Transcription of Poetry & Public Art #286

Speaker 1: You are listening to Love Maine Radio, hosted by Dr. Lisa Belisle, and recorded at the studios of Maine magazine in Portland. Dr. Lisa Belisle is a writer and physician who practices family medicine and acupuncture in Brunswick, Maine. Show summaries are available at Here are some highlights from this week’s program.
Stuart Kestenbaum: It’s like when the power goes out. Shh…. Then all of a sudden it’s quiet and you think, “Oh, what’s that other sound? That’s the blood in my body. That’s me, I’m alive.” I think that’s what a place like Haystack does because you’re there and you’re able to just stop.
Donna McNeil: I just got bored with myself. I decided to kind of toss it all in the air and I sold… I had a farmhouse of 14 acres and I sold that. I sold my business, and I just moved to Maine with no prospect really of what I would do.
Lisa Belisle: This is Dr. Lisa Belisle, and you are listening to Love Maine Radio, Show #286, Maine Live: Poetry and Public Art, airing for the first time on Sunday, March 12, 2017. Twice a year, we at Love Maine Radio are fortunate to take part in a day-long gathering of creative Mainers of every description called Maine Live. Today, we speak with two of our upcoming Maine Live speakers. Maine’s current poet laureate, Stuart Kestenbaum, is the interim president of the Maine College of Art. Donna McNeil is the former director of the Maine Arts Commission. Thank you for joining us.
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Lisa Belisle: It’s always fun for me to be able to interview people who do things that I really love, including writing poetry, and this person not only is a poet but also has made a life out of teaching and advocating for poetry, I guess you can say. This is Stuart Kestenbaum, who is currently serving as the interim president of the Maine College of Art here in Portland. He is the author of four collections of poems, most recently Only Now. He was appointed Maine’s poet laureate last March, and he was the director of the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Deer Isle for the last 27 years. That’s very impressive.
Stuart Kestenbaum: Yeah.
Lisa Belisle: Thanks for coming in.
Stuart Kestenbaum: You’re welcome.
Lisa Belisle: I think that we need to start, being that you are a poet, we need to start with one of your poems.
Stuart Kestenbaum: Okay. Well, this is a poem that, I think we may not have winters like this anymore, but the kind of winter where the ice sticks around for a long time, but there’s still, I was walking here down Congress Street and I could see by 1 City Center where they plowed it up, there’s still that’s going to last a long time. This is called “A Cold Rain the Day Before Spring”.
From heaven it falls on the gray pitted ice that has been here since December.
In the gutter rivulets erode piles of dirt and road salt into small countries and the morning is so dark, in school teachers turn on fluorescent lights and everyone comes in smelling of damp wool.
From heaven it falls, just the opposite of prayer, which I send up at the traffic light: please let me begin over again.
One more time over again, wipe the slate clean, the same way after school, janitors, keys jangling from belt loops, will use a wet rag and wipe the school day off, so there is only the residue, faint white on the smooth surface.
It’s the same way the infield looks before the game begins, or the ice on a rink between periods, all new again for the moment and glistening.
Imagine each day you get to start again and again. How many days does the janitor enter the room of your soul, wipe it clean, go out into the hallway and push his broom down the long corridor, full of doors to so many rooms.
Lisa Belisle: Tell me about that poem. Where did that come from?
Stuart Kestenbaum: Where does it come from? Well, it probably started in elementary school when I first began to notice janitors, and maybe going to a baseball game when I was young, when you could afford to go to baseball games and watch how they would do the infield or watching a Zamboni at the… now it’s Cross Arena, I guess, the former Cumberland County Civic Center. Those images of starting over and the actual genesis of it, I was in… just it was that time of year in March, kind of a wet, dark day. That’s what started me on the images that it evoked, came up because of my experience. I’d say that it was weather-driven to start.
Lisa Belisle: Starting over again is something that we do every day, every month, every year, and sometimes, several big times a lifetime.
Stuart Kestenbaum: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Lisa Belisle: You’ve actually had a little bit of a starting over yourself recently.
Stuart Kestenbaum: I have. I left Haystack. I was the director for 27 years. In May of 2015, I left, and it was a pretty big shift. It was like…. What did it feel like? Like the last notes that I wrote were like a parent leaving instructions before they leave their kids for the night and go off or… It’s like bigger than that actually. More like… the sense of just tying things up and knowing I was going to step away, and I guess the biggest thing is being able to let that go, so that you’re not…. Like starting again, or starting a new thing, it’s also being willing to let go of the old thing and let that be what it needs to be. So yeah, it was a pretty big step.
Lisa Belisle: Why?
Stuart Kestenbaum: Why did I do it?
Lisa Belisle: Yeah, why did you do it?
Stuart Kestenbaum: Well, I felt like I’ve done a lot of things when I was there, and we had developed programs in our local schools. I developed programs in writing, we had a new residency program which hadn’t existed before which we were fortunate to have fully endowed and a relationship with MIT where we had a digital fabrication lab, so I felt like we had a lot of things, I felt like, “That’s great. Now somebody else can take that and run with it.”
