One day, when he was about 8 years old, Wesley McNair fashioned a “wanted” poster modeled after the ones he observed hanging in the post office in Claremont, the small New Hampshire town where he lived with his mother and two brothers. It featured a childish drawing of his absent father, who had recently abandoned the young family and taken up with another woman. In big block letters below the drawing, he wrote the word “WANTED.”
“As soon as I wrote it, I could see how resonant the word was,” McNair recalled in a recent phone conversation. “It was my first use of a word with a double meaning. On one hand, I could represent him as a bad guy and please my mother. But it also expressed my grief for him, and my desire for him.”
That moment of illumination was long ago, but it kindled a quiet fire that has burned steadily through the decades of McNair’s creative life as a respected writer and poet. Now 76 and living in the western Maine town of Mercer, McNair’s roots are still deep in his hardscrabble youth. And he still revels in the richness of words and respect for the power and the playfulness of their meanings.
His latest book of poems, “The Unfastening,” released earlier this year, maps an emotional adult journey from despair to acceptance. The title itself carries multiple meanings in these short poems, from the loss of deep connection and belongingness through a kind of ecstatic openness to the mystery of life’s transitions.
“An unfastening is a kind of opening and a kind of letting go,” McNair said. “These are poems about grief and about restoring yourself. … These are poems about what life means to me at this age.”
As he reflects on the accomplishments of his long career, McNair has plenty of material to work with. “The Unfastening” is his 12th book of poems. He has also published three volumes on the craft of writing poetry and has edited a half dozen anthologies of Maine poetry, short fiction and essays. He has received numerous literary awards and has held fellowships from the Fulbright Program, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Rockefeller Foundation.
McNair founded and led the highly regarded creative writing program at the University of Maine at Farmington from 1987 until his retirement in 2004. He has taught as visiting faculty at Colby College, Dartmouth College and other campuses, read his poetry twice at the Library of Congress and served five times on the jury for the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry.
And, from 2011 to 2016, McNair was Maine’s poet laureate. In this role, and as an extension of his commitment to teaching high school and college students from all backgrounds, McNair sought to demystify poetry and make it more relevant and more accessible to all Maine people, and all people generally — what he calls “the whole freckled mass of humanity.”
“The best poems are after insights into the shared human life. They tell us what life is about, what’s in it, what matters in it and how to live our lives,” he said. But in order for poems to speak clearly, they should be “so transparent they don’t even feel like a poem,” even as they speak with a kind of urgency that summons “deep-down, intuitive life. That’s the smartest part of you, the truest part.”
One way McNair raised the visibility of poetry in Maine was through a weekly poetry column that was published in more than two dozen Maine newspapers from 2011 to 2015. It was called “Take Heart” and featured poems written by poets who lived in or had ties to Maine. The poems from “Take Heart” have been collected into bound anthologies and offered for sale.
McNair’s other signature activity during his tenure as poet laureate was the Maine Poetry Express, a statewide schedule of community poetry readings that convened in local churches, Grange halls, schools and other public spaces. McNair hosted the informal events, joined by other established poets and townspeople for readings and discussions of Maine-themed poetry.
“To be a true teacher, you have to find a way of intriguing and enticing everybody,” he said. “And it opens your own heart when you do that.”
Today, he continues to reach out with the message and the medium of poetry, working with public school teachers in his area to bring the experience of reading and writing poetry to students at every level, making it an integral part of their language arts curriculum. And, with the recent release of “The Unfastening,” he’s collaborating with faculty and archivists at Colby College, which acquired his papers in 2006, to create an online resource for teachers and others who want a deeper experience of the poems in the book. He expects the website to launch at the end of October.
But McNair, married since his early 20s to his wife, Diane, also continues to mine the richness of his life for new insights and new poems. He finds his inspiration all around him — in his interactions with his immediate family, as father and stepfather to four adult children and grandfather to five youngsters, his memories of lost loved ones, the dailiness of the community he calls home, the wild and rural landscapes that speak to his heart and the public conversations that spark his imagination and rile his convictions.
McNair feels poets and other artists have an obligation to speak out in times of social and political turmoil.
“Today, more than at any time I can remember, the politicians and the advertisers manipulate the language, using it to lie,” he said in an email. “But to write a poem you have to say exactly what’s in your heart, come what may. So writing poetry, particularly in the culture we have, is a subversive activity, whether your subject matter is politics or not.
“I worry that I might run out of poems some day — this is a one-way train, right? — but it hasn’t happened yet,” he said. “As long as there are things that are urgent and necessary to say, I’m still in the game.”