FARMINGTON — Aside from promoting poetry within the state, there are no exact guidelines for how a Maine poet laureate is expected to go about his or her five-year term.

But current Maine Poet Laureate Stuart Kestenbaum said he plans to follow in the footsteps of his predecessor, Wesley McNair, and to view the role as an opportunity to expose as many audiences as possible to the power of poetry.

“I think people have a yearning for poetry, but I think it’s not at the forefront of their minds,” Kestenbaum said. “I want to find those audiences that weren’t expecting to hear a poem.”

On Thursday evening, Kestenbaum and McNair will be extending their poetry to an audience of college students at a reading at Emery Community Center for the Arts at the University of Maine at Farmington. The event will begin at 7:30 p.m. and is open to the public. The poets will read from their work and then open the floor to questions.

Maine poet laureates are selected to serve a five-year term by the governor, who chooses from a list of candidates recommended by the Maine Art Commission. To be considered for the position, poets must be a full-time Maine resident and have a distinguished body of poetic work, according to the Maine Arts Commission’s website. McNair served as the state’s poet laureate from 2011 to 2015. Kestenbaum will serve until 2020.

Kestenbaum, who was named Maine poet laureate in March, said he feels that poetry is often wrongfully portrayed as a quiz with listeners trying to find the hidden meaning. But he says poetry is simpler than that.

“I think sometimes people may be concerned they might not understand poetry. But if you get to hear it, you’re just there with it,” Kestenbaum said. “There are moments when poetry is the perfect answer.”

In his effort to surprise audiences with poetry at unexpected moments, Kestenbaum has launched a brief weekly radio segment, “Poems From Here,” with Maine Public Radio. Each week, Kestenbaum will read a poem by a Maine poet or writer. Having talked with the poet prior to the airing of the segment, he will also discuss what the poet was thinking or envisioning at the time the poem was written. The segment broadcasts at the end of the program “Maine Calling” at 1:55 p.m. and 7:55 p.m..

“I hope that I can reach an audience that wasn’t opening a book of poems, but was listening to the radio and it was there,” he said.

Following in the footsteps of McNair is both daunting and inspiring Kestenbaum said, given how active McNair was as poet laureate.

McNair, who is still carrying out projects he began as poet laureate, agrees with Kestenbaum’s notion that the role should be viewed as a way to bring poetry to as many people as possible.

“When I took this post five years ago, I realized right away that it wasn’t about me, that I was carrying the banner of poetry for five years. It was really about poetry and about bringing poetry to the Maine people and trying to make it relevant to people’s lives,” McNair said.

As poet laureate, McNair launched several initiatives with the goal of broadening the reach of poetry within the state. His first initiative, “The Maine Poetry Express,” was a series of poetry readings held across the state from Aroostook County to Kittery. He also launched a newspaper column titled “Take Heart: A Conversation in Poetry,” which ran in more than 20 newspapers statewide. The column featured one poem a week written by past and present Maine poets.

Due to the structure of poetry publication, McNair said that poems are often “co-opted” by literary magazines, and the conversation about poetry becomes restricted to academic circles. His mission as poet laureate was to put poems in the context of everyday life, bringing the goodness that he believes poetry contains to a wide audience.

“There has been a disconnect between poetry and the people, and one of the things that a poet laureate is for, or I think should be for, is to reestablish the connection,” McNair said. “The only way to break down the barrier is to find new ways to make poetry relevant and find new places for poems.”

Lauren Abbate — 861-9252

[email protected]

Twitter: @Lauren_M_Abbate


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