Friday, December 6, 2013
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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
Wesley McNair with his new memoir.
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.
He laments that books of poetry are published in small print runs of 1,000 copies or fewer. Most are never reviewed, and most never find space on the bookshelves of booksellers.
When poets give readings, they are largely attended by other poets and the like-minded, while the rest of the world stands on the sidelines "shaking its collective head and saying, 'I guess poetry is not for me,' " he says.
And yet, at almost every event that marks an important passage -- weddings, funerals, graduations, inaugurations and other momentous occasions -- we use poetry to add texture and context.
"Poetry offers a way of connecting with our feelings with a few brief words," he says. "I want to restore that connection by finding new ways of connecting poetry with the people."
McNair is in the midst of a five-year term as poet laureate, which began in 2011 under what could have been a cloud of controversy.
When he began his term, newly elected Gov. Paul LePage announced that he was stripping poetry from the inaugural celebration. Many people were enraged. McNair was disappointed, but used the occasion as an opportunity to talk about the history of poetry in Maine.
He refused to lock horns or engage in a political battle. Befitting his mild-mannered and professorial personality, he took the high road and instead launched a statewide campaign to bring poetry to every corner of Maine in an attempt to restore the connection between poetry and the common man.
In tandem with the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance, his first initiative was establishing a weekly newspaper column, "Take Heart," that features a poem by a Maine poet. The column appears in 30 newspapers across the state, including the Maine Sunday Telegram.
His second initiative is the Maine Poetry Express, a metaphorical train that brings together Maine poets and residents for an afternoon or evening of readings and talks about the relevance of poetry to the lives and concerns of people in those towns. At each stop, McNair features local poets and readers, and poems that speak to local relevance.
The tour, which is supported by the Maine Humanities Council, will hit 14 communities. It began in November and continues much of this year. Upcoming stops include Camden on Feb. 26 and Bath on Feb. 28.
In April, McNair will make his annual address as poet laureate at the Blaine House in Augusta, at which time he will launch the anthology "Take Heart: Poems from Maine," which collects the poems from the newspaper column in book form.
AN ALLY IN ALLIANCE
As poet laureate, McNair has benefitted from the support of the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance, which has made it easier for him to launch and execute initiatives such as the newspaper column and the Maine Poetry Express.
Prior to McNair's taking office, the alliance's executive director, Joshua Bodwell, pledged the organization's support of any ideas that McNair or his successors dreamt up.
Bodwell called McNair "tenaciously hardworking" and a patriarchal figure in the Maine literary community.
Gibson Fay-LeBlanc, a Portland writer with one book of poetry to his credit, admires McNair's lack of ego. He became aware of McNair's poetry through a graduate class at Columbia. He later met McNair, and now considers him a colleague and a mentor.
"As a young poet myself, I look at Wes as a model, as someone who has made his life in poetry and teaching," Fay-LeBlanc said. "He's accomplished a lot of what there is to accomplish as a writer."
Fay-LeBlanc enjoyed reading "The Words I Chose" because of its honesty. He was somewhat surprised to read McNair's stories, though he was aware of McNair's personal past because of his poems.
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Wesley McNair at home in Mercer with his dogs Gus, left, and Rosie.