It wasn’t that I couldn’t have done it, but for me, I wanted to have… I was always driven by the creative impulse and I always wanted to have that, and I felt like I used my creative impulse on those, and now I felt like I wanted to have more time to devote to writing, to working on other projects, so….
Lisa Belisle: So the way that you described the creative impulse isn’t just about an artist who creates something visual, something written, but it’s an artist who creates a school or a program or a community or is involved in creating, I guess.
Stuart Kestenbaum: Right. To me, a place like Haystack is given over… It’s total purpose is about creativity. I think that the right administrative response is not to look at … You want to look at numbers, you want to make sure that you can do the programs you’re gonna do, but I think you want to have first and foremost that the reason you’re there is to do creative things and the same at Maine College of Art. You have stop and say, “Well, are we here to be here or are we here to do something?” If you answer to do something, then that’s a creative impulse.
Once that happens, you can go into … The part that’s creative I think is that you say, “Well, what if we did this?” not, “Oh, well we can’t do that because of these reasons.” Or, “What if we were to imagine this?” Once you begin to imagine, then it’s a creative act. I guess bookkeeping, you don’t want to be creative in that way, but most everything else, I think, you…. Even looking at numbers, you can say, “Well, the numbers say this but there are many ways to look at numbers.” You can look at what you spend in a year, but if you’re not saving to do things that you want to do in your life or institutionally then… I mean, that’s another way to look at numbers. I think even that, I think it’s a matter with creativity of looking at possibility and having the tools where you can attempt to make that happen.
Lisa Belisle: Haystack is very much at the end of the world.
Stuart Kestenbaum: Or the beginning of the world.
Lisa Belisle: Or the beginning of the world. Maybe….
Stuart Kestenbaum: Right at the edge. That’s where it stops and starts. The line’s right there.
Lisa Belisle: That’s probably a good way to put it.
Stuart Kestenbaum: Yeah.
Lisa Belisle: Maybe the end of the world that many of us know in the Southern Maine area. How’s that?
Stuart Kestenbaum: Yeah.
Lisa Belisle: Then you flip-flopped. Now you’re right in the middle. The Maine College of Art is squarely in the middle of Portland geographically, and there’s so many big differences between the two.
Stuart Kestenbaum: Yeah, and I used to… Before I was at Haystack I lived in Portland, so it was great to be able to come back and be in this environment. Many more restaurants than there used to be. Much more expensive in terms of what you pay for in rent and those things, but the thing to me that joins them together is there’s a spirit of creativity and a sense of place, and I think that Portland’s bigger than Deer Isle, but I think that sense of place, of what a community means to the members of that community, and the kind of energy that people have at Maine College of Art to make things happen is very similar to Deer Isle and Haystack. The roads in Deer Isle are worse, but there’s no traffic.
Lisa Belisle: Also in my limited experience, it’s very beautiful up there, and it was nice and quiet because I had very little cellphone reception, at least for my cellphone….
Stuart Kestenbaum: Right.
Lisa Belisle: In that area. I had a lot of time to sort of wander around in my own mind and really enjoy nature and enjoy the people that I was with. It’s a very different sense than being right in the middle of Portland where the energy just feels….
Stuart Kestenbaum: Right. I think a big part of a retreat setting like Haystack, which is remote on Deer Isle, is that you’re able to disconnect. When the school was started in the 1950s, what seemed like a pretty regular thing, you’d go somewhere for three weeks and work on something without interruption. Now it’s like a radical act in the world that you can actually go someplace and pay attention to one thing. There’s the art part of that, the creative part of it, and then there’s the sense of how we deal with time, so you get to this place where… it’s the beginning of the world or the end of the world, or you’re at an edge where you can stop and think about what you’re doing differently. It’s like when the power goes out. Shh…. Then all of a sudden it’s quiet and you think, “Oh, what’s that other sound? That’s the blood in my body. That’s me, I’m alive.” I think that’s what a place like Haystack does because you’re there and you’re able to just stop.
I mean you could do that I guess if you…. With the Sabbath, that’s the same impulse I think is to stop time. Slow it down so you can…. Then I think people begin to say, “Well, what matters to me?” Once you get quiet, and you go, “You know, that doesn’t matter and that doesn’t matter, but this is what really matters.” I think that happens in a studio experience too, but definitely in a place where it’s different from what you know and you can reflect.
Lisa Belisle: The Maine College of Art has really evolved over the last probably couple of decades I guess.
Stuart Kestenbaum: Yeah.
Lisa Belisle: I remember it when I was growing up as the Portland School of Art, and it’s expanded, and it’s drawing students from really all over the world. It has a broad range of programs. I know that the music program has really taken off in addition to all the visual arts and all the writing that is going on there. What’s that like for you to be in such a very differently dynamic place?
