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Poet From Bethel Picked for President's Inauguration
01/09/2013   Reported By: Samantha Fields
Richard Blanco, Poet

A man from Maine has been chosen by the Presidential Inaugural Committee as this year's inaugural poet. Richard Blanco, who lives in Bethel, is just the fifth poet to be invited to read at an inaugural, joining the likes of Robert Frost and Maya Angelou. Blanco will also be the first Latino and the first openly gay poet to read at an inauguration. He is also the youngest.

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That Richard Blanco would land in a small town in rural Maine may seem unlikely. But considering how much he's moved around, and how displaced he's felt nearly all his life, it's not necessarily surprising, either. Blanco likes to say he was "made in Cuba, assembled in Spain, and imported to the United States." He spent most of his childhood in Miami. A place he describes as, "kind of like a purgatory. Somewhere between Cuba and America."

And he's spent much of his adult life searching for what he imagined to be "the real America." His poems are narrative and often personal. He writes about his Cuban American family, and identity, and his persistent feelings of being stuck between two worlds, and having to negotiate between cultures. A theme that comes out in this excerpt of the poem "Betting on America," about the "Miss America" pageant, which was important viewing in Blanco's Cuban American household.

"My grandmother was the bookie," Blanco said. "Set-up at the kitchen table that night, her hair in curlers, pencil and pad jotting down two dollar bets, paying 5-1 on which miss would take the crown that year. Abuelo put his money on Miss Wyoming. She's got great teeth he pronounced, as if complementing a horse. Not her smile, filling the camera before she whisked away like a cloud in her creamy chiffon dress. I dug up enough change from the sofa and car seats to bet on Miss Wisconsin thinking I was as American as she, and I was as blonde as she was. And I knew that's where all the cheese came from."

In the end, though, none of them bet on the winner, Miss Ohio.

"And none of us, not even me, could answer Mama when she asked, 'donde esta Ohio?'"

As the child of exiles, Blanco said he's never felt entirely at home, anywhere he's lived.

"Home is always temporary, and there's just this possibility, there's this great paradise somewhere, where the gates are supposed to open and you're going to feel that sense of home," he said.

Bethel, much to his own surprise, comes about as close as he's ever gotten. For the first time in his life, Blanco said his mindset actually matches where he lives. He has fallen in love with the town and with the state, largely because of the people.

"I mean the sense of community is just amazing" Blanco said. "And I tell my mom sometimes, I feel more like I'm in Cuba when I'm in Maine than I'm in Miami. And she looks at me like I'm crazy. But the truth is that the Miami I grew up in was a much tighter community, and when I visit my family in Cuba who are from the rural parts of Cuba, there is that great sense of community. Of one for all and all for one. And of the gossip. You know, you do something and in 10 minutes… and I love that sense of community and belonging which is something I think I've always craved since I was a kid."

A sense of home, a sense of belonging, an understanding of what it means to be American - these are the things Blanco is perpetually searching for, both in life and in his writing. And so this year's inaugural theme: "Our People, Our Future," feels like a natural fit, he said.

"Salt of the Earth people, my mom you know working full time every day of her life, with dinner on the table at 5 every day, you know, that sense of getting it done, of believing in America, and believing in… the American dream," he said.

Blanco has no idea how he was picked, or how the President came across his work. But ever since he got the call from his agent, and was convinced that it was not, in fact, a practical joke, he said he felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude. A sense that everything in his life has led to this moment.

"Everything that's happened since the day my grandmother was born," he said. "That sense of just, the continuity and this incredible validation of their work and what they did to come to this country, and what they did to work their butts of so we could have an education… suddenly all these things made sense and felt part of it all. And just this overwhelming sense of gratitude. And then just sheer panic. 'I've gotta write a poem now!'"

Blanco is also taking the invitation as a sign from the universe that maybe it's finally time to give up his other career, as a civil engineer. He takes great pride in the fact that he can design a bridge, But, he said, he's finally realized that poetry will be his legacy.

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