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Inaugural poet goes from Maine to the nation

Since Richard Blanco answered the call to read at President Obama’s inauguration, the Bethel, Maine, resident’s life hasn’t been quite the same.

Poet Richard Blanco (pictured with President Obama in front of the US Capitol at last month’s inauguration) will read at the Merrill Auditorium in Portland, Maine, on Tuesday night.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Poet Richard Blanco (pictured with President Obama in front of the US Capitol at last month’s inauguration) will read at the Merrill Auditorium in Portland, Maine, on Tuesday night.

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.

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“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.

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“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.”

‘I have this fantasy of Obama and Michelle tucked in bed, reading my books.’

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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.

“We wanted to think of something that’s eternal,” Lally said later.

Nearby, Holly Roberts beamed. “I’m so proud of him it’s weird,” said the salon owner, who has become good friends with Blanco and Neveu since they moved into town from Miami. She reads his poems to her customers and sells his books at the shop.

On the night before Blanco and Neveu headed to Washington, they were at her business after hours, tanning and getting last-minute haircuts. Roberts made corn chowder for them — Neveu, who acts as Blanco’s personal manager and has been frantically trying to keep up with all the requests, has been losing weight, she said.

She was working during the inauguration, so she pulled up a live stream on her laptop. Her clients were forbidden to talk while Blanco spoke in the cold on the Capitol steps.

Watching him address the president and a million or so spectators was thrilling, she said. “That’s us,” she told her clients, “and he’s up there!”

Bethel native Mark Bennett, a 70-year-old upholsterer with grown children, remembered a time when the town was not so welcoming to different lifestyles. When he came out as a gay man, he said, “I was the talk of the town for a while.

“Times have changed,” he said. “It’s nice to feel free to speak your mind.”

For Blanco, who was conceived in Cuba, born in Spain, and raised in Florida, moving to Bethel has connected him with the heart of America. Norman Rockwell himself couldn’t have made up the fact that the poet practiced his inaugural poem by reciting it to a snowman built by his visiting nephew.

Yet he recently told his mother he feels “more Cuban” in Bethel. Growing up in Miami felt like a kind of “purgatory,” he told the audience at his reading. He was caught between two imaginary worlds — his parents’ idealized memories of Cuba in the 1950s and the United States he struggled to understand by watching “The Brady Bunch” and “Leave It to Beaver” in his neighborhood of immigrants.

It wasn’t until a grad-school assignment that he truly discovered his affinity for poetry. He wrote about his family and that sense of longing to belong that has infused so much of his work since.

“I was trying to write like other people — Whitman, Wordsworth,” he said at the reception. “Suddenly I realized what I really care about.” It’s his feel for place, and the work that it takes to make a “home,” that undoubtedly appealed to the inaugural committee.

The style of Blanco’s poetry — direct, unfussy — was another likely key to his selection. Writing a simple, accessible poem, he argued, “is harder than writing a fancy poem — you have to really crystallize your thoughts.” He noted the genius of the stark imagery of the great New England poet Elizabeth Bishop in “The Moose”: “Every single article in that poem has a meaning.”

A poem like that, he said, can be a powerful antidote to the belief that poetry holds no place in the modern world. For some reason, Blanco said, schoolchildren tend to be turned off for good when they’re confronted with one poem that rubs them the wrong way.

“If you see a bad movie, you don’t say, ‘I’m never going to see another movie again,’ ” he pointed out. “There’s poetry I can’t stomach, but it’s a chorus of voices that make art.”

He still claims to have little understanding of the inaugural selection process. “Part of me doesn’t want to know,” he said. “I have this fantasy of Obama and Michelle tucked in bed, reading my books.”

In fact, his own story might be just universal enough to speak for multitudes.

“I really identify with Obama’s biography,” he said. “I feel he asked some of the same questions.”

Yet despite all the elbow-rubbing, sharing the stage with celebrities such as Beyoncé, he has no illusions about his own accelerated importance. “The poet laureate of England gets greeted by the queen off the plane,” this country’s poet du jour said with a laugh. “Here, you’re lucky if you get a couple of Godiva chocolates.”

James Sullivan can be reached at jamesgsullivan@gmail.com.
Follow him on Twitter @sullivan
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