Letters Between Poets

by Wesley McNair


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My project has to do with an exchange of letters between me and an important mentor of mine, the poet Donald Hall, during my early struggle as a poet.  The goal is to put these letters online so students and teachers can read them and learn what it’s like to develop as a poet. I hope especially that they’ll give encouragement and guidance to other beginning poets and writers trying to find their way.  I will need technical support in order to mount this project, and your contribution will go straight to programming, design, and tech support.

My own struggle to become a writer began in my early twenties. Probably the best thing I ever did was to marry my wife, Diane, but we got married pretty young – she was barely 22, and I was 21 -- and she brought a couple of children from an even earlier marriage, and we quickly had 2 more. Both of us worked to support the kids – she as a waitress, and I as a high-school teacher, trying to fit in graduate courses – and there wasn’t much time to be a writer. But I was still desperate to be one, and I’d somehow managed to put together a skinny manuscript of poems.

So when a couple of my high school students offered to introduce me to their neighbors, Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon, I brought this skinny manuscript along with me, and when I left, I took it out of my coat pocket, and put it on their kitchen table, and got out of there!

A couple of days later a letter from Don came in the mail, and when I finally dared to open it, I found these six words I’ll never forget: “I am dazzled by your poems.” I carried that note around with me everywhere. I probably even took it to bed with me. And as it turned out, Don’s  letter was the start of a correspondence between the two of us that has lasted to this day.

What I want to put online in this project is just the first part of our correspondence, from 1976, when I met Don at his farmhouse, to 1983, when I published my first book.

Those letters include a range of themes about the writing life, for instance, advice about the craft of writing, suggestions for the revision of poems in progress, encouragement in the face of rejection by editors, and the effort to find time for creative work. What begins as a correspondence between a student and mentor moves toward an exchange between friends and peers. Online visitors will be able to experience the correspondence as a conversation that unfolds chronologically, letter by letter. They’ll also be able to access letters by topics, dates, and titles of those poems in progress under discussion.

I should add that the McNair/Hall correspondence will be part of an innovative online exhibit sponsored by Colby College, which now has my personal papers. For more about the exhibit, which includes poems, poetry manuscripts, audio readings, and questions for students, go to http://web.colby.edu/specialcollections/wesley-mcnair/loversoflost/ .

Match Funds are not currently available.

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    • January 08, 2011 Gary Kaye Waters Community Member

      I think this is a worthy project that all who read about, should pledge. Gary K waters Author "Scattered"

    • January 05, 2011 Lynda L True Community Member

      Wonderful project. What an opportunity you are providing for writers and readers alike!

    • December 24, 2010 Dan Connolly Community Member

      Do you currently have plans for indexing the letters? I note that your update indicates some sort of plan in that regard but I'm unclear on that aspect. I ask because that's what I do and I wonder if you need some advice in that area.

    • December 04, 2010 Judy Hakola Community Member

      As a person who teaches a Maine literature course at the University of Maine, I'm always pleased to have an opportunity to support Maine writers. Wes is one of those from away who had the good sense to move to Maine (and to stay!). He is one who really "gets it "about Maine. Judy Hakola

    • December 03, 2010 Nancy Community Member

      The inspiration Wes imbues in students of River Valley Community College through both his writing and his caring presence deserves every aspect of support we can provide. Thanks Wes

    • November 22, 2010 Cynthia Brackett-Vincent Community Member

      Hi,Wes. So nice to see you (even via video). Very excited about this project—you have been so supportive of my poetry and of countless others who were fortunate enough to learn from you in a classroom setting. You confess to keeping one of Hall's letters in your pocket; here I confess to keeping your encouraging words on my wall. Meeting Donald Hall after one of his readings was a wonderful experience, and being able to support this project will encourage so many other writers/poets by reading your exchanges. Thank you for all you do for poets. —Cynthia Brackett-Vincent

    • November 18, 2010 Sue E. Reynolds Community Member

      If ever there were a project that would reach anyone who's ever wanted to "nail" something difficult that is within, this one is it. For any artist who's ever wrestled a piece of writing to contain what he or she finally knows is every single right word; who knows the perfect tone, step, movement is there somewhere but knows, too, that the path to that word, tone, step can be a long, lonely one, sometimes into new territory he or she has never been before; and for anyone who has waited to receive validation (eventually - someday?)("Your poems dazzle me.") that he or she did "nail it," this collection of conversations between two people with such beautiful voices is one I would find fascinating and a huge privilege to "listen in on." Thank you, Wes, for offering us this, on top of everything else you've given so many of us. I promise to send what I can whenever I can. Sue Reynolds

    • November 18, 2010 Jim Watt Community Member

      Hi Wesley! Your project sounds like a wonderful one and I hope you meet your funding goal by Christmas. But fifty dollars is too much for my tiny budget. I'd love to send you a check for what I can afford; could you send me a mailing address, please. Again thanks for keeping Don Hall in the poetry reading public's eye: "...Well, there are nine players on a baseball team, so to speak, and there are nine innings, with trivial exceptions..." cheers, Jim Watt

    • November 18, 2010 Jon Appleton Community Member

      Wesley McNair is a wonderful poet. He speaks directly to the heart in the the most unaffected way. I follow every thing of his that is published and look forward to more. Jon Appleton

    • November 18, 2010 Gary Kaye Waters Community Member

      I can appreciate what is being done with this project. After struggling to get a book published for the past few years I think I could have used a good mentor to help me along. I probably could have had one if I would have pursued it. When I lived in Maine, Wes McNair was only to willing to help me with my poetry, and for that I am thankful. My support for the project will be forthcoming before the deadline. I have to sell some books first. Just kidding, I'll have a pledge in this week. Gary K Waters