Poet and Maine resident Richard Blanco’s work grapples with lots of weighty, difficult topics, from racism and homophobia to love and death.
But at the heart of it all is the complex, compelling, beautiful and often heartbreaking experience of being an American.
Blanco, who is most famous for being the inaugural poet at President Barack Obama’s second inauguration, spoke about many things, including what it means to be an American, at a Dirigo Speaks event hosted by the Bangor Daily News and Launchpad on Tuesday at the Bangor Arts Exchange. Blanco is a first-generation American from a working-class Cuban immigrant family.
The event, themed to the upcoming Independence Day, featured Blanco reading poems from across his career, including works from his latest book, “How To Love a Country,” published in March of this year.
“I was made in Cuba, assembled in Madrid and then imported to the U.S.,” Blanco said. “I have been asking these questions since I was a child.”
Many of Blanco’s poems look back on his childhood growing up in Miami, Florida, with the sights, smells and sounds of his Cuban family rendered in sensitive detail. Blanco read an early poem about his family’s attempt to host an American-style Thanksgiving, and later read a touching poem about his mother’s immigration to the U.S. in the late 1960s, leaving behind everything she had ever known for a country she grew to love.
“Longing for a sense of place is universal,” Blanco said.
Blanco had been a published poet for more than a decade when he received a phone call that would change his life. Then-President Barack Obama called him at his Bethel home and asked him to write a poem — three poems, actually, for him to choose from — for his second presidential inauguration in 2013.
After that, Blanco’s career skyrocketed. He’s since published a memoir, “The Prince of Los Cocuyos: A Miami Childhood,” and written poems for causes including Boston Strong, the organization formed after the Boston Marathon bombing, and Freedom to Marry, the organization that spearheaded the effort to legalize same-sex marriage in the U.S., the latter of which he read at the event.
When he’s not traveling the world giving poetry readings, Blanco lives in Bethel with his partner, Mark, where they have lived for the past decade. In Bethel, Blanco sits on the town planning board, where his training as a civil engineer comes in handy.
Blanco said that he believes that participating in town politics is to take part in democracy in its purest essence.
“Participating in a town meeting is really democracy at its finest,” Blanco said.