The Poetry in Paperwork

PROFILE Stuart Kestenbaum


Leaving Home: Route 2 from Maine to Vermont

This two-lane road knits
the North together, where each town

in each state is more alike than different,
and you enter into river valleys where

the vapor from the paper mills condenses
into huge clouds, as if this is the place

where clouds are manufactured and sent
out into the world. Today a shipment

of cumulus is floating by,
making its passage over the woods

that encroach on the worn fields, over
the trailers next to the farm houses,

over the satellite dishes and churches,
the car dealers and beauty salons,

the deer in the woods, and the stubble from
last year’s corn barely covered with snow.

Each town is alike, but driving through
Mercer, Maine reminds me

that we are all from someplace in particular,
and I take note. Spotting a sign that says

Town Line Redemption
I write it down while I’m trying to steer,

thinking this is not about returning empty
bottles, this is about what fills us, how

we are in love with leaving a place or in love
with staying, how we are saved by

coming home and by going away. We walk
outside our houses to begin our journey, near or far.

Opening a door, closing a door:
this is where the story begins.

for Wesley McNair

© Stuart Kestenbaum,
from Prayers & Run-on Sentences
(Deerbrook Editions, 2007)



kestenbaum_1.jpgHuman personalities are often lumped into one of two categories. We are either analytically inclined “left-brain” individuals destined to become scientists, doctors, or businesspersons, or we are intuitive “right-brain” dreamers seeking to unlock the artist within us. People who can straddle the brain’s two hemispheres, who can think both inside and outside the proverbial “box,” are a rare and exciting breed. Think of rocket scientists who are also surrealist painters, or accountants who spend their evenings creating abstract sculpture.

Or better yet, consider prolific poets who also hold down demanding “left-brain” day jobs, such as T.S. Eliot, who was a London banker when he wrote his epic poem, “The Waste Land.” Or William Carlos Williams, who was a practicing New Jersey doctor when he penned “The Red Wheelbarrow.”

Here in Maine, we have Stuart Kestenbaum, our very own nationally recognized poet who appears to be as in touch with the left side of his brain as he is with his right. As the director of Deer Isle’s Haystack Mountain School of Crafts for nearly 20 years, Kestenbaum has helmed the venerated institution during perhaps the most impressive era of growth and refinement in its 57-year history—and during that same time, he’s also produced three volumes of stunning poetry.

Kestenbaum first visited Maine when he was still a high school student in New Jersey, and he was immediately enraptured. “I was just amazed by the rural starkness,” he remembers. “There was an austere, weathered quality to things.” Years later, after earning his Bachelor of Arts degree from Hamilton College in upstate New York, a school that also boasts modernist poet Ezra Pound as one of its alumni, Kestenbaum moved to Maine to apprentice with a potter in Portland. Heavily involved in ceramics at the time, Kestenbaum got his first taste of Haystack in the summer of 1975 when he enrolled in a pottery workshop. As with so many of its students, the magic of the Haystack experience stayed with him.

Though Kestenbaum opened his own pottery studio in Portland’s Old Port to sell his work and teach classes, he soon realized that pottery was not his calling. “I don’t think I ever found my voice with pottery,” Kestenbaum says humbly. So when the opportunity arose to work as the director of the then-fledgling Children’s Museum of Maine, Kestenbaum took the job. After three years with the museum, he took another step deeper into the realm of arts administration when he began working for the Maine Arts Commission. By the time Kestenbaum left the Commission in 1988 to become the director of Haystack, he had risen to become the assistant director of the state-run agency.

Kestenbaum is just the third director of Haystack in its more than half-century-long history, and on his watch the school has blossomed considerably. In less than two decades, Kestenbaum has overseen four capital campaigns, raised the school’s scholarship endowment past the one-million-dollar mark (which helps subsidize nearly a quarter of the school’s students each year), and extended the run of workshops to 24 weeks, which has essentially doubled the offerings of Haystack’s former summer-only program. And by collecting teachers not only from around the country but from around the globe, the school has grown increasingly diverse—week in and week out, the campus is awash in faculty and students of every conceivable age, ethnicity, and race.

