It’s About Connection: A Conversation with Julia Bouwsma

Maine’s New Homesteading Poet Laureate

by Crystal Sands

In 2021, Maine appointed a new Maine State Poet Laureate for the sixth time. Julia Bouwsma, a homesteader poet who lives off of the grid in Maine, will serve a five-year term in her role. I first learned about Julia when I read a post from her in a Maine homesteading forum. She asked about other farmer poets out there. My heart skipped. A homesteader poet laureate seemed perfect for Maine and perfect for these times. And, because our mission at Farmer-ish is to celebrate and share the works of the farmers and homesteaders with artistic souls, I reached out to Julia for an interview. She graciously agreed.

One of the first things I wanted to ask her about was the way her homesteading informs her writing in both content and process. I was interested in learning more about the processes of a successful poet like Julia Bouwsma. She has published two collections of poetry, Work by Bloodlight in 2017 and Midden in 2018. She has also published in numerous journals. In addition to reading her books before our conversation, I read Julia’s poems in The Ilanot Review. Her poetry is breathtaking–and so real. I am moved by the way themes of nature, homesteading, work, and routine weave their way into her poetry. But, of course, the connections runs deeper than the themes of her work–the connections between homesteading and writing show up in the processes and habits of her creative mind.

“Homesteading and poetry are so deeply intertwined for me,” Julia said. “Really, in a number of ways. It comes through in my writing in terms of my subject matter. Even when I’m writing about something else, it shows up. It [homesteading] is the background and context for which I come to the page.”

“It’s especially in my book, Work by Bloodlight, but it comes up in a lot of works. In Work by Bloodlight, there are a lot of poems that deal with animals and other farm work,” she continued.

“In my second book, Midden, which is a book about the Malaga Island eviction and erasure, even though the book is not about homesteading , it was a backdrop because it was a lens that helped me understand the story. One of the ways I developed the empathy I needed to tell this story was my own connection to the land I live on and how deeply intertwined the land is with my identity,” she reflected.

“So that helped me understand how devastating it is for someone to be driven from their home.”

I shared with Julia that one of the things I like most about her poetry is the way the elements are so present in her work, from the elements of nature and the seasons to the elements of the human condition. This kind of “getting to the core” of the human experience is something I really admire about her work.

“There’s definitely an elemental aspect to my poetry,” she said. “My poetry is grounded in seasons. This, to me, is a pattern that’s like returning to the page. Every time I return to the page, I’m a little bit different person. It’s the same with my homesteading. Every year, I split firewood. Every year, we press cider. Every year, I harvest maple syrup, but each time I am a little bit different–and the conditions are a little bit different. The weather is different. We’re different. Sometimes, we’re grieving something. Sometimes, we’re celebrating. But, of course, it’s always a little bit the same, too.”

Then, she added, “And, when you return to the page, it’s that way too.”

This led us into a discussion of writing process. As a writing teacher, I spend much of my life thinking, talking, and teaching about writing process. I am also married to a writer, and one of my favorite things about this is getting to observe his process. Interestingly, my farmer-poet husband has a process very similar to Julia’s process, as she must balance her life as a poet and homesteader.

“I’m not a daily writer,” she said. “Sometimes, I wish I were. Occasionally, I go through spurts of that, but for the most part, it’s more of a coiled spring effect. The poems seep into my body while I am doing my homesteading work, and when they need to come out, they come out.”

Julia’s comment about how poems will “seep into” her body and “come out” when they need to really resonated with me, as both a writer and a writing teacher. I told Julia that I will be teaching writing for 25 years this coming January and that I have found, since I started homesteading with my husband, that I am a much better writing teacher. There is a patience I have learned that wasn’t there before. There is work to do. There are seasons and cycles. Sometimes, you do the work, and you don’t get the results you hope for. But that’s okay. There’s nothing to do but learn, do the work again, and when the time or season is right, the writing or the harvest, will be what you need. Homesteading with my husband has led me to a deeper understanding of the human condition, I think, which has made me a better teacher–a better human.

This was no surprise to Julia. “Homesteading is literally about connection,” she said. “That’s why we do it—the connection to our food, to nature, to the environment around us. We want to not take for granted the small, daily things.”

She continued, “It’s like, for example, if you eat meat, when you raise and process your own, you become involved in the emotional responsibility and accountability of that; you’re not just buying it at the store. Or, for example, if you have to chop firewood or you’re going to be cold the next winter, the connections get tied into your everyday life. Everything feels more real. You feel more connected.”

“And that sense of connection comes to the page,” she said. “For me, I’ve become a writer as I have become a homesteader. That’s when I found my voice.”

I told Julia that I also found my voice as a writer when I became a homesteader, not that I am in Julia’s class by any means, but I finally felt like I had something to say when I started homesteading. I felt an urge to share the zen of busting the ice from the water bowls and carrying the buckets in the winter, as well as the joy of putting up the food my husband has grown in his garden all summer. I had wanted to be a writer all of my life, but when I became a homesteader with my husband, I finally felt like I had a purpose. It’s what led to Farmer-ish. I think that’s why I am so excited about Julia serving as our state’s poet laureate. There are other homesteader poets out there, and Julia’s high profile brings attention to this art.

And if there was ever a state to make the decision to showcase homesteader poetry, it is Maine. Interestingly, though we both found our purposes in Maine, neither Julia nor myself are originally from Maine. Julia is originally from Connecticut. After getting her undergraduate degree, she lived in Philadelphia for a couple of years, working at a bookstore. She and her partner also spent a year driving around the country. They knew they wanted to end up in northern New England, and they ended up settling in Maine, not far from where her partner grew up.

“Sometimes, you have to leave home to find home,” Julia said.

It was while living in Maine that Julia got her MFA in Creative Writing from a low-residency program at Goddard College. “I became the poet I am in Maine, and I couldn’t be the poet that I am without Maine. Maine informs all of my poems, and in that sense, it’s the deepest home I know,” she said.

We ended our conversation talking about farm dogs and homesteading. I asked Julia what she and her partner grow and raise on their homestead. “We’re small with big dreams,” she said. “But we raise a large vegetable garden, pigs, layer chickens, and we planted an orchard. We also make maple syrup. Sugaring might be my favorite time of the year, though it’s exhausting.”

As a homesteader and a writer, it is an honor that my home state of Maine has named Julia Bouwsma as our sixth poet laureate. There are so many farmers and homesteaders who have creative souls. Julia’s work to raise awareness of this and to make connections between the rural and the city in Maine is important.

“A poet homesteader makes sense for Maine. We are a state of great adversity and great beauty. Amplifying rural voices is important, and that’s something I think about as I plan programming for my work as poet laureate,” Julia said.

For Julia, it’s truly about connection–in so many ways.