Like a lot of Mainers, Julia Bouwsma does a little bit of everything to get by.

She raises pigs and taps maple trees on 85 acres in rural New Portland. She works part-time at Webster Library in Kingfield, where she has a hand in everything from recommending books to setting up story hours. She teaches an English course at a nearby college. And she writes poetry.

Bouwsma’s skill at the latter helped her become Maine’s sixth poet laureate, a non-paying job that comes with a five-year term. At 41, she’s relatively young for the job and lesser known in the state’s arts and culture scene than some of her predecessors. Wesley McNair (2011-2015) had served several times on the Pulitzer Prize poetry jury and has won the Robert Frost Prize, among others. Stuart Kestenbaum (2016-2020) was director of the nationally known Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Deer Isle for 27 years.

Bouwsma, has written two books of poetry – “Work by Bloodlight” in 2017 and “Midden” in 2018 – and both won the Maine Literary Award.  She brings to the role of poet laureate an appreciation of what it’s like to live and work in the most rural parts of the state, and hopes she can bring the joys of poetry to people in those places. She’d like to work on creating programs and events in rural areas of the state that promote poetry and writing and help people learn about it.

“This is a big state with a lot of different experiences,” said Bouwsma. “If you live in Portland, it’s pretty easy to find poetry events and hear different voices. But other parts of the state don’t have the same access.”

Julia Bouwsma, Maine’s poet laureate, at Webster Library in Kingfield, where she’s a librarian. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Bouwsma, who was named poet laureate in August, said she’s spent the past few months “listening and learning” from other poets and poetry advocates about opportunities to expand poetry’s reach in Maine. One thing she’ll be doing this spring is serving as a co-host of a revised version of “Poems from Here” on Maine Public’s radio station. The weekly poetry segment began during Kestenbaum’s term, with him reading poems by Maine poets. But Bouwsma will host with other Maine poets, so that more and different voices are heard. The series with Kestenbaum stopped airing in 2021. The new version should be on air by mid- or late spring but a specific time has not be determined, said Susan Tran, director of content and programming operations at Maine Public. The segments are also a collaboration with the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance.


“I’m excited to be able to do this with other voices,” Bouwsma said of “Poems from Here.”

Bouwsma also got to write a poem for Maine’s Bicentennial Time Capsule, a project delayed by the pandemic. Because she’s the state’s poet laureate now, Bouwsma was chosen to write a poem to Mainers living 100 years from now, titled appropriately, “To a Mainer Living 100 Years from Now.” It’s filled with themes of nature and rural life in the state and questions to those future Mainers about their own lives, including whether it snows hard enough in 2120 to “swallow footsteps in light?” and whether Mainers of the future can still “wring a chicken’s neck with your hands – twist and pull the throat in unison as my grandmother’s grandmother did and I do now?”

The time capsule – a piece of public art with four large drawers – will be on display at the Maine State Library but won’t be opened until 2120.

She’s also spending a lot of time appearing around the state, live and virtually, to help promote poetry and Maine poets. She’ll be leading a virtual poetry workshop and be part of  virtual panel discussion during the Plunkett Maine Poetry Festival, organized by the University of Maine at Augusta, in April. She’s also scheduled to judge the upcoming Maine Poets Society poem contest and to participate in a radio station fundraiser for the Skowhegan Opera House April 16. She’ll be reading at the Rice Public Library in Kittery on June 9.


Bouwsma grew up in the city of New Haven, Connecticut, where her mother was general counsel for Yale University and her father was a calligrapher and type designer. She remembers being excited by poetry at an early age, including when she read a prose version of Homer’s “The Odyssey” in second grade. A family friend was a Yale poetry professor, who recommended poetry books to Bouwsma and also volunteered at Bouwsma’s elementary school.


When she was about 12, Bouwsma had a school assignment to decorate a pumpkin in a literary fashion. She chose a poem by Maine’s Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950), “First Fig,” as inspiration. The short poem begins with the line “My candle burns at both ends” and Bouwsma affixed candles to the pumpkin.

After graduating from Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania in 2002, with a degree in creative writing, she and her partner, Walker Fleming, spent a year driving around the country and camping. They returned to the Philadelphia area for a few years, where Bouwsma worked at a bookstore. She knew she wanted to write poetry but hadn’t figured out yet “how one actually makes a life as a poet.”

Julia Bouwsma, Maine’s Poet Laureate, is a small-town librarian whose rural surroundings influence her writing. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Fleming had grown up in the small Maine town of Phillips, north of Farmington, so the couple moved to nearby Strong in 2005 and began looking for land to buy in the area. They bought 85 acres in New Portland with a rustic camp on it in 2007. The building is off the grid but has solar panels for energy. The couple grows vegetables, raises pigs and taps maple trees for syrup. The town is just south of Kingfield, in the state’s western mountains.

In a poetic (pun intended) twist of fate, the property they bought is on Millay Hill Road and some ancestors of the poet are buried nearby.

Bouwsma said her desire to have land and live in a rural, somewhat isolated place came from an understanding of what conditions might help her poetry. While in Maine, she also enrolled in a mostly remote MFA program at Goddard College in Vermont.

