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The power of poetry - Looking back at Maine’s Poets Laureate

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We’re past the halfway point of National Poetry Month, but there’s still plenty of time to celebrate the art of verse. Specifically, the poetic voices of the State of Maine.

National Poetry Month began back in 1996; 2018 marks the 22nd year of the celebration. Introduced by the Academy of American Poets as a way to increase awareness and appreciation of poetry in the United States. Every year, more and more events spring up like April flowers to perpetuate the celebratory nature of NPD.

For our part here at The Maine Edge, we’d like to offer up a brief look at the roster of poets who have held the position of Poet Laureate for the state of Maine, including excerpts from a past conversation with Stuart Kestenbaum, our current Poet Laureate.

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Maine Poet Laureate

The Process

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.

The Poets

Kate Barnes (1996-1999)

Kate Barnes was the state’s first Poet Laureate, appointed to the position by then-Governor Angus King. Born in 1932, she spent her summers on a farm in Nobleboro where she was part of a literary family – her father was a naturalist, her mother a poet and children’s author. She attended Scripps College in Claremont, California and married Richard Barnes in 1953. They had four children before eventually divorcing.

Barnes returned to Maine in the 1980s to care for her ailing mother. It was then that she reconnected with her muse; she published poems well into her 70s. She was the author of collections such as “Talking in Your Sleep” and “Crossing the Fields” from Blackberry Books and “Where the Deer Were” and “Kneeling Orion” from Godine; her work also appeared in numerous literary journals over the years.

Barnes spent her later years living in Appleton, just a few miles away from the Chimney Farm of her childhood. She passed away in 2013 at the age of 81.

Baron Wormser (2000-2005)

Maine’s second Poet Laureate was born in Baltimore, Maryland in 1948. Baron Wormser grew up in that city before attending Johns Hopkins as an undergrad and continuing his graduate studies at UC-Irvine and the University of Maine. He and his wife moved to Maine in 1970, where he spent 25 years working as a school librarian; he also taught poetry writing at UMF during that time. For nearly 30 years, they lived in an off-the-grid house in the small town of Mercer.

Wormser has produced 10 books of poetry; his first was 1983’s “The White Words,” while his latest was “Unidentified Sighing Objects” in 2015. He has also produced noteworthy prose works – his newest book “Legends of the Slow Explosion” came out just this month. Along the way, Wormser has received the Frederick Bock Prize for Poetry and the Kathryn A. Morton Prize along with fellowships from Bread Loaf, the National Endowment for the Arts and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.

Wormser and his wife currently live in Montpelier, Vermont.

Betsy Sholl (2006-2010)

Betsy Sholl was the third person to be named Maine’s Poet Laureate and the first to be appointed by Governor John Baldacci. She grew up in New Jersey and attended Bucknell as an undergrad before getting a Master’s from the University of Rochester and an MFA from Vermont College. She and her husband moved to Maine in the early 1980s, settling in Portland. She has taught for the University of Southern Maine and for Vermont College’s low-residency MFA program.

Sholl is one of the seven founding members of Farmington publisher Alice James Books; four of her eight full-length collections of poetry were published there. The other four – including the most recent, 2014’s “Otherwise Unseeable” – were published by University of Wisconsin Press. She has also published three chapbooks and her work has appeared in a number of anthologies and journals. Among her awards are a National Endowment of the Arts fellowship and a pair of Maine Writer’s Fellowships.

Sholl lives in Portland with her husband.

Wesley McNair (2011-2015)

Wesley McNair was born in New Hampshire in 1941 and has lived for many years in the town of Mercer (which is apparently quite the hotbed for Maine poetry). He did his undergraduate work at Keene State in New Hampshire and earned a pair of advanced degrees from Middlebury. He’s a professor emeritus at the University of Maine – Farmington.

His tenure as Poet Laureate was particularly active; he undertook to launch several new programs aimed specifically at bringing poetry to the people of Maine. His legacy at the helm included The Maine Poetry Express and the ongoing newspaper series “Take Heart: A Conversation in Poetry.”

McNair’s work includes nine volumes of poetry – the latest is “The Lost Child: Ozark Poems,” which was published in 2014 by David R. Godine – and a handful of essay collections. He has also edited numerous anthologies. His work was featured more than 20 times on NPR’s “The Writer’s Almanac” and “Weekend Edition” programs. He has received fellowships from the NEA and the Guggenheim and won prestigious prizes such as the Theodore Roethke Prize and the PEN New England Award for Literary Excellence. His papers currently reside in Colby College’s Special Collections.

Stuart Kestenbaum (2016- )

Our fifth and current Poet Laureate is Stuart Kestenbaum. He assumed the position in March of 2016. He has lived in Maine for decades, serving as the director of the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts on Deer Isle for 27 years before retiring from that position in 2015. He has also served as a visiting writer and guest lecturer at institutions all over the United States.

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 2012 essay collection “The View From Here,” which explores his time at Haystack. Kestenbaum's work has appeared in numerous small-press publications and magazines, as well as on Garrison Keillor's “The Writer's Almanac.”

As part of our celebration of Maine’s Poets Laureate, we have excerpted part of a 2016 interview Mr. Kestenbaum gave to The Maine Edge on the occasion of his appointment. It’s a wonderfully evergreen look at the necessity of poetry and the importance inherent to finding ways to build an appreciative connection.

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“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 voice … I 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.”

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.”

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You might be tempted to dismiss poetry as something antiquated, something too fusty or too esoteric to be of any interest to you. But poetry cannot be so narrowly defined. There is poetry in every aspect of your life. It’s in the songs that you hear and the films that you watch. It is part of culture’s highest highs and lowest lows. It is everywhere, in forms so varied that you might not even consciously realize what you’re experiencing. But even then, your soul understands,

Poetry is a balm that soothes the spirit. The power of language is never more apparent than when utilized in the service of the poetic. There’s music in the muse - music that we must never stop hearing. Stu Kestenbaum and the four talented poets who came before him have been a very real part of keeping that notion alive.

“Beauty is whatever gives joy.” – Edna St. Vincent Millay

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