POET & WRITER
Miami, Florida to Bethel, Maine
Richard Blanco’s inaugural poem One Today, inspired an entire nation at the 2013 inauguration. Beyond his rich and riveting words, Richard’s delivery and performance of his work is spellbinding. He is unsure if he would’ve even been able to write the poem had he not been confined to his writing desk, surrounded by pine forests, piled high with snow, up on a hill in the ski town of Bethel, Maine. He even famously practiced his poem to a snowman audience in his front yard, several weeks before he made the journey to DC.
Richard Blanco has always been in search of home - his writing has always centered on the pursuit of home and what it takes to make a place feel like home. Being the child of Cuban exiles, and an immigrant himself, arriving in the U.S. at only 45 days old, he has always longed to find a place he belongs. Richard’s partner’s work was the initial reason they left their life in Miami for the wilds of Maine. Richard was not hopeful that the move would bring him any closer in his journey of finding a place in the world, but he has been pleasantly surprised.
Bethel has welcomed “the gay couple from Miami,” as they originally were referred to, with open arms. Richard is a respected member of the community and since the inauguration, a town celebrity. He and his partner Mark have their own private sanctuary, complete with bridges, ponds and streams, built with their own hands. Since moving to the country, Richard has written two award-winning memoirs, the inaugural poem, written numerous occasional poems and taught writing workshops all over the world.
The country has given him space to work and time to focus on where he wants his career as a working poet and writer to take him. Although someday he hopes to have a place in a city to visit, his time in the country has solidified his need to always have a retreat in the country where he can sit quietly and work. Richard’s story proves that the country doesn’t have to stifle your professional pursuits. He has not been held back by the remoteness; rather he has been propelled by it. By finding his routine, inspiration and rhythm in the country, Richard has made enormous leaps in his career and has finally found a place that feels very much like home. (Click here to jump to his interview)
What inspired you to move to the country?
I think I’ve always wanted to move to the country, ever since I was little. I always had an attraction to it, especially since I went back to Cuba to visit in my teens. Most of my family is from rural areas in Cuba and I felt very at home there. During my childhood in Miami, even though we lived in a suburb, we still had chickens, rabbits, dogs and cats. There were fruit trees and my parents had a garden. In retrospect, I realized they were trying to recreate that sense of country living, but country living in the sense of working the land, not in the sense of earning your livelihood through the land, which is what they did in Cuba.
I think as an artist, I’ve always had that sensibility of retreat and of being away from a lot of noise to create my work. As I’ve gotten older, I can’t handle the amount of distractions that are forced upon me in the city. When the opportunity came for me and my partner to move up here I was already thinking about how cool it would be to have a quiet second home somewhere in the country. Because Florida’s landscape is somewhat monochromatic I thought maybe North Carolina because it was only a 17-hour drive. When my partner was offered the position in Bethel, I figured we would just reverse the plans, with our first home in the country and maybe the future second home would be a small apartment in a city.
Initially what was the hardest part about making the move? What challenges came later?
In the beginning I was all starry-eyed, so not much difficulty at first. But after that honeymoon phase, I think the first thing that started to nag on me was having to drive everywhere for things. The nearest box store is 45 minutes and in the city you don’t ordinarily think about those things. I live in a resort town, so I can get sushi, but I can’t get inkjet cartridges or underwear. Also, everything is really expensive because it is a tiny small-town resort grocery store. Driving a 1.5-hour round trip to the larger stores meant that forgetting something would be a huge bother. This ultimately made me a really good list maker and I would measure everything out before heading to the store because if you end up buying the wrong thing, or what you buy doesn’t fit or doesn’t work, you have to wait until next week when you go out for errands. Needless to say, I was not used to Internet shopping before and now I do most of my shopping online.
I think after that, was realizing that nature is very pretty… (laughs) and it is all fine and dandy but it is a LOT of work. After a year of battling the elements, I had to make decisions of where to stop landscaping and where to let nature take over. I got a little carried away and made these mounds of work for myself and ended up not enjoying what I originally came here for. I had to take a step back and be okay with letting things just grow in. Maybe we don’t need another pond or another flowerbed or vegetable garden. In the Maine summer and spring, nature is constantly edging in on you and so you have to keep up with it. There is always something to do like clearing fallen trees and moving brush, but if you get too carried away with all of that then you forget to enjoy it.
