Homesteader, librarian, Maine’s new poet laureate: Julia Bouwsma seeks to foster connection through poetry
Julia Bouwsma’s love of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Edna St. Vincent Millay started early.
For a Halloween assignment in third grade, Bouwsma unsuccessfully took on a famous Millay line, “my candle burns at both ends,” as a jack-o’-lantern.
“It was actually not a terrific pumpkin,” Bouwsma said, laughing. “But I love that poem. And the experience of trying to make that thing and the frustration of it stuck with me too.”
Fast forward to Bouwsma’s mid-twenties, when she and her partner, Walker Fleming, were scoping out land to settle on in western Maine, and they passed by a sign for Millay Hill Road.
“And I just said to my partner casually, ‘Oh Millay Hill Road, it's like, Edna St. Vincent Millay, I want to live there.’ And as it turned out, several years later a property came for sale on Millay Hill Road,”
The couple ended up buying the 86-acre property in 2007. Bouwsma said as soon as she stepped foot on the land, she just had one of those feelings.
There is a cemetery in the woods on her land, with the headstones of several Millays. In the late 1800s, the farm was settled by Sarah and John Millay, who Bouwsma later found out were Edna St. Vincent Millay’s paternal great grandparents. Millay, herself, was born in Rockland.
“I feel this strong connection to her through this property,” Bouwsma said.
Bouwsma, now 41, has been named Maine’s sixth poet laureate. The honorary position was established in 1995. The Maine State Poet Laureate is appointed for five years, selected by the governor from a list of candidates recommended by the Maine Arts Commission. Since its creation, five poets have served.
“I think she's a great choice,” said outgoing laureate Stuart Kestenbaum. “She has a very powerful voice and really great detail in her work. She lives in off the grid in a rural area, so I think she brings a different kind of understanding [to the role].”
Not only a poet and homesteader, Bouwsma is also the library director of Webster Library in Kingfield, another place that she had an instant, strong connection to.
“I actually had a feeling the first time I walked into [the] library, too,” Bouwsma said.
Asking to put on a poetry reading at the library, she remembers feeling an instant sense of contentment and awe for the building. A few months later, she became the director.
“Poetry is about patterns, right, identifying patterns. So I don’t know if I have a lot of them or if I’m just conscious of them, but I am tuned towards thinking about patterns,” Bouwsma said.
A young, burgeoning poet
Bouwsma started writing poetry when she was eight years old.
“I don’t remember what my first poem was about, but I bet it was really intense and fairly dark and I can tell you that there is a strong certainty that the poem ended with the word ‘eternity,’ because that was a particular quirk of mine,” Bouwsma said.
A self-described weirdo, Bouwsma grew up in New Haven, Connecticut, where she recalls reading a lot of books, avoiding sports and having “not particularly numerous, but incredibly intense friendships.”
“I was a real big fan of ‘Dante's Inferno,’ and I used to keep a copy in my locker and read passages to other kids sometimes. I’m not sure that was great, you know, socially for me,” Bouwsma said, laughing. “I was an intense kid.”
Bouwsma recalls having a very romantic view of poetry from a young age. She had an early mentor and family friend in Penelope Laurans, a now retired Yale University lecturer who taught poetry there for 35 years. Laurans volunteered at Bouwsma’s elementary school to teach poetry lessons to the kids in her class.
“Julia took to it right away, you could just tell that she had an eagerness and a passion for it,” Laurans said. “When children are introduced to poetry early, it becomes a part of them. And they begin to see and hear the world in different ways.”
Laurans said she’s proud to see Bouwsma become Maine’s poet laureate, and that it’s the ultimate reward as a teacher to see “your students go beyond you.”
“I’m just so pleased that she has reached a point where the work she does is truly original, and is out there published,” Laurans said.
From her early poems espousing the perils of “eternity,” Bouwsma went on to study English at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, and then to receive an MFA in creative writing from Goddard College in Vermont.
While pursuing her undergraduate degree, she met Fleming, and they began to dream about a future together, living in tune with the land. They traveled around the country after Bouwsma graduated from college looking for a place to settle.
“I've been looking back at 20-year-old Julia and thanking her,” Bouwsma said. “For, you know, the beginnings of an idea that I can shape my own life and have an interesting life and then if I have an interesting life, you know then it gives me something to write about that's interesting.”
For Bouwsma, it soon became clear that the interesting life she wanted would take root in Maine.
Graduating to ‘real poet’ in Maine
Bouwsma and Fleming live off-grid on solar power in New Portland, where they tap maple trees for syrup, harvest firewood and grow their own food. They also raise hens and pigs and have three dogs and two cats. Eventually, they plan to have a wind turbine as well.
Fleming grew up in Strong, not far from their property, although Bouwsma said that wasn’t the primary reason they chose Maine to settle.