Stuart Kestenbaum: It’s a very similar impulse. I think that to me, being in one building, or primarily one building at the old Porteous, Mitchell & Braun department store, which I remember going in to buy a blender when I first got married.
Lisa Belisle: I think I bought a bathing suit there.
Stuart Kestenbaum: It was a big store.
Lisa Belisle: It really was.
Stuart Kestenbaum: This year, MECA received an economic achievement award from the Portland Development Council in recognition of its impact, which really goes back to when Roger Gilmore was president in the early 90s and the school made a big leap to say, “Let’s go into this five-story vacant department store.” I didn’t do anything to merit the award, but because I’m the president now, I got to accept the award. It’s great. Just to be able to do that. It made me reflect on, if you take the creative energy of Maine College of Art out of Congress Street, it’s a whole different street, and that that really is a driver, that creativity is really why those restaurants are around there. If you take MECA out of that, that doesn’t exist, so it’s like it really is….
That creativity made so much happen, so there’s a kind of energy with that, and I think the new programs only expand that. We’re going to be launching the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies, or relaunching it, because it was a freestanding program before, and that gives us the opportunity to interact with other Maine communities through storytelling, so to really put the Maine in Maine College of Art into the rest of Maine and the ways that the college can interact with the community, the Institute for Contemporary Art, all those, I think, are really opening the college up in lots of ways, so it’s really a center for creativity and to see the mostly young people who are students there who then wind up…. They might come to Maine from elsewhere and decide to stay. That’s the kind of in-migration that everybody is looking for, to have creative people want to stick around, and that’s happening. It’s pretty exciting.
Lisa Belisle: You are Maine’s poet laureate.
Stuart Kestenbaum: Yes.
Lisa Belisle: Which is a big deal.
Stuart Kestenbaum: Well, it’s a deal.
Lisa Belisle: It’s a deal. I think it’s a big deal. I mean, the fact that Maine even has a poet laureate and that you now get to be that.
Stuart Kestenbaum: Right.
Lisa Belisle: As an ambassador of the poem, how does this feel to you because that’s such a beautiful small secret thing to have that poetry?
Stuart Kestenbaum: What I like about it, I’m honored to have been chosen. The people who were laureates before me like Betsy Sholl and Wes McNair and Kate Barnes and Baron Wormser are really exceptional writers, and so it’s a little bit daunting to be named after them. It’s also kind of a responsibility, to be an advocate for poetry, to say what kind of place poetry can have in a world such as ours, to speak well, not make grammatical errors if you can help it, and I think, so it gives…. Once you say, “Well, this is the title you have.” And Oh, “You, you’re that.” Then you can say something. It gives you a way to… I think it’s a platform. I was asked to read before the legislature because every session, they begin with a benediction or a prayer and so Walter Kumiega, who is the representative for Deer Isle, arranged for me to do it when I was named laureate. I said, “I’m not a minister.” I was a comparative religion major in college, but they said I should do it and they said I got a note from the Clerk of the House saying it should be brief, ecumenical, and uplifting. Those are the three characteristics of what you should say.
When I got there, everybody was great and I was with the full House at the beginning of the session, and all the legislators stood up, which is what they do before a benediction. I said, “You know, this is not a prayer. It’s a poem I’m going to read,” but that I felt that a prayer and poem both had something in common because they made you slow down and pay attention to things. That was interesting to be able to speak to legislators from all over and to have the power of the words of a poem speak to them in some way. I said amen at the end of the poem because they were still standing, so they sat down.
Lisa Belisle: What is it about us as humans that causes us to crave that pause, that…. We all have our stories about how religion has caused us perhaps strife in our lives, but there’s something about humans that is still deeply spiritual, I believe, and there’s something about poetry that creates that connection.
Stuart Kestenbaum: Yeah. Mark Strand, who was the U.S. poet laureate, I read an essay he wrote many years ago where he was talking about that when people are troubled, they don’t turn to a novel, they turn to poetry. If there’s grief, they may send a Hallmark card that is of verse, because there’s some impulse to want to say something in a special way at those times or to have language act in some way that makes sense, and so like these are really dark times, so it’s kind of a growth time for poetry. Everybody knows where to turn. I think that somehow, you’re not…. What Mark Strand says is, you’re not turning the page to get to the next thing the way you would with a novel, you’re actually staying with the one thing, and I think it just opens up a moment in a way that lets you, instead of rushing along with time, it’s saying, “Nope, listen right now.” I think that’s why people want to turn to it. I do think there’s a spiritual impulse and it’s only when…. Mostly you can run past it now, but something will happen that will stop you, and you’ll realize it’s time to pay attention.
Lisa Belisle: Why did you decide that poetry spoke to you the most of all written type art? I mean, you could have been perhaps a novelist or a journalist or maybe couldn’t have done that, I don’t know.
