Sharing the Poetry of Maine’s Unheard Voices

with Gary Lawless

Back to Constance H. Carlson Public Humanities Prize

Follow Gary as he shares poetry from Mainers of all backgrounds.

Constance Carlson Luncheon 2017-55

Photo by Dan D’Ippolito

Gary Lawless, who was awarded the 2017 Constance H. Carlson Public Humanities Prize, has long worked to bring poetry and the creative process to the people of Maine.

Over the next months, follow Gary as his shares poetry from Mainers of all backgrounds. The poems will be released monthly in Notes from an Open Book, the MHC’s e-newsletter, and collected below.


January – Karin Spitfire


“Karin Spitfire is a poet, dancer, and book artist in Belfast. She currently runs a letterpress studio at Steel House in Rockland. This poem is printed, with permission, from 3 Nations Anthology: Native, Canadian & New England Writers, edited by Valerie Lawson and published by Resolute Bear Press in Robbinston.”



I tried to lie on the crumbly
red granite of Passamaquoddy Bay
to listen, to join the great flowing
currents, rip tides, whirlpools,
to embrace the St. Croix,
Cobscook, reversing falls
lean into the curves thru Sipayik,
longed to paddle the grand lakes,
around Motahkomikuk, Spedneck,
undo the arbitrary lines
between homelands.
But the pink granite of Penobscot Bay,
the resonant slow thunk
pulled me back to the high rounded nubs
leapfrogging across it, Schoodic,
Cadillac, Megunticook, my hips
molding more easily around the
archipelago protecting the Passagassawaukeag,
Naskeag and Brooklin, my blade
recognizing the Upper West Branch rills,
Chesuncook, and the long flow
out to Isle au Haut.

Karin Spitfire




December – Mike Hicks


“In the early 1990s I spent two years co facilitating, with Julie Johnson, a weekly drop-in writing group at the Preble Street Resource Center in Portland. We published a book of writing from that group, called ‘Words from the curbs,’ and this poem is from that book.” 



When Billy turned five and started school
the teacher asked “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
and these are the things that Billy didn’t say:
I want to be a junky and a dope addict.
I want to get married too young and
beat my children and my wife.
I want to sell my body to perverts
in the park for twenty bucks or crack cocaine.
I want to live on welfare, food stamps,
and be a burden to my fellow man.
I want to beg for quarters
so I can buy some beer.
I want to sleep under bridges
and have young punks call me a bum.
I want to stay in shelters
and slowly go insane.
I want to drink cheap wine
and puke and piss my pants.
I want to eat in dumpsters and soup kitchens
and smoke cigarettes that I find.
I want to be called lazy
and be shunned by so-called gentlemen.
I want to smell of unwashed skin
and grow to hate my fellow man.
I want someone to kill me
for the things that I’ve become.
I want to be called a loser,
a vagrant and a bum.

The things that Billy did say
are irrelevent, because he’s dead,
killed by the hero of the town.

Mike Hicks

Mike Hicks is a poet and artist, now living in the Pacific Northwest.




November- Terry Grasse


Uncle Sam! Uncle Sam!
Do you know who I am?
I’m one of your veteran sons.

You sent us to a war
in Vietnam, a war that
could never be won.

Uncle Sam! Uncle Sam!
Do you know what I need?
I’m home from the war
but my wounds still bleed.

Uncle Sam! Uncle Sam!
I’d be better off dead.
The battles are over,
but rage on in my head.

Uncle Sam! Uncle Sam!
Do you know, do you know
who I am?

Terry Grasse 

Terry Grasse is a visual artist, poet, and a veteran of the Vietnam War. He lives in Lisbon Falls, Maine.




October- Robert Gibbons


“Robert Gibbons is a widely published poet, currently living in Waterville. For twelve years he lived and wrote in Portland  where one critic wrote that he was “in the process of sacralizing Portland, lodging it in the imagination of readers, as Williams did for Paterson, Cavafy for Alexandria, Joyce for Dublin.” This poem is taken from his collection “Animated Landscape”, published in 2016 by BlazeVox”


“Moose was Whale Once,” Said Old John Neptune

In this way
I’ve been out to sea
the past couple of months
recording imagined travels across
Atlantic, Aegean, Mediterranean, Pacific,
& Adriatic waters, ports as diverse as Heraklion,
Nantucket, Okinawa, Venice, & Boston.

