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The City and the Writer: In Bethel, Maine with Richard Blanco

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

                              —Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Can you describe the mood of Bethel, Maine as you feel/see it?

Quiet and mysterious. I think that comes from the imposing nature that surrounds me here: the towering hemlocks, the low clouds, the hummingbirds hovering in mid-air.  There always seems to be something quietly, mysteriously at work here: the snow melting beneath the ponds, the irises blooming, the deer hiding in the pines.  Having grown up in urban Miami, I had never fully lived or appreciated the power of nature and especially the change of seasons. It’s fascinating.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city? 

I’ve only lived here for three years, so luckily, I don’t have a heartbreaking memory to recount, unless  “heartbreaking” means those fleeting, temporal moments of beauty that I am so lucky to glimpse here: sitting on my deck catching the last strands of light set behind the White Mountains; watching a doe muzzling her Bambi from my kitchen window; walking my dog Joey at night through the moonlight shadows of the pine trees.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

Maine borders Canada and Bethel was part of Canada at one time (named Sudbury, Canada). As such there is a subtle but distinct border culture here, which to me is characterized by a sort of maverick, pioneer spirit. Mainers seem to be independent thinkers, not polarized or predicable. They are as liberal and as conservative as they come. Last election they legalized medical marijuana, but voted down gay marriage; and the gubernatorial race came to down to an Independent against a staunch Republican who won by only a couple of points. Unlike much of the rest of New England which has been vastly “colonized” by urbanites, Maine seems to have retained much more of its “rough around the edges” character and feels more authentically “New England” to me.

What writer(s) from here should we read? 

Longfellow, Harriet Beecher Stowe, E.B. White, Stephen King. These aren’t Bethel natives, but they are considered important Maine writers who were born here and/or lived here. Before moving to Bethel, I read E.B. White’s essays about his decades in rural Maine as a farmer. I was fascinated by his take. After reading his work, I made my decision to move up here.

Is there a place here you return to often? 

I have a guest cottage, which is where I do most of my writing.  It’s the reason I brought the house I live in now. 

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

Kezar Lake, which some say is the “real” Dark Score Lake in Stephen King’s novel, Bag of Bones.  And the Wadsworth-Longfellow House in Portland, Maine where Longfellow grew up. 

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

Most people who visit Bethel see it as a sophisticated ski-resort town; a place to unwind and slow down. And it is. But there is also the very real life of rural Mainers whose “world” is very different. Many of these people still live off the land and have ancestors dating back to before the founding of our country. They are the “backbone” of the town.  That connection to the land, that sense of place and community, often reminds me of my family in the Cuban countryside. Oddly enough, despite the dramatically different landscape and culture in Bethel, I get the same feeling of belonging as I do when I am with my family in Cuba.

Where does passion live here?

Believe it or not, at “Cho-Sun, a local Korean restaurant owed by Pok Sun Lane, an amazing woman, entrepreneur, “hostess with the mostess.” It’s where all the locals (and not so local) gather to chat it up.  It’s always buzzing with laughter, ideas, music—you name it! 

What is the title of one of your stories poems about Bethel and what inspired it exactly?

Since relocating to Bethel, I’ve written two poems inspired by my life here.  “Learning to Cook with Mamá in Maine,” was inspired by my mother’s visit up here and the day she spent teaching me how to cook Cuban food so I could cook up a little taste of “home” in Bethel whenever I needed it. The other was based on my psychotic fear of my partner, Mark, hitting a moose on Route 2 and being killed!  He never answers his cell phone and I, like my mother, always fear the worst!

Inspired by Levi, “Outside Bethel does an outside exist?”



Richard Blanco’s acclaimed first book, City of a Hundred Fires, explores the yearnings and negotiation of cultural identity as a Cuban-American, and received the prestigious Agnes Starrett Poetry Prize from the University of Pittsburgh Press. His second book, Directions to The Beach of the Dead, won the 2006 PEN / American Beyond Margins Award for its continued exploration of the universal themes of place and homecoming.  His third collection, Looking for The Gulf Motel, was recently published from University of Pittsburgh Press. His work has appeared in The Best American Poetry 2000, Great American Prose Poems, and has been featured on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. Blanco is a Fellow of the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, recipient of two Florida Artist Fellowships, and has taught at Georgetown and American Universities. A builder of cities and poems, Blanco is also a professional Civil Engineer.


NH's Discovery of the Month:

It’s already been four years since that historic inauguration. Four years since my historic moment. On January 20, 2009, the same day Barack Obama was inaugurated as the first African-American president of the United States, I became an American citizen.

And on Sunday, January 20, 2013, Richard Blanco will be the nation’s fifth inaugural poet.  

I have known Richard since his first book City of a Hundred Fires was published, introduced to me by Ed Ochester, our editor at the University of Pittsburgh Press. Richard’s voice and words this January will certainly be a nation-song, reminding us that this country is made of immeasurable diversity and greatness.

Published Jan 16, 2013   Copyright 2013 Nathalie Handal

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