Stuart Kestenbaum: It may be the way I see images or conceive of them. I don’t feel like writing a long story that I would see the beginning and end of or know where it was going, or even not know where it was going, but just take that much time in terms of the rhythms of my own writing. I think I’m much more compact. I might see something, imagine that thing and follow it to where it concludes. It would be kind of my impulse. I like writing. I actually like writing grants. I was working on one yesterday, and it was the same, I was thinking of how is this going to end? I wanted to have a little lift in it the way I would want a poem to. It doesn’t always feel dissimilar. I want that language to be as engaging as the language in a poem, like sometimes people get stiffer if they want to say…. Rather than use natural language to describe why you want the money to do a project, you dress it up in some way that makes it so abstract nobody really knows what you want.
If you tell somebody a story and say, “You know, the reason we want to do this project is it means that these kids will be able to come and do this thing,” and they go, “Wow, that’s great,” You’re not going to say, “We’re going to service this many so and so’s.” That is not compelling to anybody. I think the story is. Maybe I’m contradicting myself, but that’s the same thing I find in a poem or in writing. To me, it’s really that writing can engage people and tell some kind of story. For me, the story winds up being a shorter one of a poem because I think in that length.
Lisa Belisle: As you’re talking about grant writing, I’m thinking about other areas where people end up getting very prosaic and difficult to follow sometimes. I think about medicine where look at all the stories we have in medicine and William Carlos Williams. He absolutely knew that there were stories in medicine and wrote about them. Yet if you read a medical chart, it doesn’t really always reflect that. It reflects sort of the cells and the x-rays and the testing. The language is….
Stuart Kestenbaum: Right, and it kind of allows you to distance yourself from the actual thing. I was just reading in The New Yorker, it’s a piece Atul Gawande wrote about incremental medicine versus heroic medicine, meaning instead of like the heart surgeon which is great, you know, there’s actually listening to somebody and that this idea that… So there’s stories that like you could tell like William Carlos Williams could but there’s stories…. Listening to somebody’s story tells you more than my elbow hurts. You know, if you say, “Well tell me about what you’ve been doing,” and you hear a story, then it’s a more natural way and you probably go deeper and I think that’s the same in impulse with writing because I think if you’re willing to not say, “Well, I’m supposed to go here,” you’d never get to anywhere that’s going to make you think any differently about something, but if you say, “I’m starting here and I’m going to something related to this, but I don’t know exactly where it is,” then you realize it wasn’t about the elbow, it’s really about your relationship with your son, or I don’t know what it would be. That’s not a great medical example but I think that you have to be willing to go into something and come out different, and that’s what happens in art making and I think anything where you….
If you say, “I’m here, I’m going to go here, I know exactly where I’m going to go,” everybody’s bored by it, but if you say, “I’m going here and on the way I discover these things and now I’m here in a different place,” then it’s exciting. I think that’s part of a lot of different disciplines, not just writing.
Lisa Belisle: It is hard to have that permission. It’s to give oneself that permission and I think sometimes we seek it from other people to not have a destination, to not know where you’re going to end up. This is such a linear space that we live in these days that it always feels like you have to… it’s like a Google map. Your life is a Google map. If you just put in where you want to go, then you follow all the steps to get there. That’s not really the way life works, but we all kind of feel like it should be that way.
Stuart Kestenbaum: Yeah, and I think the willingness to…. You can’t come up with a new concept if you know what the concept is. You can’t make a discovery in a poem, or you can’t probably diagnose a patient. I might be killing somebody by talking this way, so…. There’s still a moment where you can’t know, your instincts can tell you. Instincts are important, knowledge is important, but you still have to be willing to think in a way that’s not “I know exactly where this is going to go,” because then you do and it may not need to go there. It may need to be something else, like if you think… like Maine College of Art, where you think, “Well, that’s a department store. That’s what’s supposed to be in there. We should get some retailers to go in there.” Somebody says….
This is not a profound, transcendent example, but somebody goes, “Why don’t we put an art school in there?” Just like thinking in a way if you knew exactly what you were supposed to do, you wouldn’t have done it. If you’re right on the edge maybe and so a little crazy but not too crazy, that seems like a good place to be. In fact, when I saw Hidden Figures, the movie about the African-American women who did so much for the space program, and you realize a month before John Glenn’s supposed to go into orbit, they’re still figuring something out. I thought, “Our world’s so different now.” We’d say, “What? You didn’t know when you started out on this? I think I’ll sue you.” You know, that we would say, “Well, we believe enough in our ingenuity in that we want to make this thing happen and it’s profound enough for us that we’re going to make this leap.” I think maybe we’re not leaping….
People are leaping, but it’s a good thing to do. It’s a good thing to not know exactly where you’re going to end up. Not in a way that’s foolhardy or dangerous to the world, but in a way that just allows you to push yourself beyond where you think you could go.
Lisa Belisle: I’d like you to read for us another one of your poems, and this one is called “Prayer for Joy” which sounds like you and I are kind of in the same mindset, that joy is not a bad thing to have, especially in this day and age.
