January 27, 2013

This poet's life

Wesley McNair's new memoir charts the writer's course from demanding childhood to recognition as a leading poetic voice of his generation and Maine's poet laureate.

By Bob Keyes bkeyes@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

MERCER -- There are many lines and passages worth quoting in Wesley McNair's first book of prose, "The Words I Chose: A Memoir of Family and Poetry."

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Wesley McNair, at home in Mercer, this week releases “The Words I Chose: A Memoir of Family and Poetry.”

Photos by Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

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Wesley McNair with his new memoir.

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WESLEY McNAIR will read from "The Words I Chose" at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Portland Public Library and at 7 p.m. Feb. 5 at Devaney Doak & Garrett Booksellers in Farmington.

But one stands out:

"Line by line, through the loving spirit of poetry, I have edged toward forgiveness."

In 14 carefully chosen words, that single sentence explains how McNair's creative endeavor binds his life. The life informs the poetry, and the poetry completes the life.

McNair, Maine's poet laureate and professor emeritus at the University of Maine Farmington, is a better and more complete man because of his writing. It has forced him to look inward, order his life and reconcile a childhood full of strife, unhappiness and a funny kind of love.

Poetry helped heal wounds and make sense of an early life beset by hardship. Through poetry, McNair learned to forgive.

"In order to be a poet, you have to accept all of your life exactly as you've lived it," he says. "The good with the bad."

McNair struggled to write "The Words I Chose" since 2005. He struggled, in part, because he's not accustomed to this kind of writing. He's published many books of poetry over the years, but never something like this.

He also struggled because his story is deeply personal. McNair, 71, has shadowed his story in his poetry over the years, but never told it so directly as he has in the pages here.

McNair launches his book, published by Carnegie Mellon University Press, this week. He will read from and discuss the volume at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Portland Public Library. At 7 p.m. Feb. 5, he will give a talk and reading at Devaney Doak & Garrett Booksellers in Farmington, which is just a few miles from his 19th-century home in the small Maine town of Mercer.

The writer has never shied away from difficult personal topics. He has tackled them directly in his poetry. But a memoir is different from a collection of poems.

To ease into the heart of the matter in his poems, McNair began by writing in the third person. He altered names and other biographical elements to cloud identities. It's a literary technique that he used to sharpen his writing and improve his storytelling.

He laughs as he describes the third person as "asbestos gloves," because the topic was too hot to touch with bare hands.

Over time and as a personal therapy of sorts, he moved to the first person, "but in a third-person way. I began to write with a greater emotional complexity and began writing about myself and my family. And that eventually turned into this memoir."

It did not come easily. This project was full of stops and starts, and many moments when he thought it was finished only to discover that he had barely begun.

In a memoir, there's no hiding. It's all here, out in the open for all to see.

McNair dedicates this book to his family, and in the foreword, he writes, "This book has taught me how much I owe my family for the poetry I ended up writing, not only its content but its vision. Like all families, mine has given me both pleasure and pain.

"I am sorry for the trouble we have caused each other, my family and I, but I am grateful for it as well, since without it I would have been denied the life I have known as a poet."



In an interview at his home on a balmy winter afternoon, McNair describes his tempestuous early life as a gift "because it allowed me to enter into this life of poetry." If not for learning to forgive, he would not have learned to open his heart, he says.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Wesley McNair at home in Mercer with his dogs Gus, left, and Rosie.


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