One Day, the poem Richard Blanco wrote and read at the Jan. 13, 2013, inauguration of President Obama, is a hopeful ode to a democracy enriched by different cultures, experiences, work, and geographies. Some called it a modest poem.
It repeats the refrain that all Americans live under one sun, one sky, one moon; all tread the same earth. And it ends with the orb of night:
We head 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.”
Blanco, 46, broke some records as an inaugural poet: He was the youngest (44 at the time), first openly gay, first Hispanic or Latino, and first immigrant.
He will give a free talk at 12:30 p.m. today followed by a 1:30 book signing at the Latino Issues Conference at Bowling Green State University’s student union ballroom.
That cold winter day on the Washington podium, watched by more people than he’ll ever be seen by, Blanco had an epiphany: He understood he was, finally, an American. “I realized mine was an American story all along,” he said.
When the inaugural committee first asked him to submit three sample poems, “I thought about my parents and grandparents and all the sacrifices they made to make it easier for me in the world. And their emphasis on education.”
He also knew that poetry would be his life work. And that his topics would change. For 20 years, he’d written about what his “place at the [American] table is ... I’m eager now to explore more questions about America and the American identity.”
He was the fifth poet invited to craft exquisite language for the quadrennial ceremony. At John F. Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961, an 86-year-old Robert Frost fumbled with wind-blown papers before giving up and reciting a poem from memory. It was another 32 years before Maya Angelou and four years later Miller Williams (father of singer Lucinda Williams) would be inviited to speak at President Bill Clinton’s formal inductions. Elizabeth Alexander read at President Obama’s first inauguration.
As an appreciation for One Day, he and his partner, Mark Neveu, were invited to the Oval Office in May.
“That was more nerve wracking than the inauguration. You have this idea of who someone is. The President is who you see; he’s like the president next door, very, very friendly and very disarming.”
Blanco’s parents had been expelled from Cuba when he was an infant, and immigrated to the United States via a brief stint in Spain. They settled in a Cuban neighborhood in Miami where he grew up feeling parts Cuban and American. His mother had been a teacher in Cuba, but took jobs in a grocery store and as a bank teller. His father, who’d been studying at Cuba’s naval academy, worked as a butcher and bookkeeper.
Blanco became a civil engineer, scribbling poetry at night. He studied it at a community college, then earned a master’s degree in creative writing, publishing his thesis to critical acclaim. Poems swirled around his own unclear identity: How did culture and sexuality affect the way he negotiated life?
He resides in the scenic foothills of the White Mountains in Bethel, Maine, with Neveu, a scientist and his partner of 14 years.
“I always dreamed of living in rural small-town America,” Blanco said.
He reads nonfiction spiritual books written by Ken Wilber, Marianne Williamson, and Eckhart Tolle, author of a particular favorite, A New Earth. “It’s an extensive look at the human condition told in a very simple way and a very poetic way.”
Blanco said he’ll speak today about his emotional journey to the White House and how his life and views on poetry have changed. After the nation heard One Day, thousands of people from all walks of life wrote to say they were touched by it. In November, he published For All of Us, One Today, a memoir in English and Spanish chronicling his experiences creating the poems commissioned for the inaugural.
“All people really can appreciate poetry,” he said, noting he’s since given keynote talks at meetings of engineers, lawyers, and a fragrance firm. “People aren’t exposed to contemporary poetry enough. I want to create converts,” he said.
Think of poetry as a campfire, around which we can gather to gaze at dancing flames, contemplate, share stories, and be soothed, he said.
“Poetry’s roots are in old-world traditions. It’s used to mourn, to honor, to heal, to celebrate. I want to explore how we can support educators to teach poetry so that it makes a connection earlier in life. I’m still exploring how to do it, providing study guides — and this is all talk now — that we can put in the hands of every English teacher for free.
“I hope people will give [poetry] a chance. It speaks a truth.”
Contact Tahree Lane at email@example.com or 419-724-6075.