Stuart Kestenbaum: “Prayer for Joy”
What was it we wanted
to say anyhow, like today
when there were all the letters
in my alphabet soup and suddenly
the ‘j’ rises to the surface.
The ‘j’, a letter that might be
great for Scrabble, but not really
used for much else, unless
we need to jump for joy,
and then all of a sudden
it’s there and ready to
help us soar and to open up
our hearts at the same time,
this simple line with a curved bottom,
an upside down cane that helps
us walk in a new way into this
forest of language, where all the letters
are beginning to speak,
finding each other in just
the right combination
to be understood.
Lisa Belisle: You are speaking for us at Maine Live, which is going up at the end of the March.
Stuart Kestenbaum: I am. Yes.
Lisa Belisle: People who are interested can go to our show notes page and find out more about Maine Live and can also find out more about the Maine College of Art. I’m assuming they can find out more about you and your poetry online as well.
Stuart Kestenbaum: Yes, I think so.
Lisa Belisle: And your four books.
Stuart Kestenbaum: Yeah.
Lisa Belisle: You’re doing impressive work. It really is very… it makes me feel happy to know that we still have poets in the world. I know this intellectually, but to talk to someone who says, “This is my thing. I’m putting my stake in the ground and I am a poet.” That’s a good thing.
Stuart Kestenbaum: Yeah.
Lisa Belisle: I encourage people to come watch Stuart Kestenbaum, who is the interim president of Maine College of Art, author of four collections of poems and also a former director of the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Deer Isle. Stuart will be with me at Maine Live at the end of the March, and I’ve really enjoyed this conversation today. Thank you.
Stuart Kestenbaum: Thank you Lisa. Thanks.
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Lisa Belisle: There are many people that I have chance to interview whose reputation precedes them and today, I have the opportunity to interview one of these individuals. This is Donna McNeil. Since retiring as executive director of the Maine Arts Commission, Donna McNeil has continued to support the arts in Maine, working with Dan Crewe as archivist and curator of the Bob Crewe collection of the Maine College of Art, curated the Thomas Moser retrospective at MECA, and wrote a book with Moser to accompany the exhibit, curated Self, Selfie at Engine, and is in the final stages of completing a book on Stonington artist Evelyn Kok. Boy, you’re busy.
Donna McNeil: It sounds like it, but I feel like I have so much free time now that I don’t have to drive to Augusta every day.
Lisa Belisle: Well, that’s true. That does put it in perspective.
Donna McNeil: It puts a big dent in your day to take a couple hours out in the car and… I guess it feels luxurious because I determine my own schedule. That’s always sort of a wonderful thing, when you get to that part of your life where you can make time mold to you instead of the other way around.
Lisa Belisle: It sounds like you’ve earned it. You ran a gallery for quite some time in Massachusetts and you’ve been busy.
Donna McNeil: I did. I owned a gallery, a commercial gallery in Amherst, Massachusetts for 13 years. You know you have those moments in your life where you reach middle age and you look down the street of your life and it becomes a monotone. You know what the end is going to look like. You know that you have a set of friends, a certain community, you’re doing a certain job, and it’s all very predictable. I just got bored with myself. I decided to kind of toss it all in the air and I sold… I had a farmhouse of 14 acres and I sold that. I sold my business, and I just moved to Maine with no prospect really of what I would do, except be in this beautiful place near the sea. An affordable place, an unpretentious place. That was in 1990.
Lisa Belisle: Why Maine?
Donna McNeil: I sort of grew up in a suitcase. My parents worked in the military, so we moved every three years. I had a chance to see the whole country and parts of other countries as well, and I just had this great affinity to the Northeast. I think that’s one of the reasons that Amherst called to me originally. Then I just felt really landlocked there. I love to swim, I love the sort of grand vista where you can think that you can see your European neighbors across the expanse. I had, as most people do, friends who had summer places up here and came up a couple of times, and there’s something about crossing the bridge from Portsmouth into Maine that is palpable. You sense a difference and I don’t know if it’s an ethos, but it really spoke to me. I knew that this is a place I wanted to be, plus it was imminently affordable to live near the water at that time. That was a consideration as well.
Lisa Belisle: How did you get into the arts?
Donna McNeil: I have always been interested in the arts as a kid and then I went to art school. I have a BFA in painting and then did the gallery work in Amherst and thought I wanted to go into museum work, so I went back and got a master’s degree in art history at Harvard, which was a wonderful gift to myself. That kind of later in life learning experience, when you really pay attention instead of being so happy to be out of your house and away from your parents and all that stuff, you take the scholarship more seriously. That was a great gift and then I decided that I actually didn’t want to work in the museum world, that it was a little bit too rigid and stratified for my tastes.
