Our Maine Man: Wesley McNair

Posted Wednesday, June 8, 2011 in Features

Our Maine Man: Wesley McNair

Wesley McNair, Maine's poet laureate

HALLOWELL – The Maine Arts Commission in March appointed Wesley McNair from Mercer as Maine’s poet laureate. The governor signed off on the selection. McNair will be our state’s poet laureate for five years. Kate Barnes, Baron Wormser and Betsy Sholl have been our earlier laureates. Already he has embarked on two initiatives to encourage our local poets, published or not, to share their words with the public.

Born in Newport, N.H., McNair’s early life was tumultuous. His father left the family when he was 7, and his mother had to pick up piecemeal type of work to support herself and her three sons. “Feeling pain and dislocation at a young age, as many artists experience, I was able to reveal these emotions in my poetry,” McNair says.

From Springfield, Vt., where the family lived in public housing, to Claremont, N.H.. where the enlarged family, including a stepfather, settled, McNair enjoyed a rural life. These memories appear often in his poems. Keene State College bestowed an undergraduate degree, and he then earned two master's degrees from Middlebury College, one in English Literature, the other in Letters through Breadloaf.

After several years of teaching high school English, McNair started his college instruction at Colby Junior College, which became Colby-Sawyer. The University of Maine at Farmington snared him in 1987, and he started the Creative Writing Program there. Eighty students major in this field, writing fiction, non-fiction, poetry and screenwriting. One reason the creative writing program is so well respected, especially in the poetry field, is that Alice James Books is in the town. This publishing house is one of the premier publishers of poetry books in the country.

By 2004, McNair was a professor emeritus and writer-in-residence. His current obligations are to give two lectures, one each semester, and work with five students in a seminar on their poetry.  He has also taught several classes at Colby College, and recently he has left his papers to its college archives.

Gov. Paul LePage wanted to keep his inauguration simple last January, so he didn’t ask a poet to share a poem. However, McNair made remarks at The Blaine House, the  governor’s residence, in April, exalting the importance of poetry that has a meaning that transcends politics. “I’m drawn over and over to poetry’s abiding spirit of affirmation … and loving vision. Every single poem is a change of mind or a change of heart for both the reader and the writer.”

Drawing on three poets of Maine’s past, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Edwin Arlington Robinson and Edna Saint-Vincent Millay, McNair emphasized that these beloved poets, both complex and accessible in their works, wrote about, for, and to readers from all walks of life. These poets knew that poetry belongs to the people. Tens of thousands of their poetry collections were sold to the general public. It’s time now for Maine to get its poetic voice re-heard.

As an engaged and active laureate, McNair has embarked on two projects this year to let the general public appreciate the state’s poets. The first is “The Maine Poetry Express,” a ‘train’ that begins in The County with ‘stops’ that feature group readings given by poets in all the regions of the state. The public can purchase broadsides of the works by the participating poets at each stop. The Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance will feature the poets on its website, and McNair’s Facebook page will also highlight the poets.

The second project is a new column that 22 newspapers throughout the state, including the New Maine Times, will run; each week, they will print one previously published poem by a Maine poet from the present or from our illustrious past. The name of the column is Take Heart: A Conversation in Poetry, or, more simply, Take Heart. These poems will reach incredible numbers of readers around the state. Some may be clipped out to post on refrigerator doors; others will arrive by laptops. This initiative will prove that poetry is for every day of our lives, not only for special milestones. It will launch poetry into the imagination of Maine people.

Future ideas our poet laureate has for his five-year term include: thrusting poetry into schools by using online technology; putting poets on YouTube; emailing poems back and forth; and composing anthologies of the poems published in Take Heart and read in the Poetry Express Train. By using different models to bring poetry to the people, McNair is hopeful that “shaped clusters of words that present a love story and an affirmation of life will touch all Maine citizens.”

When asked what he hopes he can accomplish in his laureate years, McNair said he wants to "make the Maine people unable to get rid of poetry or any kind of literature.  Hopefully, they will want to memorize poems to recite at a town function. Or they will start poetry-writing groups in their communities. All Maine citizens can write poetry. Let’s sing our verses outrageously again to our brothers and sisters.”

McNair has published nine books of poetry. He has edited anthologies, penned essays and is writing a memoir now. It’s easy to read Wesley McNair’s poems. To whet your appetite, here are two poems written by McNair.

 

THE PUPPY

 

From down the road, starting up

and stopping once more, the sound

of a puppy on a chain who has not yet

discovered he will spend his life there.

Foolish dog, to forget where he is

and wander until he feels the collar

close fast around his throat, then cry

all over again about the little space

in which he finds himself.  Soon,

when there is no grass left in it

and he understands it is all he has,

he will snarl and bark whenever

he senses a threat to it.

Who would believe this small

sorrow could lead to such fury

no one would ever come near him?

 

AFTER MY STEPFATHER’S DEATH

 

 Again it is the moment when I left home

for good, and my mother is sitting quietly

in the front seat while my stepfather pulls me

and my suitcase out of the car and begins

hurling my clothes, though now

I notice for the first time how the wind

unfolds my white shirt and puts its slow

arm in the sleeve of my blue shirt and lifts them

all into the air above our heads so beautifully

I want to shout at him to stop and look up

at what he has made, but of course when I turn

to him, a small man, bitter even this young

that the world will not go his way, my stepfather

still moves in his terrible anger, closing the trunk,

and closing himself into the car as hard as he can,

and speeding away into the last years of his life.

    

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