Lee Sharkey, a poet and peace activist with an empathetic soul, who mentored writers in Maine and around the world, died Sunday from pancreatic cancer. She was 75.

Sharkey, who lived in Portland after spending many years in central Maine, had wide influence across the literary community as co-founder of the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance, co-editor of the influential Maine-based Beloit Poetry Journal and educator at the University of Maine at Farmington, where among other things she founded the Women’s Studies Program. She taught poetry to adults with mental distresses and peace to anyone willing to embrace it, and stood with Women in Black demonstrators at Farmington and Portland in protest of the Iraq invasion.

Lee Sharkey

In 1974, she bought a 100-year-old press, learned how to use it and produced her first chapbook the next year. She kept writing until the end, completing a final volume of poems, “I Will Not Name It Except to Say,” in the last months of her life. Tupelo Press will publish the book in the spring. In between, she wrote a half-dozen other books of poems and several chapbooks and won numerous writing prizes.

Her death, which was announced on her personal Facebook page on Tuesday, shocked many of her friends, who had not known she was ill. She was, said her friend and fellow poet, Betsy Sholl, “an incredible soul” – courageous, empathetic and smart. Sharkey and Sholl shared not only poetry, but the experience of having the men they love diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Sholl’s husband, Doug, died in July. Sharkey’s husband, Al, survives her.

“I can picture Lee in that support group for care givers, being attentive to each person, feeling the sorrow and some times humor of each person,” Sholl wrote in an email. “She could also address the most difficult aspects of that disease. Her empathy was palpable. I am sure that was evident to her students as well. Lee was fiercely committed to justice, to serving others, especially those on the edges of society. She was courageous persevering through her own health issues. As a poet she grew in wisdom and depth with each book. She found ways in her poems to create a shared humanity, to discuss the darkness, the suffering of others, but also to suggest a larger embrace, a greater spirit of generosity among us.”

In 2017, Sharkey won the Ballymaloe International Poetry Prize in Dublin, Ireland, for “Letter to Al,” a poem about her husband and the depth of their love. The prize included an award of 10,000 euros, or a little more than $10,000.

“It is enough some hours simply to be together, within our walls among our familiar objects – refrigerator, toaster, pencil, stepladder, jacket, glove – or walking hand in hand,” she wrote. “Some hours it seems perfected, the cycle of passion and caring, striving and settling, everything come down to love. The marvel of devotion, the osmotic comfort of skin on skin. We quiet old lovers who have no need to speak.”

Lee Sharkey and Al Bersbach at their home in Portland in 2017, the year she won the Ballymaloe International Poetry Prize, one of the world’s most sought-after prizes for a single unpublished poem, for “Letter to Al,” a poem she wrote about her husband having Alzheimer’s disease. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Maine poet laureate Stuart Kestenbaum heard Sharkey read “Letter to Al” on the radio, and it was an arresting experience. “It’s such a beautiful poem, loving and direct at the same time,” he said. “She was such an intense presence and a great advocate for poetry and was very brave in the way she wrote and the things she wrote.”

Gibson Fay-LeBlanc, executive director of the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance, said Sharkey’s death “represents a real big loss for Maine and for the country. It’s a big legacy. She had a wide, wide reach. We owe our existence as an organization to her and a small handful of other people.”

At UMaine Farmington, she was known as a teacher with unparalleled gifts, said her longtime colleague, Patricia O’Donnell, professor emeritus of creative writing. “Teaching was a calling for her, as important to her as her poetry or her work for social justice,” O’Donnell wrote in an email. “Lee is remembered among colleagues for her great kindness. I will always think of the way she focused so entirely on the person she was talking with, as if she were listening to what they were saying with her whole self, taking in and giving back. Her work for social justice was an extension of her kindness, of her sense of responsibility to other people.”

Eric C. Brown, provost and vice president for academic affairs, issued a statement praising Sharkey as “a brilliant and devoted teacher of writing and a passionate advocate for poetry, and the entire UMF community mourns her loss. During her tenure here, she taught writing seminars, co-edited the Beloit Poetry Journal, gave away beautiful letterpress broadsides, and worked individually with a number of aspiring writers. … She left a significant legacy at UMF and made many lasting friends, and we are very sorry to hear of her passing.”

A former student and intern at the Beloit Poetry Journal, poet Jacques J. Rancourt, said Sharkey was soft-spoken and sage-like, and a sharp editor who always exhibited kindness and compassion for other writers. She treated a poem postmarked from a prison with the same care as a poem submitted by an award-winning poet, he said. “She mothered me through a particularly dark time in my life, as I know she did for many others, and throughout our 12-year friendship after my internship she sent emails every few months to check in on me, to hear what I’ve been working on, and to make sure I was still writing poems,” he said.

Rachel Contreni Flynn, co-editor of the Beloit Poetry Journal, said members of the Beloit community are keenly grieving their loss. “But we’re also entirely grateful for the gifts that Lee Sharkey gave to each of us personally and to the journal she led for decades. Lee’s incomparable poetic ear, eye, and heart helped make the BPJ what it is today and helped so many in the poetry world sustain the courage to keep writing, keep connecting,” Flynn said in a statement also signed by the journal’s co-editor Kirun Kapur.

Agnes Bushell, a founder of Littoral Books, was among those who organized the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance with Sharkey in 1975. They were like-minded women with common interests, and worked with a small group to form the organization to support writers across Maine. They lost regular contact when Sharkey moved upstate, and reunited in 2015 when former MWPA executive director Joshua Bodwell honored them on the organization’s 40th anniversary. By then, Sharkey had moved back to Portland and reconnected with Bushell. She contributed a poem to “Balancing Act 2,” an anthology of poems by 50 Maine women published in 2018 when Littoral Books relaunched its press.

“Younger poets adore her,” Bushell said. “She is an icon and an amazing poet and an important figure in the history of Maine poetry.”


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