Then I did a lot of things in Maine I became the director of the Barn Gallery in Ogonquit for four years. I had worked at a gallery here in Portland initially and then worked at the Joan Whitney Payson before it was the UNE gallery and then the Barn Gallery job and then I ran Mime Dance for about four years and I got nabbed out of that by the director of the Maine Arts Commission who asked me if I’d be interested in applying, and I sort of flew up the ranks at the Maine Arts Commission, staying there for ten years, and in the state system, there comes a time when you can…. At a certain age with a certain amount of time in service, you can retire with your pension. On that day, I left. I used to wake up in the morning at 6:00 in the morning, I had to get ready and in the car, got to put on my stockings and suit and heels and get up there. I had realized that I didn’t have to do that. I just burst out laughing and my head would drop back in the pillow and I just…. I was so delighted.
I know a lot of people fear retirement, and I think there was a certain kind of trepidation for me not having a title, not having a position, a community, who would I be if I wasn’t that? Because I don’t have a family. My work means a lot in my life. To all of those out there who are thinking about retirement, you’ll be just fine. Yeah.
Lisa Belisle: Tell me about that. Tell me about the Maine Arts Commission and your work there. It’s interesting to me that you would say you chose not to do museum work because it seemed very rigid and stratified and you went into state government.
Donna McNeil: I did. I think there’s several things. First of all, I grew up in government essentially. When you’re in the military, you’re in government. I also was a child of the 60s and I was part of the movement. I have this very political side, and I believe in public service. I thought that the Maine Arts Commission would give me a platform to do the most good for the most people, and that the kind of sacrifices that you have to make for public service like a gabillion boring meetings, constantly having to appeal to the legislature for your teeny weeny little budget, relative to other departments, transportation, health and human services, education for example.
The rewards are really great, and you learn to hone your argument so that it can be heard by people on all sides. I think that was a great gift that working in government gave me, how to make people understand the benefits of the arts to everyone. If you have to keep articulating that over and over and over again, you understand the importance of beauty and the transcendent qualities of engaging with the creative making for everybody. That’s why government. Did I ever expect that would happen in my life? No. Like much in my life, it sort of just happened. I didn’t plan it.
Lisa Belisle: If you’re honing your message and you honed that over the ten years that you worked within government, what was that message?
Donna McNeil: I think it varied from audience to audience a little bit, and it also varies whether you’re advocating for one genre or another. For example, there’s a lot of data on music and how beneficial that is for brain growth. There’s great statistics….
Lisa Belisle: You can take a minute. Have some water or something. I’m usually the one who does this.
Donna McNeil: Oh really?
Lisa Belisle: Yeah, there you go.
Donna McNeil: Okay, good, thanks.
Lisa Belisle: I got mine out of the way early this morning, so…. Of course I say that. I’ll be the next.
Donna McNeil: I’m choking, I’m gathering my message to the legislature….
Lisa Belisle: There’s some irony there.
Donna McNeil: Some irony, right?
Lisa Belisle: Right.
Donna McNeil: There are more people accepted into medical school who have trained as musicians, for example, than any other discipline. There’s theories that it sort of grows the two parts of the brain together, so you’re actually using your left and right sides more efficiently. There was data like that that I could present to people that were sort of irrefutable facts. I know facts are much under challenge these days, but there was a time when we accepted a fact as a fact.
Also, I brought people into the conversation by helping them to realize that everybody engages in creative practices in some way throughout their day, whether it’s a formalized practice or not. Where would our life be if we couldn’t turn on the radio and hear a song or go to a film or dance or appreciate the fine arts as well, but those sort of everyday practices, even the creative practice of cooking, for example, or quilting, the things, the domestic practices that women so often did through the ages, the traditional arts were a great way to advocate for the arts. The canoe building, snowshoe making, basket weaving kinds of practices, and the way that beauty enters your life through everyday objects in that way, and how much it enriches our lives. The way that beauty works in your life, it’s such a lift to engage with something that’s aesthetically profound in shape, form, texture, color, that’s sort of beautifully integrated. I think we respond as human beings in a very sort of lifted way to that kind of harmony. Those are the kinds of things that I might say.
Lisa Belisle: I am very convinced. If I was a legislator….
Donna McNeil: Show me the money.
Lisa Belisle: Exactly. I would give you some funds right now.
Donna McNeil: I know. Yeah. I think there’s a pitiful, I think it’s $0.52 a person that goes to fund the arts in Maine and that covers every genre, all the disciplines for the whole state, which is really less than a pack of gum. Of course every year, this year the National Endowment for the Arts would be threatened, sort of the low hanging fruit of budget cuts, and it’s happening again. It’s the sister organization of the agency, so half the funding for the state of Maine comes from the federal government for the arts. It’s important to support the nation in that as well as your regional and local organizations. I think the private support of the arts is wonderful and this country does a great job of that, but I think it makes a statement about your public value system to have your tax dollars go to fund the arts. I think it really talks about your priorities as a nation.
Lisa Belisle: As you’re talking, I’m thinking about some of the places that I’ve visited that have very mindfully designed public spaces for example, and how it makes me feel when I go to those places….