Hard to fathom
the years-long whaling
voyages Ishmael alludes to,
or the five-long years father
spent his youth on military transport.
No, hard as Hell to fathom that.

When I do
contemplate it,
it’s the difference
in the scent of distant
ocean, & smell of air above
earth comes strangely to mind.

The longing there. In the distinction.

So it comes as a surprise here
near the end of the Logbook that
Thoreau steps in as a guide back home.
In his posthumous publication, The Maine Woods,
he records a trip up to Old Town, meeting the Penobscot
Governor, eighty-nine-year-old, Old John Neptune,
who recalled when moose were much larger than
in Thoreau’s time, that in fact, according to legend
down near the Merrimack a whale swam in,
& as the tide went out, stranded, the whale
stood up & walked on land, “Moose was
whale once,” said Old John Neptune.

Were I to identify with that
mythological transmogrification
it’s again the distinction of the scent
of the air in the distant sea, for whale
& sailor alike, & air above land for moose
& his trek from the Merrimack, which I’ve trekked
along, & his migration all the way up to the forests of Maine.

I take a deep breath, where both earth and sea air circulate,
give thanks to Thoreau for recording that story,
& guiding me back to Port.

Robert Gibbons



September- Mikhu Paul-Anderson


“Mihku is a Maliseet writer and visual artist who grew up on the Penobscot River. This poem is from ‘Look Twice: The Waponaki in Image and Verse’-  a one-woman mixed media installation she mounted at the Abbe Museum in 2009. The poem is also included in her book ‘20th Century PowWow Playground.’ A StoneCoast MFA, she lives in the Portland area.”


The Water Road

All journeys begin here, Madawamkeetook, home,
beside the good river, rocky at its mouth.
Stone shards, bone stratum
buried deep, our ancient cenotaph,
Old Meductic Fort, traceless memorial.
on the shores of Wolastoq.
Now St. John.
The naming taken, baptized in ink and parchment.
They say he knew water transformation;
it gives life.
A thousand years and more, we paddled
the Old Meductic Trail; the water road.
Nomads, they called us,
citing “most ancient evidence” of our passage;
“the solid rocks have been furrowed
by the moccasins of the native tribes.”
A signpost, our chalcedony flesh.
Blue veins you call Nature’s highway,
the map flowing inside our bodies,
the Thoroughfare; Chepneticook lakes to
Mattawamkeag and onward to the Penobscot,
where a girl became a woman.
Her body craves the past.
Its water seeking the cool flow, ancestral memory,
where tributaries meet, flooding
undernourished roots that cling to her edges,
eroded year by year with forgetting.
Remember Meductic and the Water Road.
Birch bark, chert and bone melded with riverbank clay,
merging in the rippling shallows where canoes slide,
silent, among water lilies and pickerel grass.

Mikhu Paul-Anderson




August- Ekhlas Ahmed


“Ekhlas Ahmed came to Portland from Darfur at the age of 12. She attended Casco Bay High School and the University of Southern Maine. She now teaches at Casco Bay High School while working on a master’s degree. This poem is from a longer series of poems about her journey.” 


It’s quiet in Darfur. It’s not  the silence of peace, but it’s the silence of death.
My homes that once carried histories of generations are now burned ashes on the
ground waiting for the wind to blow them to their final destination.
My mothers that were once leaders of their communities are now used as war
My sisters that once had chances to be future leaders are now afraid to see the sun.
So I speak for them.
I speak for the thousand mothers who have been speaking forever but there is no-one
to listen.
I speak for the thousand girls who want to speak but don’t have a voice.
I speak for the thousand children of Darfur because they can only speak in silence.
I speak so they can be heard.
Because I feel their pain.
When I was a little girl I used to cry
but only in silence
never showing my parents my tears
not even my siblings, or peers
because they told us if you showed people your tears, it meant you were afraid
it meant you were weak, it meant you were powerless
Yes I was young, but I knew I wasn’t weak, and I knew I wasn’t powerless
I had and still have a weapon
A Voice
A voice that once it’s heard, demands attention
A voice that doesn’t only speak, but repeats
So I will speak so they can be heard.