Kestenbaum has also been an avid campaigner for Maine’s “creative economy” since long before the phrase became a buzzword. Recently, he has organized several multi-day invitational conferences at Haystack, such as last summer’s “Creating in Maine: Makers, Manufacturers and Materials,” which brought together more than 45 Maine-based business owners with designers and artisans. The symposium put right-brained artists known for their creative sensibilities in the same room with left-brained Maine entrepreneurs to see if the pairing could spark new financial successes for everyone involved. “These events are about putting people together who might not otherwise meet,” says Kestenbaum. But even as Kestenbaum has been cultivating relationships and making connections across the state and the world, he has also kept his eye on things a bit closer to home. The “Haystack Mentors Program” and the school’s fall workshop, “Studio Based Learning,” specifically cater to local high school students from the region and are intended to expand the school’s relationship with its immediate community. “It’s so important for a cultural institution to serve its own community,” Kestenbaum says, “whether or not it’s considered an international institution.”

Given the breadth and depth of Haystack’s growth, Kestenbaum’s role in its many accomplishments hasn’t gone unnoticed. In 1993, he was named the Maine Art Education Advocate of the Year, he has served as a panelist for the National Endowment for the Arts, juried exhibitions for the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Smithsonian, and last year he was named an honorary fellow of the American Craft Council. “Working as an arts administrator is definitely something I backed into,” Kestenbaum says in his typically modest manner. “It’s something I’ve learned by doing.” In reality, those involved with the arts in Maine are perpetually praising Kestenbaum’s ability to write grants, design new and innovative programming, and navigate the complexities of a nonprofit arts organization with an international profile.

While Kestenbaum may have struggled to find his voice with pottery in the 1970s, he hasn’t had the same struggle with poetry. Writing has been an important part of Kestenbaum’s life for as long as he can remember, and his poetic output has been considerable; his work has not only been published in scores of magazines and journals, but it has also been collected in three volumes of poetry: Pilgrimage (Coyote Love Press, 1990), House of Thanksgiving (Deerbrook Editions, 2003), and most recently, Prayers and Run-on Sentences (Deerbrook Editions, 2007).

Kestenbaum writes tender, succinct poetry imbued with an innocence that feels neither naïve nor insincere. He chronicles everyday life with a big-hearted embrace of humanity’s strengths and all its forgivable foibles. The former U.S. Poet Laureate, Ted Kooser, calls Kestenbaum’s poetry “…heartfelt responses to the privilege of having been given a life.”

Though some artists might find a day job creatively stifling, Kestenbaum says that being too busy to write during the summer actually allows him to replenish his writing well. “I get a different type of creative satisfaction,” Kestenbaum says of his work as an arts administrator. For one, he gleans inspiration from his daily involvement in a “high-voltage” art scene pulsing with creative energy. He also says watching artists at work has had a profound and positive influence on his poetry. “I used to stop and edit myself as I wrote,” Kestenbaum says, “but watching artists adapt as the material they’re working with changes, like glass or clay for instance, has made me think about words differently. I used to think a poem had to come out in one rush, but now I can see how the words change, so I’ll go back and fiddle with poems, change adjectives, that sort of thing.” Kestenbaum believes that simply being around artists working in other mediums is part of the overarching success of the Haystack experience. “When you work so intensely in your one art form,” he says, “it’s easy to forget that there are other artists doing things, too.”

Indeed, there are many other artists at work: Haystack has become a destination to which many of the world’s finest artists come to share, create, and explore. “The tradition here has always been one of open-ended exploration,” says Kestenbaum. It’s easy to imagine that if Haystack were an ever-evolving three-ring circus, Kestenbaum would be the capable and unpretentious ringmaster, the man at the center boldly directing the action and minding the minutia so that the artists are free to do what they do best.

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