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Exploring poetry widely and wildly

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A conversation with Maine Poet Laureate Stuart Kestenbaum

DEER ISLE The State of Maine has named its latest Poet Laureate.

New appointee Stuart Kestenbaum is the fifth writer to hold the position, following in the footsteps of Wesley McNair (2011 to 2016), Betsy Sholl (2006 to 2010), Baron Wormser (2000 to 2005) and Kate Barnes (1996 to 1999). His term began on March 24.

The position an honorary one was first established in 1995. It is a five-year appointment, with all full-time Maine residents with a distinguished body of poetic work being eligible. Applicants are asked to submit up to five poems, totaling no more than 10 pages; they must also include a resume and a one-page statement outlining the applicant's vision for their public role as Poet Laureate.

The honoree is selected from a list of candidates recommended by an advisory selection committee assembled by the Maine Arts Commission; this committee is to consist of no more than five members, each with expertise in poetry. The committee is co-chaired by the Director of the Maine Arts Commission and the Director of the Maine State Library.

Kestenbaum, a Deer Isle resident, is the former director of the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, having retired in 2015 after 27 years. He's the author of four books of poetry 'Pilgrimage' (1990); 'House of Thanksgiving' (2003); 'Prayers and Run-On Sentences' (2007); and 'Only Now' (2014). He is also the author of the essay collection 'The View From Here' (2012), which explores his time at Haystack. Mr. Kestenbaum's work has appeared in numerous small-press publications and magazines, as well as on Garrison Keillor's 'The Writers Almanac.'

This April is the 20th anniversary of National Poetry Month; The Maine Edge is thrilled to celebrate it by way of a conversation with Mr. Kestenbaum. He was kind enough to spend some time with us, talking about his new position, his current projects and about poetry in general - both in terms of his own history and of the art's future.

'I want to build on what Wes McNair did with his time [as Poet Laureate],' he said. 'He did an amazing job [with things like] Poetry Express and the Take Heart Project. I really hope to do things that will help inform people about the breadth and power of writing in Maine.

'I want to help people experience poetry's impact in Maine,' he continued. 'I'd like to do that through social media outlets. I'm hoping to work toward building a Maine Poetry Festival as a way to spread poetry, with local writers and introducing writers from other cultures as well. There's no budget, so we'll have to develop support however we can.'

Kestenbaum's mission, it seems, boils down to exposing as many people to poetry as possible.

'It's about getting to an audience that otherwise just doesn't get reached,' he said. 'I'd love to find ways to touch broad audiences, to get people to hear poetry without even expecting it.

'There's an amazing power to poetry,' he went on. 'When people hear it, they're sometimes surprised by how moved by it they are. It's maybe our best way to synthesize emotion.'

There are those that would argue that poetry is a dying art particularly in the current faster-is-better climate that the internet has created. However, Stu Kestenbaum isn't one of those people; he sees web ubiquity not as an obstacle, but as a potential asset.

'I think poetry has the potential to reach more people than ever before,' he said. 'Poetry slows things down. You can stop for a few minutes to express a deeper response about the world. It's not about speed. Just get poetry out there in front of people. Poetry at its best has no agenda it's just about an expression of the world, giving both the writer and the reader a glimpse.'

The poetic path that Kestenbaum has traveled has been a lifelong one. He started writing poetry in elementary school and continued throughout high school and college. However, it was his move to Maine that proved to be the true catalyst.

'When I moved to Maine in 1974, up through the early 1980s, that's when things evolved,' he said. 'What I was writing became my own voice. I was finally saying what I wanted to say how I wanted to say it. Poetry helps express a way of looking at the world; the inside world and the outside world came together for me.

'At some point,' he continued, 'my voice in my regular life and my poetry voiceI was able to connect them. That's when who I was truly joined with my writing process.'

When asked about that process, Kestenbaum kept things fairly simple. In short - don't worry about the particulars and just keep writing.

'I try to write as often as possible,' he said. 'If I'm not writing, I'm not connected. I always want to get to a place where I'm finding new information for me. Generally, the writing is less directed and less formal and more about writing openly. When I'm writing openly and well and discover something, that's the moment of connection.'

In terms of current and ongoing projects, Kestenbaum has a few irons in the fire, including a collaborative effort with his wife, visual artist Susan Webster.

'My wife and I are working to combine text and imagery,' he said. '[Our work explores] similar issues, so we work well together. It allows me to partner words with another medium; we're connecting disciplines.'

The mixed media combines images created by Webster and text provided by Kestenbaum into something altogether itself. Webster's imagery and Kestenbaum's text both stamped and handwritten elevate each other beautifully in the context of the work.

'It's so great to have dialogue with other art forms; I always like that kind of engagement. Something special happens when Susan and I work together.'

But that collaboration is just one of several ideas on which Kestenbaum is currently working. Another is an effort to think differently about language with a little help from others.

'I've been asking others to give me words that I then use in poetry,' he said. 'It was a series I started last summer; I asked 10 people each for a single word and then put them all in a single poem. It's the kind of thing that could be a gimmicky magic trick. But when it's not your word, you might use it in a different way. It opens up the way I use language.'

In addition, Kestenbaum has been creating what he refers to as 'small meditations,' where he handwrites something in a space, a one-time meditation on what he's looking at.

When asked about his personal favorite writers and his biggest influences, Kestenbaum mentioned a number of names, but one clearly stood out.

'My own thinking about writing was influenced greatly by reading Pablo Neruda,' he said. 'The way he took something commonplace and would just go somewhere unexpected was a great inspiration. I loved 'Elemental Odes' 'Ode to the Watermelon'; 'Ode to My Socks.' Neruda elevated; he could find the special in anything. The idea that inspiration comes from within really opened things up for me [and helped me] think about poetry widely and wildly.'

As far as advice for aspiring poets, Kestenbaum once again kept it simple.

'Read a lot of poetry,' he said. 'Poetry can be a solitary sort of discipline, but reading makes you a part of the larger community of writers. And write, of course - the act of writing itself is an act of discovery. Remember that you don't have to wait for inspiration; if you're writing, it's right there underneath.'

For over 20 years, Maine has had its own Poet Laureate. All four of Stuart Kestenbaum's predecessors were not just gifted writers, but also wonderful ambassadors for poetry. It seems safe to assume that a man like Kestenbaum a man committed to thinking 'widely and wildly' about poetry - will have a distinctive and distinguished tenure as well.


Here is a Stuart Kestenbaum poem that will likely ring true to many Mainers.

Starting the Subaru at Five Below

By Stuart Kestenbaum

After 6 Maine winters and 100,000 miles,
when I take it to be inspected

I search for gas stations where they
just say beep the horn and don't ask me to

put it on the lift, exposing its soft
rusted underbelly. Inside is the record

of commuting: apple cores, a bag from
McDonald's, crushed Dunkin' Donuts cups,

A flashlight that doesn't work and one
That does, gas receipts blurred beyond

recognition. Finger tips numb, nose
hair frozen, I pump the accelerator

and turn the key. The battery cranks,
the engine gives 2 or 3 low groans and

starts. My God it starts. And unlike
my family in the house, the job I'm

headed towards, the poems in my briefcase,
the dreams I had last night, there is

no question about what makes sense.
White exhaust billowing from the tail pipe,

Heater blowing, this car is going to
move me, it's going to take me places.


(This poem appeared in Stuart Kestenbaum's 'Pilgrimage' (1990; Coyote Love Press) and is reprinted with the permission of the author.)

Last modified on Friday, 15 April 2016 20:08


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