This week’s Deep Water poem, by Maya Williams, takes us onto a film set and into the thoughts of an actor portraying Mary Bowser, a Black spy for the Union. I’m struck by how much is going on in Williams’s few lines: one actor’s interior experience, a cast and crew telling Bowser’s story, and deep complexities of history, lived perspective and representation. I also love how Williams keeps the poem grounded in “breath”– a word that evokes both larger ongoing histories of Black life and death, and the visceral, present-tense life of this one human dressed in a corset.

Maya Williams (pronouns they/she) is a Black and mixed-race suicide survivor who lives in Portland. Williams has published poems with glitterMOB, Black Table Arts, Occulum, Littoral Books, Homology Lit and more. They are a Best of the Net nominee and a winner of the 2019 PortFringe Audience Choice Award for their spoken word showcase “Speaking With An Extraterrestrial.” They are also the recipient of residencies with Hewnoaks, Sundress Academy for the Arts, and the Voices of Our Nation Arts (VONA) Foundation. You can find Maya hosting open mics on most Tuesday nights with Port Veritas and facilitating writing workshops on Sunday mornings via Zoom. Follow Maya’s work via

On a Film Set Playing Mary Bowser

By Maya Williams

Breathing is an entanglement
with the producers’ expectations
with the actors’ collaborations
with my ancestors’ questions
To breathe is an entanglement
be called a “lady” in this corset
hear slave jokes in this corset
sit in a prison scene in this corset
to finally take off this corset

Megan Grumbling is a poet and writer who lives in Portland. Deep Water: Maine Poems is produced in collaboration with the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance. ”On a Film Set Playing Mary Bowser,’” copyright @ 2021 by Maya Williams. Reprinted from Facebook, 2021, by permission of the author.

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