2015-08-07 / Front Page

Freedom to write

Library installs state’s first writer-in-residence
By Duke Harrington Staff Writer


Bridget M. Burns, the first writer-in-residence at Louis T. Graves Memorial Public Library in Kennebunkport, poses in the library’s main reading room with Library Director Mary-Lou Boucouvalas. (Duke HarSee rington photo) Bridget M. Burns, the first writer-in-residence at Louis T. Graves Memorial Public Library in Kennebunkport, poses in the library’s main reading room with Library Director Mary-Lou Boucouvalas. (Duke HarSee rington photo) KENNEBUNKPORT — There’s something new at the Louis T. Graves Memorial Public Library in Kennebunkport, but it’s not at the circulation desk.

As of Aug. 1, the century-old library, located at 118 Maine St., has its first “writer-in-residence” — a position believed to be a first for any municipal library in the state of Maine.

“As far as we can tell, in Maine this is a first,” said Joshua Bodwell, executive director of the Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance. “That’s what we’ve heard anecdotally anyway.”

Bodwell worked with Library Director Mary-Lou Boucouvalas, now in her 10th year, to help choose the inaugural house writer for the Graves Library. Together, they chose Kennebunkport resident Bridget M. Burns from among 10 local applicants for the year-long post.


An undated photo of the Freedom Farm on the Arundel Road in Kennebunkport, prior to destruction of the main house by fire in 1968. (Courtesy photo) An undated photo of the Freedom Farm on the Arundel Road in Kennebunkport, prior to destruction of the main house by fire in 1968. (Courtesy photo) “We didn’t open it up to the entire state because we want other libraries to replicate this,” Bodwell said.

So, far it seems that may turn out to be the case.

“Other libraries are thrilled. We’ve had several calls asking, ‘How are you doing this? Can we do it?’” Boucouvalas said, naming Bethel, Falmouth and Brunswick, among others, that inquired.

“That’s what we were hoping for, that maybe this can spread to those other communities,” she said.

While there is no pay for the post, Burns, 32, will get exclusive use of a second-floor room at the Perkins House, adjacent to the library, as a private writing studio. There, she hopes to complete work on a book about the Freedom Farm, where she lives, which served as a haven for refugees from Eastern Europe during World War II.


Bridget M. Burns, the first writer-in-residence at the Louis T. Graves Memorial Public Library in Kennebunkport, sits in the second-floor room of the adjacent Perkins House that will serve as her writing studio for the next year, in a chair that belonged to her grandmother. The chair at her writing desk belonged to her grandfather. (Duke Harrington photo) Bridget M. Burns, the first writer-in-residence at the Louis T. Graves Memorial Public Library in Kennebunkport, sits in the second-floor room of the adjacent Perkins House that will serve as her writing studio for the next year, in a chair that belonged to her grandmother. The chair at her writing desk belonged to her grandfather. (Duke Harrington photo) “It feels awesome. I’m super-excited. I actually screamed when they called me,” said Burns, 32, in a July 30 interview. “I didn’t think I had any chance at all, and I’m not being modest, I’m just being brutally honest. I hadn’t submitted anything for review other than journalism for years.”

Burns graduated from the University of Maine at Farmington, where she earned a degree in creative writing, with concentration in journalism. That’s where she put the degree to use, first at Seven Days, an alternative newsweekly in Burlington, Vermont, then at the Portland Phoenix and the Kennebunk Post. Today, she writes the Kennebunkport column for the York County Coast Star and does occasional freelance work for the paper.

But her day job is at Tom’s of Maine, the Kennebunk-based maker of all-natural personal care products, where she works as the social media strategist. In that capacity, Burns jokes, she “gets to creatively write in 140 characters, or less,” referring to Twitter’s infamous posting limit.

But Burns does more than that, of course. In addition to the Tom’s line of products, she also writes about topics of interest to the company’s customer base, such as green living and volunteerism. She also works with brand managers on product sales in the digital realm, and edits contributions on Tom’s topics from third-party bloggers.

Still, Burns felt the goals she set when she fell in love with writing as a little girl were somehow slipping away, at one point describing herself in her Twitter profile as an “author of unfinished novels.”

