June 23, 2018
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Maine’s poet laureate has plans for 5-year post

By Douglas Rooks, Special to the Sun Journal

When Gov. Paul LePage and poet Wesley McNair meet at the Blaine House this Wednesday afternoon for McNair’s formal installation as Maine’s fourth poet laureate, it will mark one of those encounters between poetry and power that are a recurring feature of American public life. Many still remember New England’s Robert Frost reciting at John Kennedy’s inauguration as president, setting an example still followed to this day.

There was no poetry at LePage’s inauguration. The organizing committee decided poetry was “dry,” a judgment that brought protests from some of the state’s most prominent writers, including McNair, who lives two towns east of Farmington in Mercer. So the significance of the event will be heightened by LePage’s decision to spotlight his laureate choice, and by McNair’s ambition to use the post to highlight the public significance of poetry.

Some laureates — state and national — are content to treat the post as honorary, but not McNair. He sees it as an opportunity to forge links between the craft he has practiced for 40 years and a public for whom poetry is no longer part of everyday life, as it was in New England a century ago.

Now retired from the University of Maine at Farmington, where he co-founded and directed the Creative Writing Program, he plans to use his five-year laureate term to bring poetry to all parts of the state, have it published in popular media and connect with “ordinary” people — the same types who so often are characters in his poems.

Describing lives, touching lives

The Blaine House event will actually be the second public encounter between the LePage family and the poet. A month earlier, at the Franco-American Center in Lewiston, McNair received a paper crown and warm words from the governor’s daughter, Lauren LePage, who works in the governor’s office. The occasion was the annual “Poetry Out Loud” competition among high school students, where McNair was a judge in a national contest that attracted 8,000 entries in Maine alone.

The setting was natural for a poet who has taught most of his life, and who is remembered not just fondly but with a kind of awe by many of his former students. He has made a mission not only of attracting young writing talent to Maine, but also of nourishing it and ensuring that the next generation of poets is even more accomplished than the last.

In his formal speeches, McNair emphasizes the rich poetic tradition of the state, which includes Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Edward Arlington Robinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay.

Portland’s Longfellow Square was the site of a “speak out” — explicitly not a protest — timed to coincide with the poetry-less LePage inauguration in January, and it has featured dozens of protests and gatherings in the past.

The actual locale of Robinson’s “Tilbury Town” — Gardiner — now uses his poetry as the basis for its downtown walking tour.

And Millay’s most famous poem, “Renascence,” is excerpted on a plaque near the tower on Mount Battie, overlooking Camden Harbor.

But McNair is equally concerned with poetry’s future, which he sees as more relevant than ever in the electronic age.

“Poetry is opposed to the virtual space of the Internet,” he said. “It takes us away from the high-tech world and asks us to be still.”

Many of his former students agree. Melissa Field, who now lives in the Portland area and came to UMF as the first in her family to attend college, said McNair was “the heartbeat of the creative writing program. He really believed in the cross-genre part. It was just as important to him for us to write good essays and fiction as it was to be a poet.”

When she later went to graduate school, she took courses from established, nationally known novelists and poets, but none affected her like McNair. “I thought college was out of my league. He had us believing in ourselves as writers almost the minute we walked into the room.”

McNair is not the typical professor, she said. “He’s hilarious, with his beard, and his gentleness. We called him ‘the Weasel,’ or ‘the Wesley.’”

A friend told her, “If my dad wasn’t giving me away at my wedding, I’d ask Wes.” More than a decade after she graduated from UMF, “I still use him as a reference. He’s that important to me.”

Field taught at Holy Cross College, took time off to start a family, and has now returned to teaching writing at the Salt school in Portland. “When I heard he was named poet laureate, I said, ‘About time.’ I was wondering if I was going to have to go out and demonstrate in my [Wes McNair] T-shirt.”

Charles McMahon had a part-time job at Shaw’s Supermarkets when he enrolled at UMF. He wanted to be a journalist, but getting started was difficult. He eventually got an internship at the Sun Journal that McNair arranged.

“I was right there in his office when he got on the phone,” McMahon said. “He knew my background, what the opportunities would be, and who to call.”

While a student, McMahon got paid freelancing assignments, but after graduation jobs were still scarce, and he ended up working another three years for Shaw’s. Then, he landed a staff writing position at Foster’s Daily Democrat in Dover, N.H., and a year ago moved to the staff at the Portsmouth Herald.

What he recalls most about McNair’s teaching is not so much about writing, but learning to read poetry.

“He showed us that if you read in the right way, a whole new world in the poem opens up,” McMahon said. The program “was a stretch for me. At first I wasn’t that good, but he was always encouraging and helped me find my voice.”

Cynthia Brackett was an older student when she enrolled at UMF, having edited her own literary magazine, the Aurorean, since 1995. She began the publication in Massachusetts, and relocated it to Farmington after graduation.

“I didn’t know about Wes’ eminence as a poet when I got there, which was just as well,” she said. “I wouldn’t have expected such a down-to-earth approach.” She learned from McNair that “teaching poetry can be a part of writing poetry. A good teacher can gain energy from his students.”

The practical approach paid dividends. “I learned more from one course with Wes than all the other writing courses I’ve had combined,” Brackett said.

