Poetry alive and well in Maine

By Linda Buckmaster | Apr 22, 2021

“I think poetry is alive and well in Maine!” said Maine Poet Laureate Stuart Kestenbaum. “There are so many new books being published, great readings, and exciting initiatives with young people writing poetry.” Stuart’s poem “Breaking Free” is our feature this week.

He continued: “In challenging times of the pandemic, social upheaval and environmental crises, people turn to poetry to understand deeper meanings, or to give voice to their feelings. We're constantly listening to news about these issues, but poetry is helping us listen in a different, deeper way.”

Stuart, who lives in Portland, is the author of four collections of poems. He was the director of the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Deer Isle for 27 years, where he established innovative programs combining craft and writing and craft and new technologies.

Maine’s statewide poet laureate position is an appointment designed to promote poetry throughout the state while honoring an eminent Maine poet for his or her achievements. The position was established by Maine statute in 1995. I’ll just note Belfast was the first city in the state to have a poet laureate — in 1985 — with Bern Porter.

“When I was appointed poet laureate, I knew I wanted to use this position to present poetry written by Maine writers to new audiences — to people who might not be regular poetry readers or listeners,” Stuart wrote. “I love the moment when a reader or listener is unexpectedly moved by an encounter with a poem.”

I think many of us can relate to this poem’s scene. Although the hairstyles and footwear might change over the decades, “that smell of chalk dust and institutional cleanser” of school doesn’t. And who can’t relate to the “notoriety” of being called out of class for something that might not have even been your fault! Who doesn’t want to break free to that part of our selves “that is without a collar and wild.”

Stuart explained a bit about his writing process: “When I am writing about a memory, I don't discover what the memory means until I write the poem. I had a vivid recollection of this day in the poem, but the older me looking back at my younger self is the one who is changed.”

Breaking Free

I am pledging allegiance to the flag

in the basement classroom when

my crewcut friend appears at the door

with a message. He whispers to the teacher

who motions to me and I learn that

my dog has followed me to school.

What an occasion, that above all the other

scents in the world, all the other

high-topped sneakers, he has found me out.

I learn that he has already made it through

the first grade, where he has

muddied a teacher’s dress with his dark paws.

I imagine his journey as he runs down

the long corridors that smell of chalk dust

and institutional cleanser, cantering

past the principal’s office, the holy of holies,

where the records are kept. I see him sniffing

at the blunt toed shoes of the army

of teachers who find him.

He wags his tail when he sees me, but I am

overcome with my notoriety. Why did you

follow me, why single me out? I get the dog

and put him out the front entrance.

Go home, I tell him, go on home, ignoring

his optimistic eyes, shutting

the great wooden doors

on that part of me that is

without a collar and wild.

Copyright © Stuart Kestenbaum. From House of Thanksgiving (Deerbrook Editions, 2003). Used with permission of the author.

Linda Buckmaster was Belfast's poet laureate from 2009 to 2011.

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