggerel (i.e., inane, syrupy crap).  That may be so, but that’s hardly the way to motivate a rookie.  What a surprise; I stopped going to class and ended up with a D for the course.  Thank heavens I reached out to Lynn Nelson, professor and friend, who encouraged me and dismissed such feedback; in time, no thanks to that poetry prof, I wrote a book of poetry.  That never would have happened without Lynn.  That’s why when I teach writing I follow these words, Children have more need of models than critiques. – Joseph Joubert.

In high school, Hannah was asked what a poem meant.  She explained, and then the teacher said, “No, it didn’t.”  What!  Yes, that it is what it meant to me.  Perhaps, the problem was not poetry but the messenger?

You can now see the basis of my hesitancy, reluctance, and despair at dealing with poetry, much less enduring a poetry reading.  Then Becky mentioned it was Richard Blanco.  Whoa.  The poet from Maine who read One Today at Barack Obama’s Second Inauguration.  A real celebrity.

Richard Blanco with President Barack Obama

Richard Blanco with President Barack Obama

There is no bigger stage for a poet than the Inauguration.  What I liked about that poem is that I understood it.  Who knew I could make sense of poetry?  Certainly none of my high school English teachers.  He told his story, our story of being an American that was accessible and real to me.

Within four hours of going on sale, all 1800 tickets for the poetry reading were gone.  This wasn’t going to be just any poetry reading.  We were going to see a rock star.  Now a month since his national splashdown at the Inauguration, Richard Blanco is huge.  Hannah and I were taken with him after seeing a PBS interview (five minutes) days before the inauguration.  Gracious and humble, he seemed approachable and not full of himself as celebrities can be.

Richard Blanco is a gay man of Hispanic origins (from a family of Cuban exiles) who grew up in Miami; he now lives in Bethel, Maine.  Bethel is a country mouse small town Maine of 2600 near the Canadian border.  Among all the possible poets that could have been chosen for this honor, why was he selected?  At the question and answer session after the poetry reading, he said that he had no idea.  He joked that he had hoped that the president and Michelle were reading one of his books of poetry in bed together and said, We should have this guy at the Inauguration.  Certainly, he is one significant demographic of the future (gay and immigrant [Hispanic]) that will have a meaningful role in determining the direction of our country.

Richard Blanco at Merrill Auditorium, Portland, Maine

Richard Blanco at Merrill Auditorium, Portland, Maine

Tonight Blanco tells us that his poems address what it means to be an American.   In his reading, he mixes his excellent English with melodic Spanish words.  Bodega (beau-day-ga). Just say that word.  It flows off my tongue.  His rich voice makes the evening a symphony.  And as I have learned previously, poetry is meant to be read aloud.

Becky and Hannah at Richard Blanco's Poetry Reading

Becky and Hannah at Richard Blanco’s Poetry Reading

His narrative poetry flows and I let my mind make my connections as he speaks.  In one poem, he describes taking his partner Mark to Marco Island (FL) where his family once vacationed at the Gulf Motel.  Sadly, the Gulf Motel no longer exists; high rise condominiums now block the ocean view for the common folk.  What happens to our past when the monuments to it are gone?

In a playful piece about his partner Mark always being late, Blanco says there are two kinds of people: those who worry about others who are late and those who don’t call.  Adeptly, Blanco says twenty minutes after Mark is due, he has him in an ambulance.  Thirty minutes after that, he is thinking of the call he’ll have to make to Mark’s parents.  In time, he is composing Mark’s eulogy.  Then Mark appears and Blanco is so angry.  Blanco ends the poem with I die each time I kill you.

Another poem, Queer Theory, According to My Grandmother, explores his homophobic grandmother.  In the poem he describes how his grandmother warned him as a young boy: For God’s sake, never pee sitting down … /I’ve seen you” and “Don’t stare at The Six-Million-Dollar Man. / I’ve seen you.” and “Never dance alone in your room. During the q and a after, Blanco said there are people in our lives who we push against; that resistance allows us to discover, learn, and grow.

He concludes the night with a reading of his inauguration poem, “One Today.”  It’s a poem about the lives of Americans, how everyone is a vital part of that community, about coming home, and the universal theme of hope. As a teacher, I thought the best thing I could do for my students was give them hope: hope they could learn and succeed.

He concludes in this poem with these lines,

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. And always one moon
like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop
and every window, of one country—all of us—
facing the stars
hope—a new constellation
waiting for us to map it,
waiting for us to name it—together.

Richard Blanco at Inauguration

It was spectacular evening. Well-spoken, Richard Blanco provides an important backstory for each of his poems as he transitions from one to another.  He is so much more than a celebrity, he’s an inspiration.

PS  Here is the link from Tuesday night’s (February 26, 2013) poetry reading with text and his reading of One Today.

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