“In Philadelphia, I had been very busy and I was in a community where there was a lot of talk about writing, but I wasn’t getting anything exciting done,” said Bouwsma. “When I look back it at it now, I think living here in woods was a desire for connection to the daily process of life. If you don’t split firewood, you’ll be cold. ”


In Maine, she began writing poems about daily life in a rural place, many of which were included in her 2017 book “Work By Bloodlight.” One of her poems that looks at rural life in vivid detail is “We Are Just Three Mouths,” about shooting a weasel in the hen house:

The weasel falls back, starts to rise, as if it were easy, one motion,
no difference between the hen’s blood in its mouth
and the red hole spreading its ribs. I step on it hard:
the flash of black eyes. It claws, bites my boot. We are three bodies
in soiled pine shavings, three mouths.

Her 2018 book “Midden” is about the dark and tragic history of the inhabitants of Malaga Island, a mixed-race settlement in the New Meadows River in Phippsburg. As the area continued to develop as a tourist destination in the early 1900s, state officials forcibly removed some 40 residents and about a fifth of them were incarcerated on questionable grounds – fueled by racism – at the Maine School for the Feebleminded in New Gloucester, where most spent the rest of their lives.

Bouwsma said one of the things about Malaga Island was the idea of silence, the fact that it was not talked about for so long. She wrote about the victims of the tragedy, sometimes in other voices and sometimes in the form of her own letters to their ghosts.

“It’s a terrible event in Maine history, and it’s been surrounded by silence,” said Bouwsma. “I wanted to find the voices and listen to them. I started out trying to write what I knew about it, but I realized what I could never know about it and why I didn’t know mattered more than what I did know.”



Maine and poetry have a long history. Portland-born Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) became one of the country’s best-known poets of all time, writing classics like “Paul Revere’s Ride” and “The Song of Hiawatha.” But Maine has only had its own poet laureate since 1996. The honorary position was created by the state legislature to honor Maine poets and help promote the art form around the state.

The Maine Arts Commission assembled a panel of five judges – including Gov. Janet Mills, a poet herself – to select the latest poet laureate out of 20 applicants. Bouwsma’s poetry impressed the judges, including in the way it captured Maine life and state history.

“Julia was an amazing candidate because she’s a unique combination of a lot of things,” said Gibson Fay-LeBlanc, executive director of the Maine Writers & Publisher’s Alliance and a member of the panel that chose Bouwsma as Maine Poet Laureate. “She understands the challenges of living in a rural area, and of reaching those areas with poetry.”

Kestenbaum thinks Bouwsma’s library experience will be crucial in her efforts to bring more poetry and poets to people in Maine’s small towns, where libraries are often the cultural and social centers of the community. Bouwsma is officially “director” of the Webster Library in Kingfield, but in reality she is the only paid employee and basically is involved in all facets of the day-to-day operation. She began the part-time job – the library is only open parts of four days each week – in 2015.

Julia Bouwsma, Maine’s Poet Laureate, at Webster Library in Kingfield, where she serves as librarian. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

At the library, she checks out books, makes recommendations to people, orders books and leads family story walks through town, where the group stops to read a page of a book every once in a while, then continues walking. She even started a food pantry at the library, with food donations left in a small house outside – similar to a Little Free Library – or in the library building’s entry way when weather is cold.

“She has just made our library so welcoming,” said Judy McCurdy of Kingfield, chair of the Webster Library’s board. “The fact that she’s also a poet, and now Maine poet laureate, really makes the library a special spot. Everyone here is thrilled for her.”


Bouwsma feels helping people find and appreciate the power of poetry is especially important now, in an increasingly complex world.

“Poetry is an art form uniquely suited to messy and difficult topics because it resists binary thinking. It can offer us a lot in a time when we are dealing with a lot of polarity,” said Bouwsma. “In poems, things can be more than one thing at once, like in dreams, and it can make you listen on more than one level.”

“Interview with the Dead”

By Julia Bouwsma

Who were you then?

And instantly the tongue becomes the prism
of fracture, land of washed green light—


ferns, wild hops, hemlock, lichen
skinning the granite outcrops.

And instantly the tongue becomes a well—
a stone cast into memory’s falling.

When there’s no one left to name the helix of departure
unfurling inside you—

wear silence as a tattered shirt, a stain
of torn buttons.

We carried it in our spines
and anyone could see it when we walked.

And instantly the tongue turns to salt,
white film and blanch


for not even the tongue can taste
what came before salt.

How do you remember your island?

As stone fingers spread an octave into the sea

As salt brands ankles and red-mud heels callous to clay

As dreams in which we still pick blackberries

As brambles scratch a map into our skin


As we thread the fishhook, pull the line taut

As a catch of blood in the back of the throat

As fingers tying a knot

How did you leave?

Our houses became our bodies—we lashed
ourselves to rafts. Our bodies became boats.
Some left as cargo in boats, boxes.
We wept or did not weep

until home became the rubble
between our teeth: the thing one cannot
bite for fear of breaking.


Then we were a people sculpted of wind,
and when we left, we scattered as breath,
lingered as breath—

then we were a people carved of gravel and dust,
and we left as the land
stripped from the land—

carrying our hearts in our fists.

Where did you go?

To hallways
of sweat and bleach

to white walls and
locked doors


to brass bed frames
and the endless folding of sheets

to the thin lips of strangers
at the market

to back doors
of summer mansions

to mudflats
and shanty camps

to clusters of islands
too tiny to name

to houses rebuilt
with the same old boards


but smaller this time
and the windows

all in the wrong place.

What did you leave behind?

Our arms spread out around it all

until our hands could not
meet our hands.

– From “Midden” (Fordham University Press, 2018)

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.