Jim and Agnes Bushell, founders of Littoral Books, at Back Cove Books, a partner in their poetry festival that will take place Saturday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

In 2018, Littoral Books put out a call for poems.

The Portland publishing company had just relaunched after an 43-year hiatus and wanted to put together a follow-up to its first anthology of poems by Maine women in 1975. Agnes and Jim Bushell, who revived the press with Marcia Brown, thought they set an ambitious goal to solicit submissions from 100 people.

They got 450.

Five years later, Littoral Books is hoping to bring together what it has found to be a large and diverse community of poets across Maine. The publisher has partnered with Hole in the Head Review, a quarterly online literary magazine headed by a Windham poet, and Back Cove Books to host the inaugural Portland Poetry Festival on Saturday at the Odd Fellows Hall above the bookstore. The program includes morning workshops for young writers, afternoon readings by 18 poets and a panel discussion.

“We want to expand the audience, and that’s one of the reasons we’re doing this,” said publisher Jim Bushell. “To expand the audience, to celebrate poetry, to have a gathering of these poets and help people appreciate that, here in this city, we’ve got a large number of some of the finest poets in the country.”

It is the latest literary event to launch in recent years. The Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance and the Colby College creative writing program held the first Maine Lit Fest last year. A Waterville woman who runs an online bookstore started the Maine Book Fest this fall. Belfast has been home to an annual poetry festival for nearly 20 years, but another popped up in Camden this year.


Organizers said writing was already a solitary experience before the pandemic added to feelings of isolation, and people are more interested than ever in gathering together as a community.

“There’s a lot of appetite for people to get together in community around books,” said Gibson Fay-LeBlanc, executive director of the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance. “There are a ton of writers and readers in Maine. It’s a very literary place in a lot of ways, and I think because we went through this time where we couldn’t do in-person events, people are remembering the value of that and seeing people feeling really connected around books.”

Littoral Books began in 1975 to publish female writers. Today, the press has a broader scope but still focuses on writers mostly based in Maine. Their books have included poetry anthologies and the Contemporary Maine Poets series. The festival began out of a desire to hold a fifth birthday celebration for Littoral Books.

Editorial director Agnes Bushell said the festival is open to people who already read and write poetry – and people who have never read and written it before.

“I think they might be moved,” she said. “I think they might find some whimsy, some humor. They might find that they’ve been missing something in their life that they didn’t know that they were missing.”

The Bushells decided to team up with Bill Schulz, the editor of Hole in the Head Review. Schulz studied poetry in college but made his career in the corporate world. The literary journal was a retirement project that grew bigger than he ever expected; Schulz said he now has to cap the number of submissions for each quarterly issue at 100.


While Hole in the Head now has readers and writers all over the world, Schulz also hosts quarterly readings at the Maine Jewish Museum in Portland. It was at one of those events that he met Agnes and Jim Bushell, and he said he was thrilled when they asked him to collaborate on the poetry festival. There, Schulz will announce the five finalists for a poetry contest run by Hole in the Head; the winner of the $1,000 prize will be announced at an event later in October. (The judging was blind, he said, but it turns out that two finalists are from Maine.)

Schulz said getting to know other poets in Maine has been one of the joys of his work on Hole in the Head.

“We have poets who are of the highest quality, and it’s been my real pleasure to get to know them and get to publish them and begin to call them my friends,” he said. “The festival is really a celebration of that, bringing us all together and showing and celebrating the work of wonderful poets young and old that we have here.”

Littoral Books often hosts book launches at Back Cove Books, and the poetry festival will take place upstairs at the Odd Fellows Hall.

Rose Heithoff, Back Cove’s general manager and events manager, said poetry has quickly become one of the bestselling sections since the bookstore opened in 2022. Heithoff recalled a recent reading with Richard Foerster, who is published by Littoral Books, when the audience paused in thoughtful quiet after each poem.

“I think people are feeling, after such an intense few years where there has just been a deluge of information and facts and nonstop news, there’s something about poetry that invites time for pausing and breath and real thoughtfulness,” she said.


Among the poets scheduled to read is Samaa Abdurraqib. She used to write poetry as a younger person but did not reconnect with it until 2017, when she was visiting New Mexico and “a poem popped into my head,” she said. She has been writing again ever since, and Littoral Books was one of the first to publish her poems in an anthology. She said she hasn’t decided yet what she will read at the festival – she often brings multiple poems to the microphone and decides in the moment.

In Maine, she has found writing groups where members give each other both suggestions and support.

“What I continue to learn about Maine poets or Maine writers is that there is a great deal of generosity of spirit and generosity of enthusiasm,” said Abdurraqib, who works as the executive director of the Maine Humanities Council. “I’ve gone to several smaller readings where everyone in the group is a poet themselves and everything tries to put a lot of light on each other’s work.”

Fay-LeBlanc will also read his own poetry at the festival. He said he often compares poetry to music; finding the poetry you like is akin to finding the station you like on the radio. The Portland Poetry Festival, he said, will be a chance to sample different styles.

“If you think you dislike poetry, my theory is that you actually just haven’t heard the right station,” he said. “You haven’t heard your right kind of poetry. You haven’t heard what is going to speak to you. You just need to turn the dial.”

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