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Inaugural poet Richard Blanco visits Durham

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Once upon a time, the poet Richard Blanco was just the poet Richard Blanco.

But, since he was commissioned to write and read his poem "One Today" at President Obama's second inauguration in January, a string of modifiers is now attached to his name. He's Richard Blanco, the first immigrant, first Latino and first openly gay inaugural poet.

"I feel like I have two Richard Blancos now, and I understand the difference in those two assignments," he says, chuckling despite being serious.

Rather than find the labels frustrating or depersonalizing, Blanco embraces them as an opportunity to talk about the complexity of identity, as well as the importance of telling one's personal story in a way that such complexity comes through. And he recognizes his window of opportunity for his voice to be widely heard.

Let's face it: There aren't many famous poets, and Blanco is now one. He knows the clock is ticking on that fame, so he's been hitting the road as much as possible. Blanco visits Durham this weekend to give a free public reading and book signing at the Carolina Theatre. He'll also talk poetics at Durham Technical Community College, meet with an LGBTQ support group at El Centro Hispano and lend his renown to a Friends of the Durham County Library fundraiser.

"It's not what happened; it's how fast it happened," he says. "I was thrown in one moment from a Richard Blanco hoping to get maybe a dozen readings that year to close to 10,000 emails and being booked through 2015. It's been hard to keep my head screwed on, but I think I've done a pretty good job."

Blanco was born into a Cuban family in Madrid but moved to New York City before he was 2 months old. Raised in the Miami area, he currently lives in Bethel, Maine, and is a civil engineer as well as a professor.

He got the call from the Obama administration and sprung into action, despite the fact that he'd rarely written an "occasional" poem. Inaugural poets actually have to write three possible poems from which the administration chooses. Blanco threw himself into oracular and occasional-poetry research, reading Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg and Robert Frost, and talking with Elizabeth Alexander, who read at Obama's first swearing-in.

Blanco wears the mantle well. "I accept it almost as a mission and I think that's what's kept me balanced," he says. "I get to spread the message of poetry, and meet people who don't ordinarily have connections to poetry. Engineering firms and law firms and immigrant reform groups—the weirder the venue, the more I like to go."

Workplaces might be the perfect place for Blanco's message. Standing on a lower balcony on the west front of the Capitol Building, Blanco delivered a poem about the commonalities that all Americans share, namely getting up in the morning to go about a day's work. "One Today" uses the broad brushstrokes of Diego Rivera's murals to describe the profoundly collaborative thing that is a day in this country.

"We're all connected not just spiritually but also practically through our labor. Each of us, from the doctor and the lawyer to the checkout girl who was my mother, are an essential part of the whole. And I wanted us to recognize that, despite our place in society or our education or whatever. We all make this happen every day. We get up and make it happen."

There's yet a third Richard Blanco—the inspirational figure for LGBTQ groups everywhere, literary or not.

"We still have a lot of work to do," he says. "We might take three steps forward and one step back, but there's forward momentum there that we should be enthusiastic about."

"It's not the same thing to be a gay kid who grew up behind a bowling alley in a suburb of Miami than it is to be a Native American skinny gay kid who grew up in Topeka. We have to tell our stories," he says.

"Storytelling is about what it means to be human."

This article appeared in print with the headline "The occasional, exceptional poet."

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