There are all kinds of Mainers. There are the Joseph Coleman Mainers, who go back 10 generations.

There are Mihku Paul Mainers, whose Maliseet ancestors were here long before the Coleman clan showed up.

And there are the Kifah Abdulla Mainers, who come to Maine today – or used to – from Muslim countries, fleeing war and persecution and leaving behind lives and loved ones.

They and other Maine poets whose voices aren’t often heard will gather at the Portland Public Library on Saturday to share their poems and talk about what it means to be from Maine and what it’s like to be whatever kind of Mainer – native, Native or newly arrived.

Gary Lawless, a poet, owner of Gulf of Maine Books in Brunswick and hero of the humanities, will host the event with poets whose work he has featured in “Notes from an Open Book,” a monthly e-newsletter of the Maine Humanities Council. Lawless received the council’s Constance H. Carlson Public Humanities Prize for 2017, winning for the zeal with which he works to raise voices and empower all people with poetry.

The library is promoting the reading, “Voices from the Heart of Home: Maine Poets,” as the Portland kickoff for National Poetry Month in April. The event is from 3 to 5 p.m. Saturday and will involve readings and conversations.


Lawless has spent 40 years working with artists with disabilities, prisoners, vets, homeless people, drug addicts, immigrants and anyone else about how to express themselves through poetry. “All of these people I’ve been working with have great stories to tell, and it’s important that we hear their stories,” he said.

“Poetry is just the way I am doing it, but I’m really just inviting people to speak. I think we need to do a better job listening.”

Saturday’s lineup features “all these wonderful voices who don’t make it on the mainstream poetry scene,” he said.

They are Kifah Abdulla, an Iraqi poet and activist; Ekhlas Ahmed, who came to Maine from Sudan and now works as a community activist in Portland; Mihku Paul, a Maliseet writer and activist who grew up in Old Town; Karin Spitfire, a feminist, dancer and performance artist from Belfast; Robert Gibbons, a poet from Waterville; Terry Grasse, a Vietnam vet from Libson Falls; and Joseph Coleman, a lifelong Mainer and descendant of woodsmen.

Mihku Paul Courtesy photo

“Happily, our community in Portland and in Maine is made up of many, many people and many voices,” said Elizabeth Hartsig, a reference staff member at the PPL. “A voice that may be considered diverse to one community member is a voice that feels near, familiar and close to another community member.”

The library is a meaningful space for the reading, because the library already brings the community together. “If a poetry reading inspires community conversation, good conversations engage with the whole community. Good community conversations also confront marginalization, open space for community members who experience it, and welcome new voices,” Hartsig continued. “How can we better hear one another, or experience each other’s voices in different ways? These poets are all part of the spectrum of Maine’s creative community, so, what poems are Mainers writing? What do they care about? Where will a word or image in their poetry spark a connection with another person, or with the whole community? What can we learn or how can we be inspired when we listen?”


Paul, 59, who now lives in Portland, describes herself as “a mixed blood indigenous woman in the 21st century” whose identity is inextricable from her work. “The very act of speaking out on the indigenous condition in the here and now is subversive in a way,” she said.

The poet answered the call to participate in this event because she trusts Lawless’s intentions and is committed to telling her story. Lawless understands “in a deeper sense” what true inclusion is and how important it can be to bring forward the voices of our diverse community, she said. “I grew up in Old Town, and not once in public school did I hear about my own tribe or culture. Only in the last 30 years or so have indigenous people in Maine been given a more public presence both in the arts and higher education.”

Gary Lawless working behind the counter last year at Gulf of Maine Books. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

When American Indian voices are ignored or silenced, others miss out on a chance to collaborate in useful, meaningful ways. These are missed opportunities, she said. “We really do have our own way of looking at the world, and non-indigenous people could benefit from an increased understanding of our perspective. The great issues that face all of us are the common denominators. With respect and inclusion, we move toward a better outcome,” Paul said.

She will read from her collection “20th Century PowWow Playland” from 2012, and perhaps something from a new collection she’s working on, “The Courtship of Proteus.”

Lately, she’s focused her attention on the water and the critical role of the world’s watersheds and wetlands in the health of all ecosystems. “I suppose the message in the work is that we all must look more closely at the world around us and realize that we can be transformed by the depth, beauty and complexity of our environment,” she said. “Whether that environment is a community of ethnically diverse people and cultures or the delicate matrix of life in a vernal pool makes little difference.”