Donna McNeil: Exactly.
Lisa Belisle: If I lived in that place all the time, of course I live in a beautiful place already, but if I lived in a place where somebody came along and said, “We think it’s important to design this space so as to inspire people or help them relax or….” I don’t know, help them maybe even work better.
Donna McNeil: Yeah, I think that kind of sensitivity is becoming more and more prevalent as people design schools, for example, hospitals, spaces that are intended to nurture you in a certain way. I don’t think that we should warehouse our children in schools. I think they should have an exquisite place to visit, and I really don’t believe in dumbing things down for children either. I think they respond to an exquisite aesthetic as passionately as adults. I think that if you honor that in children, that you’re going to raise up a society that is more respondent to beautiful things and beautiful music and beautiful surroundings, beautiful nature. They won’t want to spoil things so readily.
Lisa Belisle: One of the reasons that we are talking today is that you have agreed to be one of our speakers for Maine Live, which is an important program that Maine Magazine is putting on and I’ve had the great fortune to host from the beginning. That is its own art form.
Donna McNeil: Yes. Storytelling is an incredibly potent art form and I am very pleased, thank you, to be one of the speakers this year. My story is not about my public life at all. It’s a very personal story. It’s a story about love and it’s a story about…. You may not realize it until years later, but there are incidents in your life that change your life utterly, completely, and forever. This is a story about one of those decisions in my life, and I’m not going to say anything else about it.
Lisa Belisle: I’m glad that you’re not going to say anything else because I think that there is something about the Maine Live event that is very special, and I think even attempting to describe what you’re going to be talking about…. It probably just isn’t necessary. The fact is, people should go to Maine Live because it is its own thing.
Donna McNeil: I think that anybody who hasn’t experienced a storytelling event is in for a big treat. Something happens between the storyteller and the audience. There’s a great support from the audience that’s terrifically warm and embrace, a kind of a welcome, and it becomes a space that’s safe enough for you to reveal yourself. Often, and certainly in my case, quite intimate ways. All the stories that I’ve heard have been, whatever they’re about, have been incredibly moving for that kind of personal aspect, that kind of feeling that you’re sitting down with somebody you know and trust and sharing something about your life. I love going to them.
Lisa Belisle: We’re very pleased that you are coming to this one, as a speaker this time.
Donna McNeil: Yeah. My story’s also, I feel very timely and…. Yeah. So I’m happy to share it on a lot of levels.
Lisa Belisle: With that said, anyone who hasn’t bought a ticket, please do because we look forward to seeing you there.
Donna McNeil: Yes, thank you. I look forward to being there.
Lisa Belisle: You’re an interesting one for me because immediately upon sitting down across from me before we started recording, we talked about the things that you wished that you had done in your life, and this is despite the fact that we have mentioned all of these things that you have done in your life. You said, “Maybe I wish I had gotten a PhD for example,” among other things.
Donna McNeil: I think it all boils down to, as I briefly mentioned to you earlier, Lisa, being raised in the 50s as a female and not understanding the full range of my choices, and really having to struggle through a lot of years to find a kind of personal integrity or a voice, and with that, a kind of self-determination about who and what you might be in life and how you could contribute fully. I did not do any of the expected things that a young woman of that age is supposed to do. I did not marry and I didn’t have children. I didn’t settle down into any kind of prescribed… I don’t want to say ordinary but, kind of a… I didn’t settle into any expected pathway. The 60s, you know, kind of hit me like a bombshell. It really was quite revelatory to me, that you could be so self-determined, not only in your personal life, but in your country and in your world.
Did I become radicalized? I would say, absolutely. I think it’s quite radical to step outside the expected norms of the female role in society and sort of carve your own paths. I could say that I floundered for a while, I was a back-to-the-lander, I had no experience farming in any way, I was a dismal failure. I didn’t understand that you needed to take the rocks out of your garden. I had the most fascinatingly shaped carrots. I didn’t believe in penning up the chickens, and they ate all the best parts of the strawberries. It was just like a disaster. It was kind of a resting place and a thinking place. I read an enormous amount during those years and I painted and through that I realized how tough it is to actually make a living as an artist, and so I quickly started to work for another person that had a gallery in Amherst and then eventually, within a couple years offered to buy the business from him and that’s how I got into that, which was sort of just tumbling into it.
I managed to make it work until I got kind of bored with it. I had a woman tell me from, my friends in the commercial gallery were all like, “You’re doing a courageous thing, that people will drink your wine and wear your floors out.” That’s just about it. I said, “Well, I don’t care, I’m doing it anyway.” I had a lot of fun with them and supported the artists in that community and learned a lot, and then made my move to Maine and did all the things that I mentioned earlier. Yeah, so the things that I regret is generally like not finding my path earlier, not finding my voice, not understanding my own personal power earlier in life, and being more intentional about my decisions. I think it’s a common thread, I think a lot of people probably feel that.