So, about a year ago, she and a friend attended a week-long workshop at the Fine Arts Works Center in Provincetown, Rhode Island, where she took a class led by memoirist Stephen Elliott.

“I realized from that week that part of what was holding me up in my writing was that I was trying to fictionalize stories I wanted to tell, rather than just telling the story,” Burns recalled. “I realized if I wanted to be successful in my writing, I needed to be true to myself. It’s easier for someone with a journalism background like me to just tell the truth, rather than to try and spin a tale.

“So, I thought, ‘What true stories do I have to tell?’ and that’s when I realized I live in this amazing, historic property,” Burns said.

It was then, just as inspiration struck, when Burns began to get poked, figuratively, online, as one person after another pointed her to the announcement of the new position at the Graves Library.

“I had at least three different friends send me a link, saying, ‘This sounds like something for you,’” she said.

Freedom to write

Although Bodwell declined to take sole credit for the idea, Boucouvalas says the writer-in-residence program was his brainchild.

Bodwell joined the MWPA in 2010, overlapping briefly with his tenure on the library’s board of trustees, which lasted from 2005 to 2011. A reporter at the York County Coast Star for much of that time, Bodwell envisioned making his hometown library a proactive participant in the creation of books, rather than just a place for them to be stored after publication.

“No one should get credit for whose idea it was, because we were all cooking up ideas and brainstorming, and we would work on things together,” Bodwell said. “But when we were talking about the under-utilized space at the Perkins House, as a writer myself, I said writers are always looking for someplace to go and close the door.”

Graves Library is more than a century old, although it did not acquire that name until 1921, when Mr. and Mrs. Abbott Graves bought the building and deeded it to the Kennebunkport Public Library Association, which traces its roots back to 1894. The only condition the Graves gave was that the library be renamed for their son, Louis T. Graves, a World War I reporter who died in the influenza pandemic of that era.

The building itself began life in 1813 as the Kennebunk Bank — today, the bank safe holds a collection of newspapers — and served from 1831 to 1913 as the U.S. Customs House for the area. But the Perkins House, a residential home located behind the library, was not acquired until 1998. Since then, it’s been used to house the library’s ongoing used book sale, which accounts for nearly 20 percent of its annual revenue, while municipal departments and cribbage clubs have used the lower floor for meetings. The upper floor, however, was relegated to storage. But Bodwell had a better idea.

The concept, he says, was to help promote writers within the community.

“On many levels, that’s just the right thing to do,” he said. “A lot of times, you know the painter is in the community, or the musician, because those are more public art forms. But you don’t necessarily know who the writer is, because that’s a more private, solitary, art.”

By establishing a writer-in-residence, Bodwell said, the library not only promotes writers, as it does with its series of readings by local authors, it helps to promote the writing life.

Of course, its not as if the library will offer tours of Burns’ writing den while she’s at work, allowing people to gawk at the writer in its natural environment from behind Plexiglas. The writing will still be largely a solitary task. However, as part of her payback for use of the site, Burns will give occasional public talks on her work in progress.

“We thought it was the perfect place for someone to be able to come and go, to have as much privacy as she needed,” Boucouvalas said. “When Joshua was on our board, it was something we talked a lot about doing. It’s been a dream for a lot of years and it’s finally come true.”

The other kick for the library, in addition to an occasional featured speaker, will be knowing it helped facilitate the creation of at least one book on its shelves.

“Bridget’s writing is beautiful,” Boucouvalas said, “and I think the whole concept of researching the history of the Freedom Farm, and who’s come and gone from that property — it’s a really wonderful idea.”

Writing about freedom

Burns has a long affinity with Kennebunkport. Although a native of Connecticut, she began visiting the area on summer vacations almost as far back as she can remember. Her parents, a pair of public school teachers, eventually bought a property at Goose Rocks Beach when she was 10, and later re- tired to the home. Burns herself took to the area so much that, after college and a brief sojourn to Vermont, she made it her home, actually beating her parents to permanent residency.

