LEWISTON — An attentive and appreciative audience heard Maine Poet Laureate Wesley McNair speak on “The Words I Chose” at the Great Falls Forum on Friday in the Lewiston Public Library.

McNair told of family struggles from early years without a father and recent years when his mother passed away. Throughout his talk, he suggested that his listeners relate to his experiences, and he emphasized that his story was similar to many people of northern New England affected by failing farms or other economic challenges.

With that setting established, McNair described situations from which his writing took shape. There was the preschool trauma of his father abandoning the family, when he unleashed his feelings with a drawing of his father in a “Wanted” poster of a whiskered bad guy. He said the choice of the word “wanted,” with its dual meaning, helped to release anger and to express loss and longing. He attributed that episode in his early life with setting him on the path to becoming a poet.

“The Words I Chose: A Memoir of Family and Poetry” is the title of McNair’s memoir published in 2012, from which he shared numerous excerpts for the Great Falls Forum presentation.

“Poems come from life,” McNair said. His mother was sometimes a harsh disciplinarian, but she valued everything he wrote and impressed upon him the importance of authors, he said.

She possessed deep sensitivity, he said, and she instilled within him an early respect for African-American culture and people. McNair illustrated this with a story of his mother’s gift of black dolls to him and his brother, and her frequent reading of a children’s story about the ordeals of a little black boy.


At the age of 12, McNair was writing pieces he called “the sky series,” in which his imagination took flight. He said these stories were his first efforts in which he used words that he “chose,” and they were stories in which his inventiveness achieved an important measure of self-approval.

The poet’s talk covered his years of farm work in New Hampshire with his stepfather and others. He became a high school teacher, a career eventually leading to professorship at the University of Maine at Farmington. He told of his personal struggle with choosing between a life as a scholar or life with less secure prospects as a poet.

In speaking of the struggles he saw throughout his life, McNair said, “I sometimes think of it as a gift because it ushered in my life as a poet.” He noted that similar circumstances influence other poets and artists, and they become sort of “menders of broken things.”

McNair’s talk included references to his courtship of the woman who would become his wife of more than 50 years. She was a waitress in a Howard Johnson restaurant where he was a dishwasher. He found she had a special affinity for poetry.

McNair described an especially influential event when he visited with acclaimed poet, writer, editor and critic Donald Hall. He mustered the courage to leave a book of his poems for Hall’s evaluation. In a few days, McNair received a letter in which Hall used the adjective “dazzling” to describe McNair’s writing. That was the point at which McNair made a definite commitment to poetry, he said.

At a book signing following the talk, McNair said his life in New Hampshire and Maine “meant everything to me.” He said that included the region’s “folkways of life, tones of language, points of view, struggles of the people and a certain slant of the light.”

McNair said, “I think of myself as an American poet with a New England accent.”

The Great Falls Forum is co-sponsored by Bates College, Lewiston Public Library and the Sun Journal.

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