“I've never felt as at home anywhere as I do in Maine, a physical connection that I have to the landscape,” Bouwsma said.
The daily work of homesteading is a major influence on Bouwsma’s poetry.
“As I started homesteading more, my poems became more about working the land, about working with animals… I often absorb these rhythms and the rhythms of sort of daily work, and then the rhythms come out in poems themselves,” Bouwsma said. “The growing of food, the walking of the roads that are on my property, doing farm chores like splitting firewood, weeding the garden. All of these things are really, really important to me, both in terms of who I am and in terms of my artistic practice."
And it’s not just the beauty of the land that feeds her relationship to place, she said, but also the difficulties of Maine’s terrain and climate.
“When [my first book, “Work by Bloodlight”] was published and realized a lot of it was about accountability,” Bouwsma said. “It was about work, but it was also about addressing small violences that make up everyday life, that are part of what makes us who we are, and sort of celebrating what we can become but also owning the difficulties, the violences, the choices that we have to make in that, as well.”
One such violence occurred when a weasel got into her henhouse, killing a dozen of her hens, inspiring the poem, “We Are Just Three Mouths.”
“This is a story of me shooting the weasel, and wanting to make something out of that,” Bouwsma said. “The weasel was so beautiful… but it was also so deadly. So all that contradiction and feeling, and needing to have some accountability for that violence, is what created that poem.”
“[That poem] just had such intense imagery,” Kestenbaum said. “It’s not just the situation. It's how she goes into that situation with the specificity of detail, and the momentum that she builds in the poem. I think she's a really skilled writer in terms of being able to make that come alive.”
Bouwsma sees the daily labor of homesteading as intertwined with both her poetry and work at the library, all experiences that feed off one another, which she says fuel her sense of purpose.
“I really became a poet in Maine,” Bouwsma said. “From baby poet... I graduated to real poet in Maine. Maine is so tightly braided to the way I write and think about writing at this point.”
Enduring silences and belonging in Maine
Bouwsma has published two books of poetry, “Work by Bloodlight” in 2017 and “Midden” in 2018.
“Midden” is about Maine’s 1912 forced eviction of the mixed-race community living on Malaga Island. The state evicted 47 residents from their homes and exhumed and relocated their buried dead. Eight people were committed to the Maine School for the Feeble-Minded.
“After that, it is said that the island looked as if no one had lived there, and then what followed was silence, a very strongly socially enforced silence around this, to the point where there are many descendants who don't know this history,” Bouwsma said. “And it's only been in much more recent years in Maine that the story’s beginning to be told and known.”
Bouwsma learned about the story shortly after moving to Maine.
“The story about Malaga found me when I was relatively new to Maine myself, [and it really made me] think about what makes someone an outsider, what makes someone accepted,” Bouwsma said. “I found, as I was writing [“Midden”], thinking a lot about those lines of inherited silence, as someone of European Jewish descent, there are a lot of things I don't know about my history and my family.”
Bouwsma’s poems explore these silences, but also the place of Malaga Island, both as what was and what is now.
“With poetry I think you almost have this capacity to hold something with all its contradictions. You can have the horror braided to the beauty. All of these different conflicting emotions can be part of this human experience and find a way to hold all of that,” Bouwsma said. “Really for me, that's poetry. It's not simple, it is complicated… All of that messiness, all of that difficulty is there in a really visceral physical way in poems.”
Fostering connection through difficult times
As the new poet laureate, Bouwsma hopes to bring Mainers together from all walks of life, especially after the last challenging year and a half of the pandemic.
“This has been a difficult time, and it's been a difficult time for a lot of Mainers. And I think that poetry is something you really need when times are difficult,” Bouwsma said, pointing to research suggesting that poetry readership goes up during times of social, political or civil unrest, or in challenging moments as a country.
“I think that poetry has the ability to help foster connection in parts of our state that are fairly disparate and polarized,” she said. “I'm excited about anything that I can do as the poet laureate that might foster connection through poetry, within and between our communities. And foster dialogue for some of the difficult conversations that we need to continue to have.”
This semester, Bouwsma is also an adjunct professor at the University of Maine at Farmington, where she hopes to make reading, writing and experiencing poetry more accessible.
She also wants to bring more attention and resources to rural poets and poetry.
“I would love to find ways of showcasing you know our farmer poets, and our logger poets, and our fisher poets. I know they're out there, you know we have all of these in our state,” Bouwsma said.
She said she’d also like to meet and work more closely with indigenous poets and poets of color across the state.
“I really want the poetry being heard in this state to show the full range of who we are, because there's so there's so much here,” Bouwsma said. “There are so many histories here that we aren't necessarily aware of that are really crucial. So they're the sort of dominant narratives of what Maine is like, but what Maine is really like is incredibly rich, beautiful and complicated.”