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January 27, 2013

Photos by Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

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

This poet's life

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."

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."

 

"... WHERE MY POEMS COME FROM"

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.

And without an open heart, there would be no poetry. "That's where my poems come from."

McNair was born in 1941 in New Hampshire. According to his account, his parents were not happy. His father, Wilbur, abandoned his family and left his mother at home with three children.

But Ruth didn't stay single long. Three months before her divorce was official, she met McNair's stepfather, a man named Paul. They married in 1952.

With a family reformed, McNair and his siblings yearned for the life they saw on TV in the early 1950s, the perfect Ozzie and Harriet family or the one depicted in "Father Knows Best."

They didn't get it.

His mother and stepfather relocated the family to a farm in Claremont, N.H. With Ruth's approval, Paul told the kids they would earn their keep by completing farm chores.

Instead of wearing a suit and tie like the dads on TV, McNair's stepfather wore T-shirts and shop pants, he writes. Paul worked nights in a machine shop, often waking in the afternoon. Ruth worked the farm, and boys contributed labor in exchange for room and board.

School was not a priority, and discipline was used as a behavioral tool.

Of his stepfather, McNair writes, "love was never part of the contract he announced when he became the father in our family, any more than it was a guiding principal for his own father."

As a teenager, McNair was grounded for one summer for transgressions of minor consequence: He walked home with a girl hand-in-hand, and kissed her. In doing so, he missed a ride from his mother. Later, he left his lunch box at school and faced three days of punishment. Another time, his parents grounded him for eight months.

In 1959, he ran away from home, spending two weeks at a friend's house until he decided to return home one more time. Whatever harmony he achieved was short-lived. Later that year, he left for good.

A gift from a friend at Columbia University gave McNair the courage to find his liberation. In the fall of his senior year of high school, his friend, John Huot, shipped him a heavy box from New York. The box contained "an extraordinary gift" of novels by William Faulkner, Jack Kerouac, plays by Arthur Miller and poetry by Carl Sandburg, Robert Frost and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

"Poring over these volumes at age seventeen in rural New Hampshire, I got a sense of the modern tradition in America that would otherwise have taken years to acquire," McNair writes in his memoir. "And reading the literary magazine from Columbia that John had included, containing poems he himself had written, I began to imagine I might one day publish by own poetry."

It was, in every respect, a monumental moment.

The books and the stories they told gave McNair the courage to imagine a different life. "What freed me was this gift of a box of books," he says.

The grounding felt less harsh than it might have otherwise, because it afforded him solitary time.

"I could read and read. Looking back now, I can see clearly how it worked. All my friends were out on Saturday night, including my younger brother. But I was home with my books. If poetry can matter to a kid like that, why can't it relate to everybody?"

That question lies at the heart of McNair's mission as Maine's poet laureate.

 

REBUILDING A CONNECTION

McNair's goal is to restore the connection between poetry and it audience, which is broken. If he, as a teenager in rural New Hampshire in the 1950s, found purpose in life by reading the words of Frost and Sandburg, why can't a kid in Sanford or Presque Isle find something similar today?

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.

But still, the brutal honesty of the memoir took him aback.

"It's such an honest portrait of his life and the struggles and the successes, and just trying to make art out of hard things. I really appreciated it on that level," Fay-LeBlanc said. "It did surprise me a little bit. Well, it did and it didn't -- Wes is not afraid to say things in his poetry, but in its nature, poetry holds things back and makes us read between the lines."

McNair took the title of his book from a line in an early poem, "How I Became a Poet."

In the poem, he describes how, at age 8, he made a picture of his father, drawing his face in the center of a poster as a bad guy with comic-book whiskers. He put the word "Wanted" at the bottom.

His father had left the family a year earlier, and the word "wanted" worked on two levels. The word accused his father of leaving, and also expressed McNair's yearning to have him back in his life.

As an adult looking back at that event and seeing how that word shifted between meanings, McNair saw that childhood gesture as his first attempt at poetry. At that young age, he turned to words -- or this case, a single word -- as a way to express his feelings about his broken family and his broken world.

McNair tells that story to begin his memoir. It seemed like a perfect way to begin, he says.

"I am a mender of broken things, like all artists. Given my childhood and my youth, I had a lot of mending to do," he says.

"Every artist's awareness comes out of a general sense of imperfection and the condition of brokenness. The world is a broken place, and we are all broken in it. Through our art, we find ways to mend it. For me, the mending is done with words -- the words I choose."

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or:

bkeyes@pressherald.com

Twitter: pphbkeyes



Wesley McNair with his new memoir.

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



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