Gov. Janet Mills talks with Maine Poet Laureate Stuart Kestenbaum during the recording session of her speaking the poem “Why Do You Ask?” by Kate Barnes at the Blaine House in Augusta on Jan. 29. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

AUGUSTA — Janet Mills sits at a table in the family dining room of the Blaine House, a magnificent chandelier hanging from above, creaky wooden floors below.

The governor clears her throat, looks into a movie camera and begins speaking the poem “Why Do You Ask,” by the late Maine poet Kate Barnes. “I can’t make any story about my life tonight. The house is like an overturned wastebasket,” she begins. “The radio is predicting more rain.”

On an overcast midwinter afternoon, Mills paused her schedule for two hours to film a segment for a forthcoming series of short films of Maine people speaking poems by Maine poets to celebrate the state’s bicentennial. The project is an outgrowth of Maine Poet Laureate Stuart Kestenbaum’s “Poems from Here” series hosted by Maine Public Radio.

For the TV series, “Poems from Here: Celebrating Maine’s Bicentennial with Poems by Maine Writers Spoken by Mainers,” Kestenbaum is working with Maine Public Television and the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance. The short films, the length of a poem, will be aired on Maine Public TV and on social media beginning in late winter or early spring.

Mills, a published poet and ardent backer of Maine writers, relished the opportunity to honor Barnes, the daughter of poets and a former Maine poet laureate herself, by speaking one of her poems, but rued that she couldn’t deliver all the lines by memory. Kestenbaum, who was standing off-camera, fed the governor the lines that she couldn’t deliver from memory.

“I feel schmucky I can’t memorize all the lines,” Mills said after the filming ended. “The Kate Barnes poems I should have had memorized, word for word. I could have done that.”

Mills recorded two poems in about two hours. The other was “Seeing Mercer, Maine” by Kestenbaum’s predecessor as state poet laureate, Wesley McNair. McNair writes about the character of his town, near Farmington, that most people don’t notice as they pass through on their way to someplace else, braking mostly for speed.

Mills feels geographic kinship with McNair, who’s from the same part of western Maine that Mills knows best and that he writes about with the insight of a local. “Wes McNair’s poems, a lot of them make us see things differently, when we drive down Route 2 or Route 4 or Route 27 or Route 11 – or Route 16 or 201 to Canada,” she said. “The character of the people shows up in the character of the landscape and the habitations.”

Kestenbaum asked Mills to participate in the poetry series because even though she’s the governor, she’s also an everyday Mainer. He’s also asked a boat captain, kids from the Telling Room and various others to participate. To date, in addition to Mills, visual artist Daniel Minter has spoken “Dishpan” by Jacqueline Moore and “Oryx in Crates” by Samaa Abdurraqib; writer and performer Gretchen Berg spoke “Signage,” a poem she wrote; and choreographer and dancer Gwyneth Jones spoke “The Final Appeal” by Linda Aldrich.

“The people we are using for this series represent what I hope is a cross section of Maine,” Kestenbaum said. “Maine looks like a lot of different things in a lot of different places.”

He’s aiming for a total of 16 films. The short films will air one at a time in the space between programs on Maine Public, and will appear at least weekly, Kestenbaum said. They also will reside on Maine Public’s bicentennial hub, and Kestenbaum and Maine Writers & Publishers will share them on social media.

The budget is $40,500. Funding was provided by the Libra Foundation, the Lunder Foundation, Maine Arts Commission and the Maine Bicentennial Commission, Kestenbaum said.

At the Blaine House, Kestenbaum worked with a three-person film crew of Lindsay Steven Mann, Cecily Pingree and Jason Mann. As Mills grew more comfortable with the filming, she also became more theatrical.

A crew films Mills speaking a poem for a new series on Maine Public Television. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Over several takes, she tried speaking the poems while moving about the room, walking toward the camera, or staring out the window. For one take, she looked into a mirror while the film crew captured her words and movements from behind. With everything silent but for the occasional interruption of a heating system, Mills filled the quiet of the Blaine House with the understated cadence of her soft voice.

There was a long pause when she finished with the Barnes poem, and then a moment of relief. “Great, that’s really great,” said Lindsay Steven Mann, announcing the filming complete.

Afterward, Mills spoke about the importance of poetry in her life. It’s been years since she’s published any poetry, but she writes when she can.

At the time of the filming, she had recently delivered the State of the State address, a daunting task that challenged and rewarded her. She spent a lot of time in history books reading texts of other State of the State addresses by Maine governors over time. “It was a little nerve-wracking writing the speech, but I enjoyed writing the speech. I had fun writing it, and I had fun delivering it,” she said.

It was challenging because she was writing for three distinct groups of people: the lawmakers with whom she works, the public she serves, and the historians who will judge her words with the perspective of time.

In a sense, poetry works much the same way. It can soothe and comfort in the moment and also offer wisdom over time and from a distance, said Mills.

“Poetry brings the disconnected things together in a connected way,” she said. “It makes us see beyond our eyes, hear beyond our ears and feel beyond our sense of touch. It expands the universe, and it expands our understanding of life and the soul and the world.”


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