'An evangelist of poetry'

Richard Blanco, the immigrant poet who read his work at the second inauguration of President Obama, said the event made him feel he was finally a real American and opened him up to "a new and greater purpose, reconnecting people with poetry ... almost like an evangelist of poetry."

Blanco, the first Latino, first immigrant, first openly gay person and the youngest person to be an inaugural poet, will read his verse and discuss what the inaugural role has meant when he appears at 7:30 p.m., Monday, March 3, at Mountain Avenue Theatre at Ashland High School. His presentation is being sponsored by the Chautauqua Poets & Writers series.

Blanco read his "One Today" poem at the inaugural. It opens with these lines:

"One sun rose on us today, kindled over our shores, peeking over the Smokies, greeting the faces across the Great Plains, then charging across the Rockies."

Read to 38 million viewers, the poem went on to celebrate the shared experience of Americans, evoking images of school buses, geometry teachers, stained glass windows and moms watching their children on slides, as well as the tragedies of the Twin Towers.

"It was very exciting, to say the least," Blanco said in a phone interview. "I felt very connected with America at that moment. ... There was always a little part of me that felt I was not really an American. Here, I embraced America and was being embraced back. ... I found home and it was in my backyard all along."

Blanco, 46, was born in Spain and immigrated to the U.S. from Cuba. He is a civil engineer, with a focus on downtown redevelopment, "engaging the community and its vision for the town." He lives in Maine.

Blanco said he is not sure how he was chosen to be the poet for the inaugural, but said he understood it's the president who makes that decision.

"I can't help but think ... if he were a poet, he'd write along the same lines as I do, about what it means to negotiate this culture. I've always connected with his life story, a great American dream story — and that's what my work is about."

Known as the Poet Laureate of the Inauguration, the post is not the U.S. Poet Laureate but is a lifelong title.

"I don't have to give it back," Blanco said, "like Miss America has to give back her crown."

The honor, Blanco said, "completely changed my life, so I get to make my livelihood from writing poetry. It's my day job and my night job now. I feel I have a new and greater purpose, to reconnect people with poetry and reach thousands of people. It's a great honor, but more importantly, it's great for poetry."

Blanco said he found his love of words as an engineer, where he had to write many letters and studies.

"I had to start paying close attention to language as a very alive thing. Poetry took off from there as a means of creative expression."

In his readings and talks, Blanco said, he likes to raise awareness that all Americans have a real poet living within 50 miles of them and that the unique power of poetic language "happens organically ... and focuses on eliciting emotion in a compressed and acute way and accessing a deep and complex part of our psyche."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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