UNE Social Work graduate chosen to be Portland’s latest Poet Laureate

Image of Maya Williams, M.S.W. ’18
Maya Williams, M.S.W. ’18

Portland’s latest Poet Laureate is a 2018 graduate of the University of New England’s Master of Social Work (M.S.W.) program, and their work is a shining example of how the arts, education, and social change can so often intertwine.

Maya Williams, M.S.W. ’18, who is nonbinary, is the seventh person to be bestowed the distinction of Poet Laureate, an honorary position awarded every two to three years to a resident of the Greater Portland area who is both an accomplished poet and an excellent ambassador within the community.

“I’m very excited about this opportunity,” said Williams, who also holds a certificate in Applied Arts and Social Justice (AASJ) from UNE. The AASJ program allows students to do coursework and academic and community projects related to the use of creative arts in social work practice.

Williams’ interest in poetry grew several years ago, and they began seriously publishing their work in 2018. Their poems tackle hard-to-talk-about topics, including suicide, mental health issues, and Black racial identity.

“A lot of my interactions with people tend to inspire my work, and I recognize that I become a better writer when I actually live my life,” Williams explained. “I don’t need to live in isolation to create. There are ways to write about hard stuff without hurting yourself, and there are ways to write about the hard stuff while also writing about the joy that comes after the hard stuff.”

Williams tackles similar “hard stuff” in their professional work, as well. As the sexual assault program coordinator for MaineTranNet, the state’s only transgender-led and -focused community organization, Williams develops educational content about trauma-informed practice and coordinates peer support groups for transgender survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence.

“It is heavy work, but it’s very much worth it,” Williams remarked.

Williams’ poetry has been published in several local and broader publications, including glitterMOB, Occulum, The Portland Press Herald, Littoral Books, FreezeRay, and more. They have received residencies from organizations such as Sundress Academy for the Arts (SAFTA), Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation, The For Us by Us Fund’s Words of Fire Retreat, and Hewnoaks Artist Colony.

Williams is a Maine Writers and Publishers Association (MWPA) Chapbook finalist, a Best of the Net Nominee, and a winner of PortFringe’s Patron’s Choice Award for her spoken word performance “When Speaking to an Extraterrestrial.”

Outside of writing and work, Williams also serves as co-host of the video series “Dying/Laughing,” which analyzes the representation of suicide and mental health in TV and film. Williams is currently enrolled in Randolph College's low-residency Master of Fine Arts program for creative writing and is focusing on poetry.

As Poet Laureate, Williams hopes to bridge together their passions for poetry, art, advocacy, and social change. They will co-facilitate workshops with community members on different subject matters, such as transgender poetics and mental health poetics, and the differences between poetry in performance and poetry on the page, among others.

Notably, Williams will work to create a database of Maine’s transgender artists so that they can be easily hired and compensated for their artwork.

Their most ambitious goal is to create an event called “What You Stay Alive For,” which would serve as an open-microphone performance space and resource hub for individuals to talk about deeply personal issues, like suicide, Williams said.

“It’s a good way to talk about life and suicide awareness and mental health awareness in a way that legitimately discusses access,” Williams said. “Suicide awareness is not limited to a hotline. There are resources for recovery.”

Williams explained that people who struggle with substance use disorder or who have been incarcerated in the past experience disproportionately high rates of suicide. Having a space like “What You Stay Alive For” gives those people a safe place to express themselves, they said.

“The goal is to get to the deeper issues of mental health in terms of access, use that as an opportunity to talk about the resources that are available in Portland, and also give people the space to perform art that matters to them,” they said.

Williams will be inaugurated as the city’s Poet Laureate in a virtual reception on Thursday, July 1. The event is hosted by the Portland Public Library, and Williams will be given time to read their poetry. Their work can be read at mayawilliamspoet.com.

If you are concerned about yourself or about somebody else, call the suicide crisis hotline at 1-888- 568-1112. If you are not in Maine, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).