Janet Mills is a published poet and a vocal advocate for Maine’s literary community, so it’s not surprising that the state’s next governor is returning poetry to a prominent place in the inauguration ceremonies Wednesday.

She asked former Maine poet laureate Wesley McNair to write a poem for the occasion, a challenge that McNair, who lives in Mercer, accepted. McNair will deliver his poem “The Song for the Unsung” during the public celebration that begins at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Augusta Civic Center. That’s a big change from eight years ago, when Paul LePage removed poetry from the ceremony that formally installs the next governor to the highest office in the land of Longfellow. Poetry had been part of the gubernatorial inauguration for as long as anyone could remember, and LePage’s decision to strip it from the ceremony was seen as a mean-spirited snub of Maine’s literary traditions.

Mills is looking forward to hearing what McNair has come up with – and doesn’t want to know anything about the poem in advance. “I haven’t read it and don’t want to read it. I will be as surprised as anybody, and I am sure it will be good. Wes is a wonderful poet and a wonderful friend,” she said.

To honor Mills’ request, McNair declined to discuss his poem in detail, but said he approached the assignment with caution and did not say yes right away. “You get these opportunities to write commissioned poems, but it’s dangerous territory for a poet,” said McNair, who was poet laureate from 2011 to 2016. “The true poems come from the inside out. You have to be inspired to write it. It doesn’t come from some assignment.”

But he’s known Mills for many years and understands her vision and her passions. He accepted the assignment when he realized he was “able to lay claim to the material,” he said. “I will deliver it at the event, and with pleasure. I’ve been enthusiastic about her for a long time.”

The underground Portland press Littoral Books included two poems by Mills when it published an anthology of Maine poetry in 1975, “Balancing Act.” Mills was a law student in Portland at the time, working toward a law degree that eventually would help her become Maine’s attorney general, the role she has filled since 2013. When “Balancing Act 2” came out a few weeks ago, Mills showed up at the launch party at Space Gallery in Portland to talk about the importance of poetry in her life.

“I do still occasionally write poetry when I have time,” she said in an interview, “when I feel like emptying my brain and putting words on paper, disconnected words that sometimes find their way together and create a poem.”

Poetry is important to her because it helps her understand the world holistically and helps connect her senses. “We have eyes that can see only so far. We have ears that can hear only so far,” she said. “Poetry connects the dots among things that are otherwise not connected, that we cannot see, that we cannot hear, that we cannot touch or smell or know, and it helps you understand the world and the universe and human nature.”

McNair said Mills’ embrace of poetry will make her a leader “worthy of our trust” because poets are trained to throw off preconceptions and use their writing as a way to search for a higher truth. Poets recognize that the things they do not know lead to knowledge and understanding, he said. Her desire to learn and her willingness to explore the truth, however uncomfortable or inconvenient, will give her an edge among politicians “who don’t want to know beyond what they already know because it will threaten their argument,” McNair said.

“To be a poet and a reader of poetry you have to be capable of intuitive insight, which is a power that not everybody has. The insight of intuition involves seeing something in relationship to other things. That’s how poetry works. From those insights come vision, and that’s what will make her different as a politician. She will think in a different way and in a way that I think is good for Maine,” he said.

Mills and McNair are longtime friends through their mutual associations at the University of Maine at Farmington. Mills grew up in Farmington, and McNair is professor emeritus at the university. He’s written nine books of poetry and won grants from the Guggenheim and Fulbright foundations and was recognized as one of America’s finest living artists with a $50,000 United States Artists Fellowship.

Soon after taking office in 2011, LePage named McNair the state’s poet laureate, and McNair adopted “Poetry for the People” as the theme of his term.

Mills called McNair “a wonderful friend” and said it was important to use the occasion of her inauguration to remind people of Maine’s literary legacy of poets and other kinds of writers.

Maine natives Edna St. Vincent Millay and Edwin Arlington Robinson won four Pulitzer Prize awards in poetry between them, and Louise Bogan of Livermore Falls was the nation’s fourth poet laureate in 1945. Current Maine resident Richard Blanco wrote and delivered the poem “One Today” at the second inauguration of President Obama in 2013. And Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the rock-star poet of the Victorian era, was born in Portland in 1807.

All of that says nothing of the three Pulitzer winners living in Maine today – Elizabeth Strout, Richard Ford and Richard Russo – and the hundreds of others across Maine who write all kinds of books for all kinds of readers and for all kinds of reasons. “We’ve got some fine, talented people in the state of Maine who are writing novels, histories and poems,” Mills said. “There’s an incredible richness of literary people, and there has been for a long time.”

Cathie Pelletier, a novelist from Allagash, said Mills has shown up at so many of her readings “she once blurted out from the back of the room the punch line to one of my jokes.”

Mills supports writers by buying their books by the dozen, Pelletier said. “I’ll say, ‘Janet, you bought my book a dozen times.’ She’ll reply, ‘It’s a gift for so-and-so.’ I see books around my house that Janet sent, especially poetry collections: ‘Thought you’d like this one,’ scrawled inside,” Pelletier wrote in an email. “It’s her way of supporting the poet who wrote the book.”

Pelletier described Mills as a poet at heart, loyal to the written word “and to those of us who create it in the trenches.” She also described her friend as indefatigable. “I wish there were a shorter word, but it takes six syllables to aptly describe her,” Pelletier wrote.

In an email, Blanco wrote: “The role of an inaugural poet, as I came to understand and experience it, is to reflect the vision of what a new administration may mean to our lives; not with respect to policy or politics, but rather, from a humanitarian point of view. The inaugural poem is not meant to be a political or policy speech; like any good poem, an inaugural poem is meant to appeal to our emotions, connect us all to our shared humanity, and evoke a new conversation. But perhaps the most important lesson I learned, and would share with Wes McNair, is this: an inaugural poem isn’t solely about the occasion, but equally about what the poet feels about the occasion. In other words, it’s as much a personal poem as it is a public one.”

Joshua Bodwell, executive director of the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance, said LePage’s snub eight years ago galvanized people and helped motivate McNair and his successor, the current poet laureate, Stuart Kestenbaum, to create platforms for people to access poems as part of their daily lives. Since then, poems by Maine poets have been printed in newspapers across Maine, read on the radio and shared on social media. Hotels make poetry available to guests in their rooms.

“LePage might not have lit the proverbial fire, but he likely stoked it,” Bodwell said. “His dismissiveness, his unnecessary crassness, served as a catalyzing moment. Would Wes and Stu – and many others – have launched and sustained great poetry initiatives over the past eight years had LePage not been so rude about his inauguration? Yes, I suppose so. But I think LePage’s behavior helped focus those efforts. If we weren’t loud enough promoters of Maine poetry back in 2010, I hope we’ve done quite a bit of good to get things pointed in the right direction now.”

Bodwell was “deeply moved” when Mills attended the book launch for “Balancing Act 2” at Space and stood on stage to speak about poetry.

“I’m paraphrasing her here, of course, but she talked about what poetry has meant to her over the years, about how through poetry, reading and writing, we might come to understand ourselves better, and in doing so, then come to understand others around us better, too,” Bodwell said. “She suggested, with a bit of a wink, that more politicians should read poetry. What a thought, eh?”

 

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