Abdulla understands the delicate nature and complex interconnectedness of ecosystems and human nature. In a life that feels like a very long time ago, Abdulla was a peace activist in Iraq. He became a prisoner of war in the conflict between Iraq and Iran in the 1980s and spent eight years in prison. He was a refugee for 21 years. Now 61, he’s been in Maine nearly seven years. He published his first book of poetry, “Dead Still Dream,” in 2016, and teaches Arabic calligraphy and is a language instructor in Portland.


He writes poetry, he said, “to convey my voice,” and often performs with the accompaniment of the oud and cello. He calls poetry his religion of love and uses it as therapy to heal from the emotional condition of sadness. “I believe completely that literature and art can be a positive influence in all of human life. It can fix many of the social problems, more effectively than politics,” he said. “When my soul feels empty and my emotions are dry, I take refuge in poetry, because as is said, one does not live by bread alone.”

If publishing is a measure of success, then Gibbons is the most successful poet in the lineup. He’s widely published, and intends to read from a trilogy of prose poems, one based on witnessing two Muslim girls play keep-away on the basketball courts in Portland’s West End. Another centers on an encounter with a guy at the bus stop in Portland who claimed his father a Navajo medicine man. The third attempts to empathize with a homeless person in the aisles at Hannaford.

Depending on his time on stage, he’s also considering a poem about the machinations of La Bodega Latina, a market in Portland that serves as a gathering place for the immigrant community. “As with much of my work since moving to Portland 14 years ago, this reading will center on the city’s complex diversity,” said Gibbons, who recently moved to Waterville, where he works as a research associate at Colby College.

His grandmother used to tell him, “Coffee is the last thing I think about before getting into bed at night, first thing in the morning getting out.” Gibbons can substitute the word “poetry” for “coffee.” Unlike the caffeine his grandma needed to get the through the day, poetry is in Gibbons’s blood. When he showed his grandmother his first published poems in a magazine called Red Crow out of Gloucester, Massachusetts, she said, “Did you know my father was a poet, and that he wrote a book called, ‘The Mermaid of Cape Ann?’ ”

He did not.

“Poetry governs life,” he said.


Poetry has enabled Spitfire to speak with a strong voice for most of her 65 years. She’s always been active in social causes and expresses her passions, cares and concerns in her writing. She’s a feminist, an advocate for trauma survivors and battered women, and has read her poems at legislative hearings in Augusta, urging lawmakers not to abandon Maine’s environmental footings.

Spitfire is proud of her radical perspective and proud that she has always acted up and spoken out – and thrilled to be among the poets Lawless invited to read. The diversity demonstrates the spread of poetry in Maine across cultures, she said.

“It’s not your usual poetry, and I am happy to be included in that,” she said.

Joseph Coleman, a Maine native descended from woodsmen, will read his poem “Smelt Shacks.” Photo courtesy of Joseph Coleman

Coleman, 51, has made room for poetry in his life for most of his life. Growing up in Augusta, he was athletic, and sports defined him. His inner life, which he kept mostly private, involved writing poetry. These days, poetry defines him.

He published his first book, “45° North Latitude,” in 2016. His poems and short stories have been published in Esquire and Vogue, and the New Yorker told part of his story.

His first published poem, “Smelt Shacks,” was in the New Criterion, the New York literary magazine. In Coleman’s poems, farm boys don’t swing from birch branches as they do in Robert Frost’s poems, though, he said, “no disrespect to Robert Frost; I’m a huge Robert Frost fan.” Instead, in his poems they shoot squirrels and ride dirt bikes. “It’s not an idyllic version of Maine,” he admits, and Coleman would know. His family goes way back, and the Colemans are known as real Mainers. “My father brought my mother deer hunting on their honeymoon,” he said. “I come from Maine, you know?”


He plans to read “Smelt Shacks” on Saturday. Lawless featured it this month in “Notes from an Open Book.”

Coleman puts his reader on the river. He begins the poem:

“The frost-heaved road lined

with cord on cord of wood

weaved down to River Bend Smelt Camps. The office had a roaring fire;

sixty dollars to fish the tide


in a little tin smelt shack.”

Coleman uses a Maine analogy when talking about what writing poetry feels like.

“You know when you see seagulls sitting on the edge of stones or granite, and not doing anything – and then a frenzy of them begin diving for mackerel? For me, poetry is like that. You just sort of wait. When one bubbles up to the stop and you start working on it, that’s most thrilling thing in the world, and you become completely obsessed by it.”

It doesn’t take much to ruin it. One bad word or bad sentence, and the whole thing comes crashing down.

“It’s horrible,” Coleman said. “But when you have one cooking, you are like that seagull on the rock waiting for the mackerel to rise.”

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: pphbkeyes

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