What surprised you most about country living? Did it meet your expectations?
Bethel is a resort town but it isn’t the quintessential super lux New England fairytale town, it is a real town and people live and work here and so I thought I was going to like the town a lot less than I did. Partly what surprised me was that I really connected with the people here. It was really the human connection that made a difference and made me feel like a member of the community. It is that human connection that I have always craved and that is how my childhood was. I grew up in a tight knit family and community. Because we were exiles we were always helping one another to survive. Camaraderie was an integral part of support system and I was reminded of that when moving here. After a short period of time in Bethel, we would go to dinner somewhere and before you knew it there were eight people sitting with you and you were pulling tables together, just like you are at someone’s house having a dinner party, but instead you are just at a neighborhood restaurant.
Also, I really like the rustic element of my town - and other times I hate it. Sometimes when I go and visit other cute country towns they are just a little too cute and a little too precious and there is not a sense of authenticity. On the other hand sometimes that rustic quality can be frustrating because you are like “hello the rest of the world figured this out 30 years ago” and other times it is amazing because there are these incredible people who continue to live the same way they have for generations. There is this real Maine spirit here of making it work and people are not afraid to say “go to hell” if you don’t like the way they are living. People are fiercely independent here. I think some parts of New England have lost that because they have become so urbanized and gentrified. So I appreciate it, I respect it and I admire it, but sometimes it’s frustrating. Everything has a shadow side. One example is town government, it is difficult to come up with a ruling because everyone is a friend of a friend or related, but the law should be the law. It is one big dysfunctional family and I’m happy to be a part of it.
What were the hardest things to get used to? What do you miss the most about the city?
Sometimes you just want to go to someplace chic, dress up and feel fabulous and there is nowhere to do that here. Even though it is shallow and empty anyway, sometimes you just want to play the role and dress up to the nines and be fabulous. I’ve outgrown all my suits living here. I haven’t worn one for six years, or even a tie for that matter, except for the inauguration.
Also what I miss, oddly enough, is anonymity. Luckily because it is a resort town we can go to a restaurant closer to the mountain and be more anonymous but then you end up becoming friends with everyone that works at that restaurant. There is no such thing as just a waiter in Bethel, you know their entire life, and you know their children, where they grew up and they know everything about you. It is beautiful but sometimes it can be annoying. Occasionally Mark and I will want to go out to discuss something over dinner and the walls have ears. It is like sitting in a room with your whole family trying to have a personal conversation, it just does not happen.
Would you ever go back to an urban existence?
I would, with a WHOLE lot of money. But I think after living here, I would always want to have an escape. Honestly the ideal set up, if you can afford it, would be to have both. Living in the country here, I don’t feel boxed in, because my work requires a lot of travel and I am able to get out for periods of time. I would like to be in a city, but I would need SPACE, so that is why I say money, because space doesn’t come cheap in a city. I would also need a city with a sense of village to it. There are cities that work that way and there are cities that don’t work that way. Ironically, I think New York is just a bunch of little villages, so that is a place I could see myself living,
What I wouldn’t ever go back to is a car city; I’m done with that. I’m done with traffic. Whenever I go back to Miami I am just a bag of nerves when driving. I realized that I am so tired whenever I am there and it stems from the stress of needing to drive from one place to the next. In Miami, everywhere you go takes 45 minutes of congestion and traffic. I just never want to drive ever again, unless it is through the mountains. I will drive 45 minutes to go to Home Depot but it is through the White Mountains. It is a different kind of drive, it is relaxing and you look forward to it because it is daydreaming time…until you hit a moose.
What do you appreciate the most about life in the country?
What I love most is being surrounded by nature. I also love that you can see the merits of your hard work. A tree that you planted starts to flower. You look out and see the fountain or the garden you put in, it is very rewarding. That kind of connection to the earth is just so primordial and important.
But what I really really like, and what has lingered with me, is that I get to choose my distractions. In an urban environment those sorts of distractions are chosen for you. Now, if I want to go to NYC and have a 50-minute cab ride to go three miles, I will, but I get to choose to do that. This idea that you are in control is wonderful. I can go kayaking, jogging, walk the dog, I can do whatever I want, when I want to, and nobody is ever in my way. If there is one person in front of me in line at the post office now, I usually just go back later. It is just amazing that you don’t even think about your day and there are no distractions imposed upon you, it is really really wonderful.
