Maine’s outgoing poet laureate Stu Kestenbaum outside his son’s home in Portland. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

Given the way the world is trending, Stuart Kestenbaum decided to elevate the words of the youth poets of Maine before his term as state poet laureate ends this spring.

Kestenbaum’s final project as poet laureate involves a new podcast featuring a dozen young writers, called “Voices of the Future.” The podcast begins in mid-March, hosted by the Telling Room. The 11 episodes consist of conversations with young writers about their writing, their life journeys so far, and their hopes. They will be released at once, so teachers, and others, can access them for National Poetry Month in April.

“I’m talking with young writers, some of whom were born in Maine and others who came from Iraq and places in Africa to Portland, talking about their writing, what they do with their writing and how they think about their writing,” said Kestenbaum, who lives in Deer Isle. “Hearing the voices of the future, the people who will be here and who are moving here, and how they have seen the world just feels like a good way to end.”

The young writers also speak their own poetry on the podcasts.

It’s the final initiative of Kestenbaum’s five-year term as Maine poet laureate, a volunteer position administered by the Maine Arts Commission and appointed by a five-member advisory committee that includes representation from the arts commission and Maine State Library. His replacement hasn’t been named. In Kestenbaum’s hands, poems are like an unexpected phone call from a friend, a flash of a memory or a dream of something to be, showing up when needed most. He has characterized his experience as the state’s poet laureate as a campaign to leave the joy, sadness and opportunities for reflection found in poems across Maine’s media landscape.

“When people hear poems they weren’t expecting to hear, it takes them somewhere,” he said. “I get a kick out of that.”

Amanda Dettman, a 23-year-old poet from Yarmouth now living in New York and one of those featured in the podcast, said much the same. “I think when something so short on a page can throw you out of a chair, that is terrifying but also freeing. It can be the smallest thing in your day that impacts you for a lifetime,” she said.

Kestenbaum has been the multimedia poet laureate. During his term, he recorded more than 200 poems for a weekly radio program with Maine Public called “Poems from Here.” The program, which airs on Fridays, will end in early April after the podcast with the Telling Room goes live, though “Poems from Here” will remain available on the Maine Public website.

He collaborated with Maine Public TV and the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance on 15 short movies, “Poems from Here: Celebrating Maine’s Bicentennial with Poems by Maine Writers Spoken by Mainers,” an engaging, provocative series featuring a boat captain, the governor, an artist and others, created by Beechwood Film. Those films also are available for viewing through Maine Public. He also arranged for printed poems to be placed in hotels in Maine, to offer guests something to read and ponder as they waited in hotel lobbies.

“Repair the World,” a framed erasure poem by Stuart Kestenbaum. Courtesy of Stuart Kestenbaum

In April, as part of National Poetry Month, Cumberland-based Deerbrook Editions will release “Things Seemed to be Breaking,” a collection of Kestenbaum’s erasure poems – a contemporary writing practice that involves erasing, or covering up, words in existing source text to create something new – and Cove Street Arts will exhibit some of the Kestenbaum’s erasure poems in its Portland gallery, beginning April 1. The exhibition also will include collaborative work with his wife, the artist Susan Webster.

Kestenbaum said working with young poets on this final project felt entirely appropriate and inspiring. In the spirit of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” the podcast is his way of stepping aside to let the young people have the stage. “Ending with the kids means ending with the future,” he said, citing inaugural poet Amanda Gorman, 23, as a young writer and thinker who represents a generational voice. “It feels like young people are rediscovering poetry in a different way, partly because of the inauguration. Those moments when they want an extra dose of meaning, they turn to poetry. And with everything going on our country, it’s a fertile ground for that.”

The podcast creates an opportunity for the next Amanda Gorman to come from Maine.

Last spring, Kestenbaum received a $50,000 grant from the Academy of American Poets. He decided then to use the money to tell the stories of the young poets from Maine and wanted to create something lasting. He arranged for extended interviews with a dozen young writers at the Telling Room’s downtown Portland classroom-and-office complex.

All the writers featured in the “Voices of the Future” podcast contributed to the Telling Room’s latest poetry chapbook, “A New Land,” published in 2020. Gorman wrote the introduction for the book. “I find it ridiculous when poets are automatically waved aside as ‘aspiring’ and ’emerging’ due to their age,” she wrote. “If I ever doubted my conviction, this collection just further verifies it. The poems are vibrant and unforgettable, and it’s a joy to read them all. It teaches us that in the white space between two lines, the pause between poems, perhaps we can break a fresh sheet of soil.”

Kestenbaum received the Academy of American Poets grant when the Telling Room book was coming together, and the interests of the poet laureate to elevate youth voices merged with the desires of these poets to be heard. Dettman, who is an MFA student in poetry at New York University, is grateful for the opportunity. “No matter what age, we can reimagine time and place across our identities,” she said in a phone interview. “Stu is working toward inclusivity, where young poets boldly tell their own stories in their own words. They are not getting misrepresented because of their age or where they came from.”

On the biggest stage, Gorman embodied the ideal of telling her own story in her own words. Given the opportunity, Dettman said, Gorman stood tall. She spoke with honesty and insight, and with firm belief in her vision. That’s the power of poetry, Dettman said.

Outgoing Maine poet laureate Stuart Kestenbaum recorded a podcast with poet Salar Salim at the Telling Room last summer. Courtesy of the Telling Room

Other Maine poets featured on the podcast are Abie Waisman, Benedita Zalabantu, Clautel Buba, Fiona Stawarz, Henry Spritz, Jojo Rich, Lizzy Lemieux, Lulu Rasor, Missouri Alice Williams, Salar Salim, and Siri Pierce.

Molly McGrath, publications director at the Telling Room, who recruited Gorman to write the introduction to “A New Land,” said the Telling Room is sending copies of the book to every high school in Maine, and the Telling Room is working with Gov. Janet Mills to issue a proclamation about the book as part of National Poetry Month in April. They will also distribute copies of the book to participants in the virtual New England Youth Identity Summit, hosted by Waynflete School on April 10. Telling Room poets will lead a workshop at the conference, McGrath said.

She is grateful Kestenbaum chose to focus on young voices as his final official act as poet laureate. Poetry can feel flowery and old sometimes, she said, but not in Kestenbaum’s hands. “He brings a freshness to it, a liveliness. Stu has truly been a poet of the state, and maybe that is the thing I most admire. He has opened the door wider than before. It feels more of the people now.”

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