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Meet an Author: Richard Blanco, Inauguration Poet

President Barack Obama, left, and Vice President Joe Biden listen as poet Richard Blanco speaks at the ceremonial swearing-in on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol during the 57th Presidential Inauguration in Washington, Monday, Jan. 21, 2013. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Poets are well represented at this year’s festival, hailing from China, Hong Kong, Lithuania, Canada, Japan, Luxembourg, Switzerland, and more. But we start with Richard Blanco, the highest profiled poet in our lineup, who rocketed to fame in 2013 when he read a poem to 40 million people watching live at Barack Obama’s Second Inauguration.

Some wondered if the choice of Blanco — the youngest and first openly gay, Hispanic Inaugural poet — was political, a fact that Blanco himself acknowledges in his memoir For All of Us, One Today: An Inaugural Poet’s Journey:

To this day, I don’t know exactly how I was chosen as inaugural poet… after a while, I began fearing that the exact details of my selection might not be what I had imagined.

But whatever the selection process, Blanco delivered on the largest stage a contemporary American poet can hope to find himself, and received a hero’s welcome completely unrivaled for someone in his profession:

When the news of my selection was made public on January 8, Bethel lived up to my small-town ideal. Jewel, a yodeling champ and folk artist extraordinaire, sweetened our lives with homemade macaroons. Holly gave Mark and me free “make-overs” and began selling copies of my books at her beauty salon. Julie eased our stress with free massages. The proprietors of the Bethel Inn, Mame and Allen, set up a room free of charge for my interviews with National Public Radio and the New York Times. Mark’s business partners at the lab told him to take off all the time he needed to help me, and his office assistants (Tara, Bailey, Willow, and Sarah) also helped with phone calls and all sorts of miscellaneous tasks. All this generosity let Mark continue managing logistics, freeing up my time to keep working on “One Today.” In fact, it was living proof of the central themes of unity and support that had taken root in the poem. Flash forward to my homecoming celebration, organized by the community on my forty-fifth birthday: a six-foot-long cake, a reading at the auditorium with six hundred attendees, a lifetime ski pass, and the naming of a ski run after “One Today.”

In Miami there was a similar outpouring. I received dozens of heartwarming messages of congratulations from proud friends, relatives, former professors, and engineering coworkers. My mother’s neighbors thought she had won the lottery when the news vans swarmed her house. Suddenly my baby pictures and photos of our family vacations, birthday parties, and weddings flashed on every news channel, as well as interviews of my mother and brother telling our story. A wave of nostalgia came over me, even as I continued working on “One Today.” I wanted to hop on a flight and return to the city where most of my life had unfolded: childhood summers with my grandparents in South Beach amid the then-crumbling Art Deco hotels; years later, the nights of my youth at those same hotels, renovated into nightclubs where I learned to dance salsa; the countless number of stops of for shots of Cuban coffee and guava pastelitos at cafeterias dotting every street of the city, the same streets and neighborhoods I renovated as an engineer. Flash forward to my Miami homecoming: 1,400 people in attendance at the Arsht Center of the Performing Arts for my poetry reading, where I was presented with the keys to the city and a proclamation marking February 22 as Richard Blanco Day in Miami-Dade County.

His upcoming Bookworm Literary Festival appearance marks the first time he’ll speak in China. Don’t miss it.

Books available at The Bookworm:

For All of Us, One Today: An Inaugural Poet’s Journey (2013)
The Prince of Los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood (2014)

Event at The Bookworm Beijing:

Friday, March 11, 8 pm: A Celebration of Literature and Ideas: The 10th Bookworm Literary Festival Opening Ceremony, with Bidisha, Robert Drewe, Xiao Meili, A Yi

Saturday, March 12, 8 pm: One Today: Live Reading by Obama’s Inauguration Poet

For All of Us, One Today

Excerpt from For All of Us, One Today: An Inaugural Poet’s Journey:

Suddenly I will understand why Frost was Frost – arguably our country’s most celebrated, honored, popular, and remembered poet – because he wrote about (and for) the things and people right before him, his America, plain and true. His work was embedded in folklore, sprung from the very pastures and pleasures, snows and sorrows of the people – including himself – in his own backyard, so to speak. Inspired and possessed, I’ll feel reborn into yet another story – the story Frost began for America. I’ll feel a responsibility to dare and dream up a new chapter that will rekindle poetry into a continuing American folklore – a folklore that would include the stories of gay America, Latino America, and immigrant America – everyone’s America.

Full text of the poem “One Today” on WhiteHouse.gov.

“One Today”

One sun rose on us today, kindled over our shores,
peeking over the Smokies, greeting the faces
of the Great Lakes, spreading a simple truth
across the Great Plains, then charging across the Rockies.
One light, waking up rooftops, under each one, a story
told by our silent gestures moving behind windows.

My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors,
each one yawning to life, crescendoing into our day:
pencil-yellow school buses, the rhythm of traffic lights,
fruit stands: apples, limes, and oranges arrayed like rainbows
begging our praise. Silver trucks heavy with oil or paper—
bricks or milk, teeming over highways alongside us,
on our way to clean tables, read ledgers, or save lives—
to teach geometry, or ring-up groceries as my mother did
for twenty years, so I could write this poem.

All of us as vital as the one light we move through,
the same light on blackboards with lessons for the day:
equations to solve, history to question, or atoms imagined,
the “I have a dream” we keep dreaming,
or the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won’t explain
the empty desks of twenty children marked absent
today, and forever. Many prayers, but one light
breathing color into stained glass windows,
life into the faces of bronze statues, warmth
onto the steps of our museums and park benches
as mothers watch children slide into the day.

One ground. Our ground, rooting us to every stalk
of corn, every head of wheat sown by sweat
and hands, hands gleaning coal or planting windmills
in deserts and hilltops that keep us warm, hands
digging trenches, routing pipes and cables, hands
as worn as my father’s cutting sugarcane
so my brother and I could have books and shoes.

The dust of farms and deserts, cities and plains
mingled by one wind—our breath. Breathe. Hear it
through the day’s gorgeous din of honking cabs,
buses launching down avenues, the symphony
of footsteps, guitars, and screeching subways,
the unexpected song bird on your clothes line.

Hear: squeaky playground swings, trains whistling,
or whispers across café tables, Hear: the doors we open
for each other all day, saying: hello, shalom,
buon giorno, howdy, namaste, or buenos días
in the language my mother taught me—in every language
spoken into one wind carrying our lives
without prejudice, as these words break from my lips.

One sky: since the Appalachians and Sierras claimed
their majesty, and the Mississippi and Colorado worked
their way to the sea. Thank the work of our hands:
weaving steel into bridges, finishing one more report
for the boss on time, stitching another wound
or uniform, the first brush stroke on a portrait,
or the last floor on the Freedom Tower
jutting into a sky that yields to our resilience.

One sky, toward which we sometimes lift our eyes
tired from work: some days guessing at the weather
of our lives, some days giving thanks for a love
that loves you back, sometimes praising a mother
who knew how to give, or forgiving a father
who couldn’t give what you wanted.

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 is an author participating at the 2016 Bookworm Literary Festival. To read about other participating authors, please see our Meet an Author series.

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