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For inaugural poet, a journey home to America

With President Obama and Vice President Biden looking on, Richard Blanco delivered the inaugural poem at Obama’s second inauguration on Jan. 21.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

With President Obama and Vice President Biden looking on, Richard Blanco delivered the inaugural poem at Obama’s second inauguration on Jan. 21.

MIAMI — The Miami neighborhood where inaugural poet Richard Blanco grew up resembles in many ways the Cuba his family left behind. Down the street, a man sells avocados from a small table. His favorite bakery, a few blocks north, serves guava pastries and cafe con leche.

As a child and even as an adult, this was home. But it wasn’t necessarily what he imagined as America.

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‘‘There’s always a little part of you as an immigrant that goes, ‘Well, I’m not really American,’ ’’ Blanco said in an interview with the Associated Press at his mother’s home in Miami. ‘‘There’s that other little boy on TV or some place I haven’t been yet.’’

That feeling of displacement has been at the crux of his poetry.

When it came to writing the poem for the 2013 inauguration of President Obama, however, he was forced to reexamine his own relationship with America and what it meant to be American. Blanco was born 45 years ago in Spain to Cuban immigrants who moved to the United States when he was an infant.

The experience of writing the poem, Blanco said, was transformative.

‘‘I finally realized that my story, my mother’s stories, all those millions of stories of faces that were looking at me at the podium, that is America,’’ said Blanco, the nation’s first Latino and openly gay inaugural poet. ‘‘I finally realized that I’m not the other.’’

‘I’m excited to explore America and not so much from a first person anymore, but sort of a “we” voice, which is what the inaugural poem was doing.’

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Blanco describes the writing the inaugural poem and two others — and the journey he has embarked on since — in a book, ‘‘For All of Us, One Today: An Inaugural Poet’s Journey,’’ recently published by Beacon Press.

Tasked with writing three poems in three weeks, Blanco said he struggled initially on the direction to take. He doesn’t know how or why he was chosen though he knew the White House committee’s choice was symbolic. He had published three critically acclaimed poetry books but was only modestly known at the time.

He read the work of other inaugural poets such as Maya Angelou and Robert Frost and of others, like Elizabeth Bishop and Pablo Neruda. But by the third day, anxiety began to set in. During mental breaks, he watched reruns of favorite shows like ‘‘Bewitched’’ and the ‘‘Brady Bunch,’’ with characters that encapsulated his fascination with yesteryear America.

Then came the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary that left 26 people dead, 20 of them children.

‘‘The tragedy opened a new emotional and creative pathway for me,’’ writes Blanco, who now lives in Maine. ‘‘Writing the inaugural poem wasn’t the same assignment anymore. I suddenly understood that as a Cuban-American, I hadn’t explored my American side of the hyphen as much as my Cuban side.’’

He began asking questions, probing his relationship with America: Was this his country? What is the American dream? What was his place in America?

The result was three works: ‘‘What We Know of Country,’’ which explores the childlike vision he grew up with of America and the more nuanced one he had come to embrace as an adult; ‘‘Mother Country,’’ an autobiographical piece describing his mother’s loss of country and discovery of a new one; and ‘‘One Today,’’ which describes the mosaic of America, united under ‘‘one sky, our sky,’’ and chosen by the White House to be read at the inauguration.

Standing at the podium on that frigid January morning, he said, he felt that the questions he’d been asking were finally resolved, surrounded by politicians, his mother, artists such as James Taylor and Beyoncé, and so many Americans who would write him afterward.

‘‘It was such a powerful feeling to be embraced by America in a way I hadn’t expected,’’ Blanco said. ‘‘I think I finally feel, as I like to say, I discovered home was right here all the time. Home was in my backyard so to speak.’’

The year since has confirmed that conviction. Blanco travels the country, delivering speeches and readings everywhere from Boston after the Marathon bombings, to the Fragrance Foundation Awards and the Northeast Association of Transportation Engineers (Blanco has worked throughout his adult life as an engineer while writing poetry and teaching).

As Blanco says, ‘‘The weirder the venue, the more I like doing it.’’

‘‘I’m excited to explore America and not so much from a first person anymore, but sort of a ‘we’ voice, which is what the inaugural poem was doing,’’ he said.

Part of his motivation now, he said, is to rekindle the connection he saw Americans experience with poetry when he read at the inauguration.

‘‘A lot of what I’ve heard back from the inauguration is these faces of surprise,’’ Blanco said. ‘‘They’re so entrenched still in America [with] this idea that a poem has to be indecipherable and rhyme and be beyond comprehension for it to be a poem. And people are like, is that a poem?’’

But if Blanco spoke of Americans united under ‘‘one today’’ in his poem, it’s also been one of the most divisive years in memory. Congress remains polarized. The government shut down for the first time in 17 years. And the public has increasingly lost its faith in its elected officials.

‘‘I don’t think what we’ve gone through in the last few years is a great example of being one today,’’ Blanco said. ‘‘But sometimes all of that needs to come out of the wash to get there.’’

Coming back to Miami from his travels and home with his partner in Bethel, Maine, he said, is like returning to ‘‘the womb.’’ Photographs of Blanco and his brother, some in the faded pastel hues of decades past, line the wall of a hallway in his mother’s duplex.

‘‘It isn’t where you’re born that matters, it’s where you choose to die — that’s your country,’’ Blanco quotes his mother in one of the three poems he wrote.

That, Blanco says, is the conclusion he has reached, too.

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