Her house, however, was originally intended for her sister. Burns’ parents saw the Freedom Farm lot on the market “for cheap,” and initially looked at it with Burns’ sister in mind as a potential buyer.

“They went to look at it and they were like, ‘Oh, this is way too funky for Morgan, but Bridget would really like it,’” Burns recalled with a laugh. “And I do. I love it. I always knew I wanted to live in something that has history and character — maybe something that used to be something else, like an old school house, or a fire house. Well, this was a barn.”

As the legend goes, Ethar Milliken, who owned two farms on Arundel Road, was touched by newspaper accounts of the plight of Eastern European refugees, as they fled the Nazi blitzkriegs. Milliken soon made up his mind to donate one of his properties to the United Baptist Convention of Maine, which used it as a home for so-called “displaced persons.”

“The families would live on the farm, get acclimated to American life, and then transition into the community,” Burns explained.

How many families passed through the farm is not yet known — one website, SoMeOldNews.com, reports “at least five” transitioned through the site. Today, hops, planted by temporary residents of Bavarian extraction, still grow wild alongside the road.

The farm was sold back into private hands in 1963. The main house burned to the ground in January 1968. Then, a decade later, a new family bought the property and converted the barn — once attached to the home, but saved from the flames — into a living space.

Today, about three-quarters of the old barn is a home, while the remaining first-floor space is a workshop. The second floor, Burns says, “is still barn.” She began renting the property in 2008, playing host to a seemingly endless string of roommates.

“That’s not because I’m a bad roommate,” Burns said with a laugh. “It’s just that I always seemed to have a friend in need of a temporary place to stay, because of a break-up, or a job loss, or whatever.”

Burns bought the property in 2013. Her proposal to the Graves Library was to use her time as writer-in-residence to tell the history of the farm as a refugee center, interspersed with essays about her own experiences while living on the property.

“I think of all the people who have stayed in that home — if the walls could talk, literally,” she says. “There’s just something about the property that I feel like it attracts people in transition, and it inherently has stories to tell because of it.”

For Burns, use of the Perkins House room is integral to completion of the project.

“Because of my journalism background, I’m very deadline-driven,” she says. “When I have to get writing done for work, or for a job, it’s no problem. But when I sit down to try and be creative, I have a harder time, which I don’t think is all that uncommon.

“You would think that it would be inspiring to be surrounded by my subject matter, but because I also live there, it also has all of my dirty dishes, and my laundry, and my fiancé, and my cat,” Burns says. “So, being able to write somewhere else, it gives me perspective. Not being in the house allows me to think about the house in a different way.

“One advantage of having this space is that I can treat it like I’m going to work. Just knowing that I can come here and leave things here until I’m done, I think that will help.” Burns said.

Meanwhile, Boucouvalas says she expects Burns’ book, once complete, will make “a nice tie-in” to a book written in 2013 to mark the Graves Library’s centennial.

“Kennebunkport: the Evolution of an American Town — 1603-2003,” was written by Joyce Butler, Burns’ predecessor who wrote the Kennnebunkport column at the York County Coast Star. Her columns were collected in the book,Pages From A Journal.”

“She’s one of my heroes,” Burns said. “I’m really excited to have an opportunity to sit down with her. I’m by no means a historian, but I’m hopeful that through research I’ll be able to write something people admire as much as they do her work.”

Meanwhile, Burns says she anxious to get to work.

“Primarily, I want to help educate the community as I’m learning it, but I’d really love to hold some sort of reunion at the Freedom Farm for people who lived there, and their descendants,” Burns said. “But for right now I’m just really excited to get the word out there and have more people come forward with their stories of the Freedom Farm property.”

Bodwell and Boucouvalas say they expect nothing less.

“Because Bridget’s work is about this historic piece of property in the community, just the very nature of that work is already creating a compelling community dialogue,” Bodwell said.

Be a part of the project

Anyone with information to share on the history of the Freedom Farm in Kennebunkport can contact author Bridget M. Burns by emailing bridgetmb@gmail.com. Louis T. Graves Memorial Public Library will hold a reception for Burns, its first writer-in-residence, 5 to 7 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 9, at the library, located at 118 Maine St.

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