Before poet laureate Julia Bouwsma lived in Maine, back in the late ’90s and early ’00s, she sometimes visited with her college pal turned partner Walker Fleming, with whom she now homesteads on 86 acres in New Portland. The pair often left Philadelphia at night and arrived in Maine in the small hours. On the way to Fleming’s family farm, they drove through Livermore, past the Washburn-Norlands Living History Center, where Bouwsma was struck by the chapel-like, Gothic-style library built by Maine’s prosperous Washburn family in 1883.
“That slate roof, with a red sunrise behind it — it’s just so striking,” says Bouwsma, who still sometimes detours past. “I’ve never been inside, but it has sort of mythic proportions for me, and it’s definitely connected to why I’m a small-town librarian now.”
The director of Webster Library, in Kingfield, Bouwsma juggles the position with creative-writing classes she teaches at UMaine Farmington and the pigs, chickens, sugarbush, and prolific gardens she tends on her farmstead. The property, which she and Fleming took over in 2007, unfurls across a slope of what’s known as Millay Hill, where the paternal great-grandparents of poet Edna St. Vincent Millay once farmed — a lovely coincidence, as Bouwsma has admired the iconoclastic Mainer and 1923 Pulitzer winner since childhood. The thread linking her library work, poetry, and farming, she explains, is the idea of interconnectedness. “The homestead lifestyle means you’re directly connected to what’s keeping you warm, what’s feeding you, and so on,” she says. “With my poetry, I’m going for the same thing. It’s an exercise in interconnected thinking, where the language is so compressed and dense and efficient that it’s working on more than one level at once.”
As the state’s poet laureate, a five-year post she was appointed to last August, Bouwsma is charged with connecting more Mainers to poetry, not least by making appearances across the state, conducting workshops, and giving readings. She also has a self-assigned, unofficial goal: to visit every public library in Maine, “maybe just to pop my head in,” she laughs. In a largely rural state, Bouwsma says, such institutions play a crucial role, however small they are. “It’s just this extension of community work,” she says. “And how that work relates to writing, I think, is deeply and intimately.”