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Portland’s new poet laureate connects writing to mental wellness

Maya Williams uses writing and poetry to stay connected and to stay alive.

As Portland’s next poet laureate, Williams will help others do the same by teaching workshop participants and others to express themselves and communicate with those who matter most.

“Writing has been the biggest thing that has connected me to the community and connected me to others,” said Williams, 25, who will be inaugurated during a Zoom ceremony hosted by the Portland Public Library beginning at 6 p.m. Thursday. “I want to help others do the same.”

Williams, a Black, mixed-race queer nonbinary person who uses the pronouns ey, they and she, succeeds Linda Aldrich and will serve a three-year term.

Thursday’s ceremony will include a reading and performance by Williams and remarks from Aldrich and other past Portland poet laureates, including Marcia F. Brown and Gibson Fay-LeBlanc. Library Director Sarah Campbell also will speak, and there will be musical performances by Kenya Hall and Kafari. Registration is not required, but encouraged.

Williams is the seventh person to serve in the honorary, volunteer position. The library began hosting administration of the poet laureate program in 2017. It previously was overseen by dedicated volunteers through the now-dissolved Maine Poetry Central.

The position is open-ended, and very much left to Williams to shape as they see fit. During a meeting at the library this week, Aldrich urged Williams to embrace the opportunity.

“You can create it any way you want to. It’s yours,” Aldrich said. “You should feel empowered and excited. I loved it – even with the pandemic. … Portland is a beautiful city to be an artist in. It truly is. It’s a real special place, and it’s a real honor.”

Williams, who earned a master’s degree in social work from the University of New England in 2018, envisions a collaborative position, in which they engage diverse voices from many communities around the power of the written and spoken word. A slam poet and suicide survivor, Williams intends to use the poet laureate position to help others keep living too. One of the large-scale community events they envision is called “What Do You Stay Alive For?” in which participants share art, stories and resources to help and support each other.

Williams currently serves as MaineTransNet’s sexual assault program coordinator, developing support groups and educational material. They also co-host the video series “Dying/Laughing” about the representation of suicide and mental health in TV and film. Williams’ work involves a lot of writing already. The poet laureate position will enable them to do so more broadly and reach more people.

“The scale is larger,” Williams said.

Given the anguish and uncertainty of the pandemic, Williams’ focus on mental wellness is timely, said Rebecca Starr, literature and language librarian at the Portland Public Library. “Mental health and talking about mental health is so important right now. To many people, the idea of mental health and poetry will be a real healing experience for the community,” Starr said.

Williams, who began writing at age 5, is well prepared for the challenge. At age 11, Williams began writing poetry. By high school, they were competing in spoken word competitions. As an undergraduate at East Carolina University, Williams competed with the slam team Word of Mouth in Greenville, North Carolina, and placed in the top 20 at the College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational. The Portland-based publisher Littoral Books and the journal Occulum, among others, have published their poetry. Williams also has had several artist residencies – at Sundress Academy for the Arts, Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation, Hewnoaks Artist Colony and others.

Williams is a Maine Writers and Publishers Association Chapbook finalist and a winner of PortFringe’s Patron’s Choice Award for the spoken word performance “When Speaking to an Extraterrestrial.” Williams was among three artists of color representing Maine in the Kennedy Center “Arts Across America” series, hosted by Portland Ovations. Williams also hosts open mic Tuesdays for Port Veritas, and Sunday workshops for Quill Books & Beverage.

After graduating from East Carolina, Williams came to Maine in 2017 to study at the University of New England. “Portland has a thriving writing and arts scene, so I decided to stay,” they said.

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