Lisa Belisle: I was just sitting here thinking about people who are of this generation, let’s just say, who have had more opportunities perhaps as women than generations past. I wonder how much more they or we are taking advantage of that even so.
Donna McNeil: You know, I think that we kind of fell into that place of being superwomen, of trying to do all the things that we were supposed to do in the 50s and then adding on this other professional layer and having to have high levels of competency in both realms, and sort of beating ourselves up if we didn’t meet those self-imposed mostly standards but society steps in there too. I think each generation has their own challenges. Did we let women know that they could be vital in the workforce? Absolutely, but then there’s a price to pay.
We as a society haven’t figured out great health, great childcare systems. We haven’t figured out equal pay for equal work yet, oh my god. Also the kind of other subtle discriminations and patronization from the white male dominant society. I’m sorry to say that, but it’s such a still unrecognized undercurrent of our society and we really need to bring some awareness to that and work on it. You know, young women today are empowered by us but they still have those struggles ahead of them.
Lisa Belisle: I think that it’s also interesting for me having… I’m kind of in between your generation and the generation of my daughter, who is 21 now.
Donna McNeil: There’s a couple of generations in between.
Lisa Belisle: Yeah, maybe. Okay, well, wherever we are, we’re along the continuum, and I think about all the white males that I know who actually are not your standard white male, who have actually provided opportunity and are not contributing to the undercurrent and….
Donna McNeil: Yeah. There’s some great ones out there.
Lisa Belisle: It’s an interesting kind of back-and-forth, because I think as human beings in many ways we’ve moved forward and in some ways, we’re still a little stuck.
Donna McNeil: I think women are raising better men these days.
Lisa Belisle: I hope my son agrees with you, my 23-year-old, because I think…. Maybe that’s right. Maybe as….
Donna McNeil: It gets better and better.
Lisa Belisle: It does.
Donna McNeil: Nobody’s a bad person, it’s just sort of an overlay onto our society. It was an assumption. I think most good men, when they are presented with those kinds of understandings about how women are treated in our society, they do come to that realization and they do open up to be more tender beings and more supportive men in our lives.
Lisa Belisle: I think if our conversation has not convinced people that they should listen to you at Maine Live, then I don’t know what will, because I think this is very interesting.
Donna McNeil: Thank you.
Lisa Belisle: We have a lot that we could continue to talk about, but I’m going to leave it with that. I highly encourage people to learn more about you by coming to Maine Live and being part of our community, and I appreciate that you’ve been willing to come in and speak with me today.
Donna McNeil: It’s a delight, Lisa. Thank you for inviting me.
Lisa Belisle: I’ve been speaking with Donna McNeil who, since retiring as executive director of the Maine Arts Commission, has continued to support the arts in Maine, and we are very fortunate to have you.
Donna McNeil: Thank you.
Lisa Belisle: You have been listening to Love Maine Radio, Show #286, Maine Live: Poetry and Public Art. Our guests have included Stuart Kestenbaum and Donna McNeil. For more information on our guests and extended interviews, visit Love Maine Radio is downloadable for free on iTunes. For a preview of each week’s show, sign up for our e-newsletter and like our Love Maine Radio Facebook page. Follow me on Twitter as Dr. Lisa and follow Love Maine Radio on Instagram. We’d love to hear from you, so please let us know what you think of Love Maine Radio. We welcome your suggestions for future shows. Also let our sponsors know that you have heard about them here. We are privileged that they enable us to bring Love Maine Radio to you each week. This is Dr. Lisa Belisle. I hope that you have enjoyed our Maine Live: Poetry and Public Art show. Thank you for allowing me to be a part of your day. May you have a bountiful life.
Speaker 1: Love Maine Radio is made possible with the support of Berlin City Honda, The Rooms by Harding Lee Smith, Maine magazine, Portland Art Gallery, and Art Collector Maine. Audio production and original music have been provided by Spencer Albee. Our editorial producer is Paul Koenig. Our assistant producer is Shelby Wassick. Our community development manager is Casey Lovejoy, and our executive producers are Kevin Thomas, Rebecca Falzano, and Lisa Belisle. For more information on our host production team, Maine magazine, or any of the guests featured here today, please visit us at
Where I’ve been
I can’t say
Why would you want to know
What happened anyway
Then know I’m here today
It’s not enough for you
To hear the words I say
When you ask me I say “La la la”
When I answer you say “La la la la la”
Don’t tell me
You don’t want to hear the
Ins and outs my whereabouts
And how I spend my time without you, la la la.
Whom is it, it isn’t real
Will I walk away, change how you feel
Believe in me
I’d rather be
[inaudible 00:58:45]
When you ask me I’d say la la la
When I answer you say la la la la la
Don’t tell me
You don’t want to know
The ins and outs my whereabouts
And how I’ve spent my time without you, la la la
When you ask me I say la la la
When I answer you say la la la la la
Don’t tell me …