Monday, March 21, 2011

Monday Muse: Maine's Poet Laureate

Ultimately, every poem is a love poem.
Write out of humor, sorrow, or rage,
but write out of love.
~ Wesley McNair, "Advice for Beginning Poets"

Wesley McNair, appointed March 11 to a five-year term, is Maine's new Poet Laureate. Commenting on his intentions during service, McNair said, "My goal is to continue making poets in Maine more visible to their communities and to their regions."

Background on the position of state Poet Laureate and related resources are found in my earlier post on Betsy Sholl, McNair's immediate predecessor.

* * * * *
. . . Poetry connects us to our intuitive selves,
the deepest selves we have. For that reason, poetry
can be a little threatening. . . It insists that not only
we tell the truth but that we live real lives. . . .*

Described by Philip Levine as "one of the great storytellers of contemporary poetry", Wesley McNair, fourth Poet Laureate of Maine, is the author most recently of Lovers of the Lost: New & Selected Poems (David R. Godine, 2010), The Ghosts of You and Me (David R. Godine, 2006), and Fire (David R. Godine, 2002). His earlier poetry collections include Talking in the Dark (David R. Godine, 1998), The Dissonant Heart (Coyote Love Press, 1995), and The Faces of Americans in 1853: Poems (University of Missouri Press, 1983). The latter is McNair's first collection, published when he was 42.

McNair's highly regarded critical and personal essays on the craft of poetry include A Place on Water: Essays, with Bill Roobach and Robert Kimber (Tilbury House, 2004) and Mapping the Heart: Reflections on Place and Poetry (Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2002). Among anthologies McNair has edited are Maine in Four Seasons: 20 Poets Celebrate the Turning Year (Down East Books, 2010) and The Maine Poets (Down East Books, 2006). (For a complete bibliography, go here.)

Poets are menders of broken things, and for me those things
have included my family, my region and my nation. Looking
back, I see that the loneliness and pain I experienced
growing up were essential to becoming a poet.**

As the above quote suggests, McNair's subjects run to his impoverished childhood (in New Hampshire and Vermont), family conflict and relationships (his father abandoned his family; see, for example, "How I Became a Poet"), and a strong identification with place, in particular small-town rural life in New England. He also writes about larger themes of which he has said, "When my subject is, say, the American Dream, I deal with the people who have been failed by it, or when I'm moved to write about some spiritual truth, it often comes from the grit of experience and conflict, right on the ground."**

McNair writes skillfully and elegantly in free verse as well as traditional forms. His style ranges over the narrative and lyric to the meditative. He's known for being highly accessible without being facile, writing out of his own experience not only with great feeling but also, when appropriate, with good-natured humor. His poems showcase both an observant eye and a gift for finding the meaning in what he calls "smallness". They also reflect his "good ear", that is, knowing where to break a line, how to write words meant to be spoken.

Here is an excellent example of a poem of visual portraits. Note McNair's effective use of enjambment, the conversational tone that allows space to take breaths, and his line endings, which typically are verbs or nouns.

Oh where is the oval mirror that held
each face above the washbasin
in the great kitchen, and where are the faces 

of Rick, the hired man with no teeth
who drew the long, black comb
out of his overalls, proud of his hair,
and Andrew, the big, gentle son, who stooped
at the mirror and all the doorways

of that house, and his father, old Kuhre,
leaning on one crutch to watch himself
pass the washcloth slowly across the eyeless
right side of his face?. . . 
~ From "Kuhre's Farm" in The Ghosts of You and Me

This next excerpt speaks to the past in short lines and highly economical language that's devoid of descriptors:

Who recalls the darkness
of your other life,
sewn shut

around feed grain,
or remembers your release
to join your sisters,

the dishcloths, now
ampleness and holes?
Not the absent hands

which tied you
behind the back,
already forgetting. . . .
~ From "Remembering Aprons" in The Town of No

McNair has published work in Poetry, The Atlantic Monthly, Gettysburg Review, Iowa Review, Kenyon Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, PloughsharesPoetry Northwest, and many other literary magazines and periodicals. His poems have appeared in more than 50 anthologies.