What advice would you give to someone thinking of moving out of the city?
I think one important thing is, part of the grounding here, is that we had a purpose – that sense of being tethered and that was my partner’s work. It is important to have a reason for moving, a goal and a plan for your future. You should never choose a place just because it is pretty. You have to find something that is lasting, a lasting connection, because it is human nature that everything at some point gets ordinary and routine. You have to have a real sense of purpose and connection with a place because you are giving up a lot of things that you are used to. Whether that is “this is the region where my grandfather grew up” or a fascination with the geography or history of some area, something that makes you wake up everyday and say “I know why I am here.” The lack of anchoring and distraction can leave you sort of feeling up in the air and asking yourself “what the hell am I doing here.” I have to remind myself why I am here occasionally, that we are building a life, building this property and working towards being able to afford a small place in the city for balance.
Also, you must develop a sense of belonging in the community because it is mind boggling, there are so many beautiful places to live, wonderful, beautiful, but why there? There are literally thousands of small towns to choose from that will surpass your expectations initially, but that won’t last without a purpose. The prettiness will fade. Also, very important, make sure you like the people. I’ve been to some gorgeous little towns that I definitely could not live in simply because I didn’t connect to the community and people living there. It is about finding the right fit with the people because that is really what lasts too, that human connection. Living in a town without any friends, where you hate everyone, isn’t going to last very long. Really get a sense of the place, inside and out, something more than “it’s pretty.”
When you go back to visit the city, what are the first three things on your to-do list?
There is an initial period of deer in the headlights when I just lock myself in my hotel room and tell myself “I can do this,” that is the very first thing. Then I enjoy just walking around and watching the people. There are more people walking on one block in NYC than live in my town in Maine. It is amazing to see everyone interact and coexist in an environment where nothing ever slows down. Then I usually like getting dressed up and going to a nice restaurant.
Also, I love riding subways and mass transportation systems, maybe that is the engineer in me. I still marvel at cities and how they have these systems that, for the most part, function in synchronicity. The miracle of NYC is not the Empire State Building, it is that you get your trash picked up twice a week. NYC is a baby city compared to Hong Kong and Shanghai, it is mind boggling that they function as well as they do. When I visit a city, if they have a museum about how it was built and runs, I always visit it. I am fascinated looking at manholes. Cities are like a living thing, with all these systems that have to work and it is amazing that they do work. We know when one little thing goes wrong what can happen and how it can completely throw off the balance. “My god, the number 2 line is down, it is the end of the world!” I have a fascination with the infrastructure, which is sort of that other layer beneath the human landscape, and how that works.
Where do you draw your inspiration and passion from for your work?
Mostly it’s family, not just my immediate family, but also the sense of community and what that means. Of course I have written a lot about home and that all comes from being the child of exiled parents and being an immigrant myself, by 45 days. I arrived in the U.S. when I was 45 days old, so the feeling of home and belonging and what does that mean and what does that look like, is really a central part of my work. Whether that’s in a smaller autobiographical or a larger idea, I constantly walk around with the question of what makes a place home and how does that feel? The insane amount of variables that goes into the statement “this feels like home.” There is no simple answer and that is why it is a common subject in art. We are constantly searching and driven to get ourselves back to home to our Utopia, the Garden of Eden, Shangri-La, the Promised Land. That was part of the thrill of moving here, that perpetual search of finding that “right place” where you and everything comes together. That is a big question in my life and work and everything kind of centers around it. Not just physical landscapes but emotional landscapes and what goes into making a place feel like home is a very very very important question to me.
Have you noticed a change in yourself and/or your work since moving away from the city?
I had a really bad temper in the city. It was definitely connected to my road rage and that is the reason why I had to leave a driving city. I was very short tempered because I felt that things were eating away at my time that I had no control of. I’ve noticed that I’ve learned to be calmer and more patient in all facets of my life. Even when I go back to a city now, I am not like that anymore. I have gained perspective and noticed a big behavioral change. It has eliminated so much stress from my life and really improved my overall health and well-being.
My work has not seen a significant change because I am a writer that writes a lot from memory. I am writing mostly about stuff that happened many years ago. That being said, I have some new poems about Maine, because the experiences of this transition have inspired me. Before, I never wrote from the immediate, I typically have this distance of memory in my work; I let things ferment for a long time, so I have noticed that change.