Paper Trail

 

Colby to house the papers of poet Wesley McNair

By Douglas Rooks '76
Photography by Fred Field
 

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Poet Wesley McNair
Photo by Fred Field
Some poets are secretive, guarding their privacy and repelling the advances of the curious. Not Wesley McNair.

One of the most accomplished New England poets of his time, McNair has long made autobiographical elements an important facet of his published work and throughout a long teaching career has welcomed the inquiries of students and the public. His eight collections of poetry, appearances on National Public Radio's Weekend Edition, and inclusion in more than 50 anthologies and textbooks have made him a familiar name to both devoted readers of poetry and the casual listener.

Now he has made Colby the repository for his notebooks, papers, and correspondence"the raw material for scholarship that is often bequeathed and made available only long after an artist's death.

McNair, who has taught several classes at Colby over the years and been a visiting writer, is straightforward, both about his reasons for choosing Colby and why he, at 63, took the unusual step of placing his papers while he is still very much a living and working artist. (A new collection of poems, The Ghosts of You and Me, his sixth, has just been published by David Godine.)

Last semester McNair presented a multi-media version of the collection to a packed house, including many Colby students, in the Robinson Room in Miller Library. While he later joked that the occasion could have been seen as "a ceremony of interment, as if you're being buried alive," it was in fact a disarmingly personal look at McNair's life and poetic materials. They go back to a grade school newspaper he produced and include his fledgling cartoons and short stories.

Colby Special Collections Librarian Patricia Burdick, who has worked closely with McNair, said that he considered archives in Ohio, New Hampshire, and elsewhere in Maine before finally settling on Colby. "This can be a very personal relationship, and trust is an important factor on both sides," she said.

Both McNair and Burdick said that students' ability to use the papers is important and affects the way the material is being archived and made accessible. McNair's notebooks that show the often difficult road to conceiving a poem"sometimes taking five years or more"can help beginning poets struggling with their own efforts, Burdick said. Having the McNair collection on campus can help students see the creative process close up, she said.

McNair said he sees the collection as extending his own work as a teacher, at the University of Maine Farmington, where he long directed the creative writing program, and at Colby and other colleges. He also likes the idea that his papers will be housed among extensive collections from Thomas Hardy and Maine native Edwin Arlington Robinson, whom he calls "two of my favorite poets."

There were practical concerns, too. The papers, many of them going back decades, were stored in the attic of McNair's old farmhouse and needed better conditions. Once the papers were packed and labeled, they arrived at Colby and the real work of archiving began. In consultation with Burdick, McNair organized the collection, and McNair will use these headings in sending new material. As with most collections, privacy is a concern. Some papers will be available to the public in the near future, some will have restricted use, and some will be reserved only for future release.

Unlike the work of a dead author, "This collection can be continually updated," McNair said, "because I'm around doing it."

At the opening celebration, Colby's Zacamy Professor of English Peter Harris, also a poet, gave an appreciation of McNair's work, speaking of the "immense technical facility" that informs its often deceptively simple language.

Later he said he admires McNair's poems not only for the gem-like lyrics, common to the best contemporary poets, but for his long autobiographical poems, especially "My Brother Running," a complex evocation of his brother's early, tragic death, and the family mysteries that surrounded it. Harris called such poems, "his great work," and said that McNair has the ambition of using all the elements of his craft to "make the difficult look easy"and he does."

McNair likes to compare the making of poetry to the kind of thoughtful conversation that takes place between friends "on a summer evening, when it's twilight, and you let your thoughts fill the sentence out, with that fortunate interplay between chance and intuition," he said. "At such times, we're almost speaking poetry to each other."

His aim is to reproduce some of those moments in poems, "like an earnest and intimate conversation," in part as an antidote to an everyday culture that's often focused on "the big, the noisy, and the quick." Poetry, by contrast, is "about smallness, and slowness, and reticence."

Now, in Colby's Special Collections, the words and gestures behind that reticence will be there for all to see.

Read more of McNair's thoughts on writing.
 
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