Some visitors coming to Maine this summer will get an unexpected gift.
Poet laureate Stuart Kestenbaum is working with the Maine Office of Tourism to place poems by Mainers about Maine in hotels across the state. The Poem Card Project began last week as a small pilot project involving 10 hotels and lodges from Ogunquit to Madawaska.
“I love the idea of people getting a poem when they aren’t expecting to get one,” Kestenbaum said. “They just absorb it. It creates a perfect moment for that kind of interaction. It’s a small way to say something big to people coming to the state.”
The project is an extension of “Poems From Here,” a weekly poetry moment on Maine Public radio outlets, when Kestenbaum reads a poem from Maine. For the Poem Card Project, Kestenbaum selected poems by Kate Barnes, Mekeel McBride, Wesley McNair, Elizabeth Tibbetts and Robert P. Tristam Coffin. The poems speak about quiet rural life, loyal old dogs, wise old men – and snow. They’re printed on small, designer-stock cards in the colors of Maine – forest green and ocean blue – and are meant to be portable.
“I can envision people taking them home and having them on the bulletin board or carrying them with them,” said Kestenbaum.
The project is a collaboration of the Office of Tourism and the Maine Arts Commission, which supports the work of the Maine poet laureate. Arts commission staffers floated the idea to the Office of Tourism, which embraced it.
Steve Lyons, director of the Office of Tourism, said the project aligns with the state’s tourism campaign that promotes visitors finding their inner compass.
“Originality is what the campaign is all about. Be original, be yourself and find your own Maine thing during your visit,” Lyons said. “Our goal is to help visitors experience a sense of place through the poems, so that someone can read one of these poems and get a feel for what Maine really is through the eyes of our poets. We are hopeful that when people read these poems, they will have a better understanding of what Maine has to offer.”
The project began when Erin Hutton, who curates the art on display at the Press Hotel in Portland, began arranging an exhibition of artwork by Kestenbaum and his wife, Susan Webster. Their exhibition – an interplay of words and images called “What Else Can You Do?” – opens at the hotel in late May.
“A lot of my work here at the hotel is about enhancing the guest experience,” said Hutton, whose primary job involves directing exhibitions at the Institute of Contemporary Art at Maine College of Art. “That was the catalyst. That’s what started it. People are coming to Maine not just for a stay in a hotel. They are coming to Maine for an experience. Maine has so much (more) to offer than just a room.”
Among the poetry hotels is the Meadowmere Resort in Ogunquit, which displays the poems in the lobby. “We’re encouraging our guests to take it with them and share it,” said Allyson Cavaretta, director of sales and marketing for the resort. “It’s a wonderful way to showcase how much love we have for this very special place we call home and a wonderful way for people to take a little bit of Maine home with them.”
Lodging operators can use the cards in whatever manner best suits their properties, Lyons said. Some may hand them out at check-in, others may display them in common areas or distribute them in rooms or suites. If the project proves popular, it will expand to other hotels around Maine, he said.
Kestenbaum introduced the Poem Card Project at the Governor’s Conference on Tourism in April. At the time, he read the poem “Why Do You Ask?” by the late Kate Barnes, who was Maine’s first poet laureate. It’s a quiet, sentimental poem about a woman and her dog. The woman is worn down, and asks her dog to tell her a story:
“… and she never hesitates
a time,’ she says
‘a woman lived
with a simply
wonderful dog …’ and
she stops talking.
‘Is that all?’
I ask her.
‘Yes,’ she says.
‘Why do you ask?
Isn’t that enough?’ ”
He chose the poem to read at the conference and for the first batch of the poem cards because it always elicits a response, he said. After he read it on the air as part of “Poems From Here,” Kestenbaum heard from a listener, who told him the poem gave her and her husband comfort as they prepared to put their dog to sleep that very afternoon.
“The poem put my grief and my understanding of our relationship into words most profound and comforting,” she told Kestenbaum in an email.
He expects the Poem Card Project will elicit a similar response in others.
“Poems create moments for people they weren’t expecting. That’s what we’re hoping for,” he said.