The Poet Librarian of Franklin County

Poet Julia Bouwsma wanted literary community; at the Kingfield library, she’s created one.

On a winter day in late 2014, Julia Bouwsma pulled her car into its parking spot and sat for a few minutes, preparing herself for the chilly walk up the path to her homestead-in-progress in the small Franklin County town of New Portland. The New Year was coming and she was thinking about her poetry and long term goals. Resolutions. She pulled out some paper and started writing a list.

Julia Bouwsma, an award-winning poet, became the director of the Webster Library in Kingfield in 2015. Photo by Mary Pols

A lot was going right. She and her partner Walker Fleming were slowly reclaiming 85 acres that had been full of hayfields generations ago and now were mostly woods. It was his roots that brought them to Maine in 2005; his parents have a small farm in Phillips and he always wanted to farm, too. The couple had two big gardens laid out and were sugaring a good stand of maples. The place felt like home, even if the house, a 1980s camp, needed a lot of work. And it had history; the great grandparents of Edna St. Vincent Millay, John and Sarah Millay, farmed the land in the 1800s. Sarah Millay is buried on Bouwsma’s land.

But in late 2014, as Bouwsma filled four pages with the things she wanted to do, there was a major something missing in her life: a sense of literary community. “Instead of waiting for that to find me in the middle of the woods in Maine I decided that I was going to be a lot more aggressive and resourceful in terms of how to make that.” Within a few months, she had landed the job of library director (a one woman show) at the Webster Library in Kingfield. The previous librarian had retired after 21 years.“It was one of those little, magic, manifest moments,” Bouwsma says. “Where with that mindset, things started to come together.”

She tells this story sitting in the quiet of the small library on a late summer day. One of the 24 percent of Maine’s 251 public libraries staffed by a lone librarian (about 9 percent are staffed only by volunteers), the Webster Library is a cunning little place, its white exterior adorned with flower boxes. Inside, the single room is lined with shelves. There’s a big oak table in a corner and a portrait of Ella Wilkins Howard, an early library patron, watching over Bouwsma’s desk.

A conversation with Bouwsma is punctuated by the soft questions of library patrons, taking advantage of one of the four half-days the library is open. Bouwswma pops out to one woman’s car to look at potential donations; even though she warns she’s “kind of inundated right now,” she returns with a couple of titles. A woman looking for a book called Life Reimagined waits while Bouswma puts in a request for an inter-library loan. More than one patron remarks on how the place smells just as it did decades ago. A little girl returns a stack of books and hunts for more, pausing to demonstrate how the wheels on her sneakers work, trying to be nonchalant through her pride. Bouswsma catalogues new books, including one her mother sent as a donation, David W. Blight’s Pulitzer-winning Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom.

Some shelves at the Webster Library in Kingfield. Photo by Mary Pols

It’s a home away from home, one where she can build and curate a collection, with more literary adult fiction, some diversity in the vampire-heavy teen section and new materials for the children’s section. It’s also a literary community; Bouwsma can check that box from her list of resolutions.

And the magic manifest brought Bouwsma something else in 2015; her first collection of poetry, Work by Bloodlight, won the Cider Press Review Book Award, a prize that carried with it publication in 2017. This, Bouwsma says, is the way almost all new poets get published; winning a contest. The collection won a Maine Literary Award in 2018. In it she writes of her land, of the foxes who come out on a chilly night, or brazenly, in the day, to take a homesteader’s chickens.

“For me, the land and the farming, it feeds my artistic practice so much I don’t even know how to describe how much it does,” Bouwsma says. From the pigs she and Fleming raise for family and friends to the fall’s apple crop, it all resonates. “A lot of my poetry is about connection or creating connection or sort of, countering compartmentalized thinking,” she says. “The connection to physical work, the connection to landscape, the sort of constant conversation between body and landscape that develops through that kind of work is really important. It feeds probably everything I will ever write.”

So does the library. ”If all of my work is about lived connection, then the library is sort of a piece of that,” Bouwsma says.

Her second volume of poetry, Midden, was published last year after winning the Poets Out Loud Prize. It is about Malaga Island, the Casco Bay island where the state forcibly ousted an interracial community from their homes in 1912. Bouwsma writes about the residents, who were never allowed to go home. She researched and visited Malaga to fuel her writing, but relied once again on her homestead for inspiration, exploring her psychological connection to her own land to consider their relationship to Malaga. She did much of the work while away at residencies. “So there was also a homesickness I was channeling into the work,” she says.

She’s starting to build her next collection. She’s heard that poetry consumption is up right now, a sign of the times (“social activism and poetry, there’s a long history there”). Poetry is not an easy career path for anyone. But this poet of Franklin County has already earned a reputation for excellence.

Midden not only won her another Maine Literary Prize, it landed Bouwsma on a national year end list: NPR’s Best Books of 2018. “That was pretty fun,” Bouwsma says. And surprising; a poet she’d read with in California, Tess Taylor, who is one of the poetry editors for NPR, had recommended the book: “The poems summon and live with their ghosts with enormous, deliberate tenderness,” Taylor wrote of Midden. Are Webster Library patrons aware of this? “People joke with me all the time, ‘Oh, you are going to get too famous for us.’ And I’m like, ‘There is no such thing as a famous poet, don’t worry.’”

The Webster Library,
22 Depot St., Kingfield, is open 3–6:30 p.m. on Mondays and Thursdays, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Wednesdays and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturdays.

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