Among McNair's many awards are Fulbright Foundation and Guggenheim Foundation grants, Rockefeller Foundation fellowships, a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship in literature, National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, and, in 2006, a United States Artists Fellowship. In addition, McNair has received the Devins Award for Poetry (University of Missouri Press), Jane Kenyon Award, Robert Frost Award, Theodore Roethke Prize, Eunice Tietjens Prize (Poetry magazine), the Sarah Josepha Hale Award Medal, and an Emmy (for the scripts for a PBS series on Robert Frost). McNair also has enjoyed residencies at the Rockefeller Foundation's Bellagio Center in Italy. In addition, he has been a guest editor in poetry for the Pushcart Prize anthology and on nominating juries for the Pulitzer Prize in poetry.

Professor Emeritus and Writer-in-Residence at the University of Maine/Farmington, McNair directed the creative writing program there and received both the Libra Professorship and a Distinguished Faculty Award. In addition, he was a visiting professor in creative writing at Maine's Colby College, which owns his personal and working papers.


Photo Credit: University of Maine/Farmington, Inside UMF

* Quoted in "The Humanities Interview, Birdsong Rising: A Visit With Wesley McNair", The Maine Humanities Council Newsletter, Fall 2001, pp. 4-5

** Quoted in Mike Pride, "Meet Wesley McNair", Concord Monitor, April 9, 2009 (This article also includes McNair's poem "The Life" from The Ghosts of You and Me.)

All Poetry Excerpts © Wesley McNair

Wesley McNair, "My Life as a Poet", Multi-Media Presentation, Colby College Special Collections

Wesley McNair on Craft (You'll find here McNair's "Advice for Beginning Poets" and "Living Twice: Thoughts About Poetry", among several other wonderful essays replete with highly quotable statements.)

Wesley McNair Interviews (Included here are three recent (2010) interviews, a video interview for Colby College, a Maine Humanities Council interview from 2001, and a public television interview.)

Wesley McNair Papers at Colby College (Here, you'll find links to the presentation "My Life as a Poet: A Multimedia Memoir", which McNair made in celebration of Colby College's acquisition in 2006 of his personal papers. Among the papers are scrapbooks, photographs, family letters, and clippings; early writings; notebooks with graduate school writings; teaching noes; poem drafts; manuscript drafts; audiovisual recordings, and correspondence with literary peers, including poet Donald Hall. The Colby site is used as an interactive teaching tool.)

Wesley McNair Poems Online: 14 Poems at The Writer's Almanac (with audio); 5 Poems at Poetry Foundation; 5 Poems with Eastern Illinois University Profile; 6 Poems in Boston Review's "Poet's Sampler: Wesley McNair"; "Losing My Hair", "Speech", "Questions at One O'Clock", "As If the Voices in the Background When My Mother Calls", and "My Father Going Away" (Audio and Text), All at Slate; "Her Secret" at How a Poem Happens; "The 1950s", "As Long as We Remember Him, He Will Never Die", "The End", "First Snowfall", "If You Had Come", and "Some of the Unknown Dead", All at Agni online; "The One I Think of Now", "Hymn to the Comb-Over", and "For My Wife", All at American Life in Poetry; "Goodbye to the Old Life" at PoemHunter; "The Life" in "Meet Wesley McNair" at Concord Monitor; "Mistakes About Heaven", "Sleep", and "Charles by Accident", All at Versedaily; "Waving Goodbye" at review (Barnes & Noble); "Losing My Hair" at Poetry Daily; "Charles by Accident" at Sunken Garden Poetry Festival, NPR Weekend Edition; "As I Am" at Poetry Daily; "Waving Goodbye" at Reclusive Bibliophile; 5 Audio Recordings by McNair at USA (click on book cover); "The Future" in Good Poems for Hard Times by Garrison Keillor; "Disavowal" at Blue Moon Review; "The Puppy" at The Monserrat Review. Also see: Manuscript Samples and Audio Recordings, Online in Colby College Special Collections; this is a wonderful resource, offering excerpts from seven of McNair's collections.

Wesley McNair Reading with Maxine Kumin at the Library of Congress (Transcript may be downloaded.)