Ekhlas Ahmed




July- Sharif Elmusa


“When Naomi Shihab Nye gave a reading in Augusta in April, she was asked who her current favorite Arabic poet was. Her answer, immediately, was Sharif Elmusa – a poet originally from Palestine, but now from Arrowsic, Maine. Sharif has twice read at Gulf of Maine Books for our ‘Hummus and Poetry’ evenings. He says that I am turning him into a Maine nature poet, and this poem is from a ‘poetry walk’ I lead at Beech Hill Preserve in Rockport.”


Poetry Walk

As I walked up the path
of Beech Hill Preserve
I kept thinking of the snail of Issa
climbing Mount Fuji,
till a sharp stone warned my left foot
Don’t step on me, else you will trip.
As far as the eye could roam the land
was many shades of green
flecked with red and yellow, white and blue,
was countless kinds of trees and shrubs,
pine and oak, spruce and maple,
raspberries, blueberries and honeysuckle;
with their mouths pressed to the ground,
they blossomed and multiplied,
without gadgets, despite the pompous popish names,
Populus grandidentata, Pinus strobus, Quercus prinus.
Lichen is the language of granite,
said the guide.
Only the trunks of trees
seem to grasp this tongue.
This is why I was overjoyed
to hear the whispers of the little wood-lily
I am in full bloom,
therefore I am,
or the fog that crowned our walk
and veiled the lake and mountains
declare, as if it were an oracle
After I lift,
and I lift when I please,
don’t think what you SEE
is what you see.
The future stirs where the chipmunk hides
in the secrets it hoards.

Sharif S. Elmusa
First published here and in Mizna: Prose, Poetry and Art Exploring Arab America, vol 17.2.2016


June- Kifah Abdulla


Kifah Abdulla is a poet and artist living in Portland, Maine. Originally from Iraq, he served in the Iran-Iraq war and was a prisoner of war for over eight years. This poem comes from that experience. It is reprinted with permission from his book of poems: Dead Still Dream.


Dream 1

I dreamt of a small window
Through it flows clean air
Looking over a blue sky
White clouds travel through it
Flocks of birds pass by like air
I dreamt of a small window

The size of my hand
Overlooking a sea
My eyes travel in it
Into distant waves of blue
The yellow sun comes
Awakening the morning
And the night comes, inlaid with light
A window into which the snow whispers
Suspend in it, the moon and the rain
Into it flow the colors of autumn
And in spring, the fragrant buds
A small window, in which I count
My mornings and my evenings
Nesting in it are my memories
I cultivate in it lush dreams

I dreamt of a small window
The size of my hand
I look from it to see my sweetheart
When she comes from afar
She waves to me
That she is coming soon,
Carrying between the folds of her heart
Happy news
A small window overlooking
Onto the rest of a new age

I dreamt in a place where
My one and only dream was,
And all that I wished for
Was to have a small window
The size of my hand
I dreamt

Kifah Abdulla 



May- Ellen Flewelling Holt


“This is the first poem in the first anthology of poems I helped put together from Spindleworks in Brunswick. We published that collection in 1991. I really was trying to learn what it was like for an adult not to be able to read, and Ellen (who has passed away since the book came out) helped me to really feel it.” 


I would like to learn to read.

I know one thing I can’t do. Read.
It’s hard for me when I can’t read.
What would I do if I got lost?
I wouldn’t know where I am.
I wouldn’t know what street I was on.

That’s what I want. I want to learn
so I can read signs.
If I could read, I would know
what the signs say.
I could read a newspaper.
Read a book, read the Bible.
Read a cookbook, recipes in a cookbook.
I could put the right things in the recipe.

Tell what size my clothes are.
What size shoes I wanted.
Maybe if I wanted a teddy bear
I could find out how much it costs
or if I wanted a record
or a blouse.
I could find out when the movies are.
I could do that
if I could read.

Ellen Flewelling Holt
from Spindleworks Journey,
edited by Gary Lawless, published by Spindleworks, 1991