Poetry to the People: An Interim Report from Maine’s Poet Laureate

If we had set out to create a program that was more threatening to the connection between poetry and its audience, we could hardly have done better than the system we have in America today. Poetry books are routinely printed in runs of less than a thousand copies, and only a few are given reviews, or shelf space in bookstores. Partly in self-defense, poets band together in groups or aesthetic schools and offer bookstore readings attended by fellow poets and a few of the like-minded, or university readings attended mostly by students pressed into service. Meanwhile the general public, standing at the edges of such events, decides that today’s poetry is probably not for them.

Yet people continue to value poetry. They understand the poem’s unique power to express in a few words the feelings that matter most to us. That is why they turn to poetry on milestone occasions like weddings and funerals and commencement exercises….

With those words I began my introduction to an anthology I published as poet laureate of Maine called Take Heart: Poems from Maine. The anthology collects the first two years of my newspaper column titled Take Heart: A Conversation in Poetry, which features a previously published Maine poem each week and is now available in 31 newspapers throughout the state, with a combined circulation of 250,000 readers. The column was my first statewide initiative, rolled out at the governor’s mansion in April of 2011. Its aim was, and is, to help restore the broken connection between poetry and its audience.

Now well into my five-year term as poet laureate, I’ve introduced four annual statewide initiatives, all of them executed with the help of my partner, the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance, and all sharing the general goal of bringing poetry to the people. My second initiative was called “The Maine Poetry Express”—a metaphorical train with stops at 14 towns throughout the state. At each destination two area poets offered brief readings to introduce their neighbors to their work. Afterward, they were joined by a group of ordinary town citizens—first selectmen, store clerks, teachers and lobstermen—who took the stage one by one to read a couple of poems chosen from anthologies I’ve edited and tell their audiences why they selected their choices, and what the poems meant to them personally.

A group of readers with McNair at Fort Kent's Maine Poetry Express event.

Like the Take Heart column, the Maine Poetry Express continues today, with a new run that starts at the state library during the fall. In the meantime, I’ve rolled out initiative three: “Poets in Public,” whose objective is to put videos of contemporary Maine poets reading and discussing their work on YouTube and a specially created website. In so doing, we’ll make Maine poets and their work accessible to the public by the click of a mouse.

My fourth initiative, introduced just last April at the governor’s mansion, is titled “Imagination 101: Poetry in the Schools,” and it has two parts. The first is “Written Word, Spoken Word, and Hip-Hop,” through which I hope to revolutionize poetry in the schools in Maine. During the next academic year, a team of three poets, one for each genre of the project’s title, will perform and conduct workshops at a series of pilot schools in Maine, bringing into the classroom sources many students are already excited by. At the same time, starting in September, we’ll be growing a website for use by state high schools in general, including instructive videos from our work in the field.

The second part of Imagination 101 is another website titled “Letters Between Poets,” which contains my early correspondence as a struggling poet with an elder poet and mentor, Donald Hall. The letters stretch from the middle 1970s, when I met him, to the publication of my first book and its reception in 1984. Crucial to my development as a poet, the correspondence contains advice to me as a poet, discussions of poems in progress, letters of encouragement written during periods of artistic failure, and conversations about the writing life. There are many ways to access the letters – by individual chapters, for instance, which contain their own stories; or by one of the 30-plus themes listed on the site; or by poems in progress that were shaped by our conversation; or by a keyword search.

That this website exists at all is due to the hard work of the special collections staff at Colby College, which has my archive. So I conclude with thanks to them—also to my partner, MWPA, for their help with my initiatives, and to my fellow Mainer Richard Blanco for inviting me to post my interim report as poet laureate on this blog. Thanks, finally, to the people of Maine, who have helped me carry poetry’s banner over the past four years of my laureateship, proving that well outside of literary circles, poetry still matters.

 

Wesley McNair is the Poet Laureate of Maine. He is the author of nineteen books, including most recently The Words I Chose: A Memoir of Family and Poetry and Lovers of the Lost: New & Selected Poems. He has won grants from the Rockefeller, Fulbright and Guggenheim foundations and two NEA grants in creative writing. He has been invited to read his poetry by the Library of Congress, and was chosen as one of five state poets laureate to read at the National Book Festival in Washington, DC, co-chaired by President Barack Obama and Michele Obama. He was recently selected for a United States Artists Fellowship as one of “America’s finest living artists.” Find more on McNair’s brand new book of poems here.

05.14.14 by Wesley McNair