Wesley McNair on FaceBook

Wesley McNair (Ed.), Contemporary Maine Fiction: An Anthology of Short Stories at GoogleBooks

Wesley McNair, The Ghosts of You and Me: Poems at GoogleBooks

Wesley McNair, The Maine Poets: An Anthology of Verse at GoogleBooks

Wesley McNair, The Quotable Moose: A Contemporary Maine Reader at GoogleBooks

Wesley McNair, Talking in the Dark at GoogleBooks

Wesley McNair, The Town of No & My Brother Running at GoogleBooks

Lynn Ascrizzi, "Poetry in Emotion", Bangor Daily News, March 17, 2011

Alex Hanson, "Wesley McNair: A Life in Poetry", Valley News, April 2, 2010

Bob Keyes, "Mercer's Wesley McNair Named Maine Poet Laureate", Kennebec Journal, March 14, 2010

Mark LaFlamme, "New Poet Laureate Crowned", Sun Journal, March 11, 2011 (This includes video of the Poetry Out Loud National Recitation Contest. It was during the 2011 contest that McNair's appointment was announced.)

"LePage Appoints New State Poet Laureate", Morning Sentinel, March 14, 2011

Carnegie Mellon University Press

CMU Press on FaceBook and Twitter

David R. Godine, Publisher

David R. Godine on FaceBook and Twitter; Godine/Black Sparrow Books Blog

David R. Godine Page for Wesley McNair

Down East Books

Maine Humanities Council

Tilbury House Publishers

Below is the New Hampshire Public Television Authors Series interview with Wesley McNair (it's just under 29 minutes). McNair reads a number of his poems (including his moving pantoum about John F. Kennedy's assassination), noting his fondness for "one-sentence poems"  (see, for example, "Happiness" and "First Snowfall"), and also talks about the craft of poetry. Of the latter, he says, "My poems come out of failures all the time" and "are always about the feeling life." His wit and comic sense come through in this interview, too, especially in his poem "Hymn to the Comb-Over".

Watch the full episode. See more NH Authors.

New Hampshire Authors Website


Louise Gallagher said...

Great read.

I think, what he said here, . . . "Poetry connects us to our intuitive selves,
the deepest selves we have. For that reason, poetry
can be a little threatening. . . It insists that not only
we tell the truth but that we live real lives. . . .*"

can also be said about art-making in other forms too. Writing, painting, acting, singing, all connect me to that other self, the deeper parts of me.

Lovely post Maureen.

S. Etole said...

The poem from Kuhre's Farm placed me precisely in my grandparents "wash-up" room in their farmhouse ...
remembering the mirror and comb holder and rotating towel.

Laura said...

Oh, my goodness, he had me with that initial quote. Love...yes, a beautiful place to write from. And it doesn't hurt that he reminds me of Sean Connery :). Let's face it: poetry is sexy. :) The poem he reads about his father leaving...*sigh*. And he says that "mending broken things is our mission". This reminds me of the comment you left over at the Wellspring on my post on Japan. Yes, poetry is such an amazing vehicle for grief.

nance marie said...

i think poetry is listening

listening to ourselves
to God
to one another

the sad red earth said...

You don't need to be another blogger (though it may help) to recognize the time and effort that goes into writing one of these posts, Maureen, including all of the resources and links discovered, sorted, and created. It's a generous gift of your energy, and the poets must be so gratified.

andtheotherthingis said...

"Poetry connects us to our intuitive selves..." Wow, does that ever sum it up. At least for me, it's like nothing else in terms of this mode of self-expression. What a great description.

Peggy said...

Before reading others' comments, I was already going to say how i treasure that quote: . . . "Poetry connects us to our intuitive selves,
the deepest selves we have. For that reason, poetry
can be a little threatening. . . It insists that not only
we tell the truth but that we live real lives. . . .* And also how I'm awed by how much work you put into this post, Maureen. If you were still in school (which is long ago for both of us), this marvelously rich overview of McNair's life and work would count as a term paper!

Maureen said...

I know this looks like a lot, Peggy, but it doesn't take me so much time to put together as people might think. I very much enjoy doing these posts, one aim of which has been to pull together for everyone a kind of "one stop" for each Poet Laureate.