Stuart Kestenbaum, the former director of Haystack Mountain School of Crafts, is Maine’s new poet laureate.

Kestenbaum, 64, was appointed to the unpaid, five-year term Thursday. He replaces Wesley McNair of Mercer, who filled the role the past five years.

Kestenbaum writes about the passage of time and the fragile nature of our world, and celebrates moments of joy, sadness and humor, large and small. His poems have appeared in numerous publications and magazines.

“Stu’s work beautifully captures the quirky, rural characteristics that make Maine unique and beloved,” Julie Richard, executive director of the Maine Arts Commission, said in a prepared statement that announced the appointment.

Kestenbaum, who lives in Deer Isle, plans to use the position to celebrate Maine’s literary legacy.

“It’s a great platform to be an advocate for writing, and the state has such a rich tradition of writing and poetry,” he said in a phone interview from New York, where he and his wife were visiting their son. “It’s an honor to build on it.”


A poet and longtime arts administrator, Kestenbaum has published four books of poetry. His latest, “Only Now,” came out in 2014. His other books are “Pilgrimage,” “House of Thanksgiving,” and “Prayers and Run-on Sentences,” all published by small Maine presses.

Joshua Bodwell, executive director of the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance, said Kestenbaum’s “generosity of spirit” comes through in his writing.

“For me, his writing has always felt like as much an act of communication as an act of art – his poetry searches to make sense of and celebrate life in conversation with the reader,” Bodwell said.

Kestenbaum retired from Haystack in 2015 after 27 years as its director. Before that, he worked at the Maine Arts Commission and the Children’s Museum of Maine. He remains active in the field of craft, as chairman of the American Craft Council and as a strategist for a consortium of crafts schools across the country, including Haystack.

At Haystack, Kestenbaum often began new sessions with students by reciting a poem, sometimes one of his own but usually one by another Maine writer. He often caught people, especially newcomers to Haystack, by surprise. He said he’ll take the same approach as Maine poet laureate, dropping poems on people when they least expect it.

“Poetry makes people nervous, until they’re engaged in it. That’s when they realize it’s what they needed to hear,” he said. “People are surprised they can laugh at a poem, because it’s a little like church, like you are not supposed to laugh.”


He understands some people’s fear of poetry. “It’s like if someone said ‘algebra’ to me, I’d feel exactly the same way,” he said.

Kestenbaum is Maine’s fifth poet laureate. In addition to McNair, his predecessors are Kate Barnes, Baron Wormser and Betsy Sholl. The position was established by the Legislature in 1995. Full-time Maine residents with a distinguished body of work were eligible to apply.

The role doesn’t have specific duties beyond broadening understanding and appreciation for poetry. The position is an unpaid, honorary post.

During his term, McNair began a weekly poetry column in Maine newspapers and a poetry tour, the Maine Poetry Express, that traveled to 175 communities statewide. McNair endorsed his successor. “I think he’s an excellent choice, because he will carry on with the tradition of being an active poet laureate instead of a ceremonial one,” McNair said.

Kestenbaum doesn’t want to emulate his predecessors. Among his early ideas, Kenstenbaum would like to re-establish a Maine poetry festival.

He talked to McNair, who gave him advice similar to what Kestenbaum offered his successor at Haystack: “Make it your own.”


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