Poet of the people

From his home in Mercer, population 657, a town so small he couldn’t find it on the map when he was considering moving to Maine from New Hampshire in 1986, McNair reaches out to communities throughout Maine and New Hampshire. He maintains a schedule of readings, talks, conferences and signings that matches that of jet-setting symphony conductors, though few still manage it at age 69.

“Wes is really the perfect choice for poet laureate,” said Stuart Kestenbaum, director of the Haystack School in Deer Isle.” There isn’t anyone who knows more about Maine writing, or talks about it better.”

You just never know when you’re going to encounter a poem by Wes McNair. He’s featured, along with his daughter, Shanna, in the current edition of Maine: The Magazine, a Portland-based glossy better known for its lifestyle features. He’s also in Poetry, the legendary monthly that “discovered” Ezra Pound and T.S Eliot.

You can also read McNair’s “Driving to Dark Country” at the scenic overlook at the height of land on Route 27 in Eustis. It’s funded through a federal scenic byway grant, and is certainly one of the few places in the country where a full-length poem is featured at a rest stop.

McNair feels honored but disappointed that a second rest stop plaque wasn’t erected closer to home. A selectman in another town objected to a reference to “Buddha” in a metaphor about long-haul truckers, and the proposed poetic outpost was dropped.

If the poet laureate’s design is to get Mainers reading and talking about poetry daily, he already has made a good start.

At home in Maine

Another advantage McNair has is that his poems, while often complex and sometimes dark, are usually approachable by just about anyone who reads. Melissa Field observes, “My dad is a blue-collar guy, through and through, but he can read these poems. Wes can make a poem from the smallest gesture, like how Mainers communicate when they wave from behind a steering wheel.” (It’s called “Waving Goodbye.”)

McNair grew up in the Connecticut River Valley of New Hampshire, living in a poor section of Claremont. His father left when he was 8. His mother often struggled to feed three boys. McNair, too, was the first in his family to attend college, and he was teaching high school shortly after marrying Diane, who already had two children, when he was 21.

They had two more children while he taught at Colby-Sawyer College in New London, N.H., and McNair was struggling to become a writer. At times, he abandoned poetry to draw cartoons and write short stories, but when he returned to verse, he knew it was the right choice.

With his first book, “The Faces of Americans in 1853,” finally in print, he gained stature and was on a fellowship in Ireland when the offer from UMF arrived. “I had to find Farmington on the map,” he recalled. “There was so much white space around it. That appealed to me then. It still does.”

In Farmington, and Mercer, the McNairs have found a home for the past 25 years. McNair is as comfortable at the Grange Hall as he is in his study, and he takes a keen interest in his adopted community. When the only school in town closed two years ago, he worried about the loss — and was relieved when town meeting voted to convert it to a community center that also houses the town office and library. “There’s more life there than there was before,” he said.

At home, where he also does most of his writing, McNair tends to two dogs who are frequent companions on walks through the village. The house itself seems like one of those 19th century Capes in so many magazine features; a wood stove dominates the parlor.

But make no mistake. This is where serious work is done. McNair labors at his poems — usually one poem — almost every morning, and there is nothing casual about his approach.

“I don’t have a choice,” he said. “I have to write these poems.”

Stories are frequently embedded even within McNair’s shorter poems, but he also has produced two long narratives based on events in his life, “My Brother Running” (1993) and “Fire” (2002). They also supplied the titles for two of the seven collections he has published to date, along with four anthologies and three books of essays. His most recent book, “Lovers of the Lost,” came out last year and offers new poems plus selections from the first six books of poetry.

Donald Hall, his mentor, who occupies a place in New Hampshire’s literary life similar to McNair’s in Maine, said in a recent interview that he believes McNair is now doing his best work.

“Often poets’ powers decline after they reach 30,” Hall said. “That’s not true of Wes. He’s on an amazing streak.”

It was Hall who helped convince McNair, back in the early days in New Hampshire, that the poems, and recognition, would come. At one point, Hall said that even publishing a first book “would not make that big a difference.” But, Hall added, “It makes a difference to me.”

Lessons from Whitman

Poetry would seem to be that oddest of arts — something rarefied and strange, yet ultimately based in the tribal rhythms of a thousand campfires, where illiterate societies chanted and named the important things in their lives.

McNair has little time for the traditional academic life, “poets speaking to each other,” as he puts it. While he respects Robert Frost poetry, he dislikes what he sees as Frost’s coldness, his aloofness from the life of the places he lived.

His poetic hero is Walt Whitman, the 19th century bard of abundance, who nursed soldiers in the Civil War and embraced the crowd as no poet had before him. Whitman published many of his major poems first in newspapers (so did Longfellow), and McNair likes the connections that implies.

“You have to embrace your own life to write poetry well,” he said. “It’s the only material you’ll ever have. I grew up among blown-out mill towns and collapsing farms.” Among his schoolmates, “one became a drunk and worked in a paper mill, another — the drum majorette — became pregnant by the captain of the football team and dropped out of school.” But it was life.

He calls Whitman “a very important predecessor” because he “made his poetry out of the common life. That was revolutionary.” He sometimes thinks of that example as he works.

“This is not art for art’s sake,” he said. “It’s how I learn how to live my life, and understand it.”

As the new poet laureate heads out on his rounds, it’s clear he’ll have plenty of company along the way.

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