Richard Blanco is tired. Sitting in the lobby of the Adrienne Arsht Center's Ziff Ballet Opera House, where he'll take the stage tomorrow in a free reading, he apologizes for his gravelly voice, strained after a long day of media appearances and interviews like this one.
"I'm starting to feel a little bit weary, doing this, doing that," he laughs. "Following my mother's example, I'm just one of those people who can't say no. So I'm starting to learn that I can't be in three places at one time, stuff I never really had to negotiate."
It's an overwhelming feeling that most poets don't get to experience, he admits. But then again, most poets don't get hand-selected by the White House. Most poets don't share their stages with Beyoncé. Most poets don't get to read their work in front of an entire nation. Richard Blanco is not most poets.
Since he read his poem "One Today" at the second inauguration of President Obama in January, Blanco's life has changed drastically. Now he gets recognized on the street. He receives emails thanking him for his work. When he returns to his home in Maine, it'll be to a letter from President Obama.
Don't get him wrong; Blanco says it feels pretty great to be the Beyoncé of poetry. "I can't say that I don't love the attention. It's like any art, especially with poetry -- for most of your life, you're recognized with your peers and there's a sense of connection in many ways that are very genuine and very powerful. But never at this scale. So what's great about the inaugural event is that it gives not just the poet but poetry this grand stage to get people interested in poetry. I think it should be a law that there should be a poet every [time]."
But for Blanco, the son of Cuban exiles, who grew up in Miami and studied at FIU, there's no road map for how to proceed. He's gone from the relatively obscure world of poetry to becoming a household name, and he says there really isn't anyone he can turn to now for advice.
"I have no other poet to rely on to say, 'How do you work your way through this?' There's nobody I can call up to say, 'Hey, did you do the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Atlanta reading last time?' The poets don't get invited to that generally," he laughs.
Blanco says his preconceived notions of the inauguration itself were pretty far off, too. "In your head, you think you're going to come down the steps and be announced, like "The Poet!" he says with a smile, recalling the reality: being shuttled from one media appearance to another in a congested and largely shut-down Washington, D.C. "I thought I was going to [read] and then just sit at the ball all night.
"It's all great," he continues. "I'm just taking it all in and trying to see how I can turn this into some other element that does a greater good for a greater number of people." His thoughts have turned to poetry education for middle-schoolers, he says. "Poetry can happen more often if somehow how we can stop being so scared of poetry in America in some ways, investing in that education element of helping teachers learn how to teach poetry, helping kids learn how to learn poetry. No, enjoy -- learn is a bad word to use. Enjoy. Feel."
In the meantime, there's no shortage of work to be done. Blanco quit his engineering job to focus on poetry and is working on a handful of projects: a commemorative book, another book featuring the other two poems he wrote for the inauguration (the president selected "One Today" from a sample of three), and speaking engagements like the one at the Arsht Center tomorrow night.
Friday's reading is special, and not just because it marks a homecoming for Blanco. There's a surprise "high-profile special guest" scheduled to appear, and Blanco says organizers are keeping the secret even from him.
But he does have a wish list: "Believe it or not, Gloria Estefan. You wouldn't think that would be the usual case for a poet, but there are so many connections that exist. She grew up not far from where I grew up. We're part of the same generation." And without Estefan, Blanco might never have studied poetry at FIU. "The first time I applied to the FIU creative writing program I thought, You're 22, you're unstoppable, you're indestructable, you're the center of the universe. And they rejected me," Blanco laughs. "But they did say, 'We see some potential and we'd like you to take a graduate course with the idea of reapplying next year.' And I remember I was on the Tri-Rail back then, and I remember sitting there and thinking, What if Gloria had given up? She was my inspiration of not giving up and being an artist from my same background socio-economically, culturally. In some weird way, I can't wait to tell her that in person."
Blanco plans to return again to Miami in April for the poetry festival O, Miami. And he'll keep coming back to "this crazy, wonderful, zany city," he says, because it's where he feels at home. Even after a long day of interviews, with his gravelly voice and repeated stories, the support he's received in South Florida gets Blanco a little choked up.
"I was watching all the [inauguration coverage] going on in Miami from Maine. For a poet, we have very low expectations, but I never thought it would turn into this," he says, noting all the excitement in Miami about having a local talent read his work on poetry's biggest stage. "The genuine sense of outreaching and love and human warmth that made me feel so --" he stops to collect himself. "I want to thank Miami for that. That feeling of belonging that's always been at the center of my work: Where do I belong, what's home, how does one identify that, how does one come to terms with that? I felt like I just wanted to get on a plane and run over here and give the city a big hug, and be hugged back."
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Richard Blanco reads at the Arsht Center at 7:30 p.m. Friday, February 22. Tickets are free and available at arshtcenter.org.
Follow Ciara LaVelle on Twitter @ciaralavelle.