A Franco-American Doc, Poetry, and Potluck

Yesterday, I went to the Lewiston-Auburn College with my friend Claire Hersom to the third annual Poetry & Peace Potluck. Not only did this event include an abundance of poetry and food, but there was also a documentary called Down by the River’s Edge. The film is about the Otis Paper Mill in Chisholm, the southern end of Jay, and the people who worked in and lived by the mill, which closed in 2009. Not surprisingly, the predominant ethnic group was Franco-American. (By one estimate, Franco-Americans make up 30 percent of Maine’s population.) But Chisholm also had Italian and Slovakian immigrants as well. Who knew there were so many ethnic groups in the Jay/Livermore Falls area? I certainly didn’t.

Down by the River’s Edge is a combination of stills and clips of interviews with people, some of them quite old, who had worked in the mill. The film did a nice job of weaving in the various elements of life in a mill town—the history, the hard work, the big families, the crowded living conditions, the sense of community, the Catholic church, and the fun that people made for themselves.

Susan Gagnon, the writer and director, was on hand for a discussion after the film. She told about how she wanted to expand the stories told about mill towns, which usually included the words “dirty” and “working class.” Growing up in Chisholm, Susan saw a vibrancy and a keen sense of community. She became aware that the story of the workers at the Otis Paper Mill had never been recorded, and Susan had to “beg and borrow but not steal” the many stills featured in Down by the River’s Edge.

The story of Maine is also the story of the Ku Klux Klan, who were a major presence in the state and marched against Franco-Americans and other Catholics. Susan decided not include that segment in her film, and while I understand that her focus was on the people and the community of Chisholm, it seems to me that to not include something about the Klan was a major omission.

Nevertheless, Down by the River’s Edge, four years in the making, is a good film. Not only is it worth seeing, but it also tells the stories of people who for too long have not had a voice.

After the documentary came poetry, and many of Maine’s notable poets were at the Poetry Peace Potluck. Henry Braun, Gary Lawless, Robert Farnsworth, Jeri Theriault, and my personal favorite, Claire Hersom, are just a sample of the fine poets who read yesterday. The general themes were peace, May Day, and workers.

Claire read “In America Dreaming,” which ties in Walt Whitman, the Civil War, and the Vietnam War. She gave me permission to quote from the poem, and here are the last two stanzas, especially lovely and poignant and wistful.

Isn’t that what you wanted, to have a place
and a breeze
blowing against your face.
And when it got too loud to hear the birds,
to hunker down, hold on the the sway of the world?

Sometimes at night, I think I hear you
endlessly calling to the universe.
I see you illumed in the night’s shadows
rambling across the meadows
climbing the old stone walls
searching for a way back.

In the front row, Susan Gagnon is third from the left, and Claire Hersom is fourth from the left.
In the front row, Susan Gagnon is third from the left, and Claire Hersom is fourth from the left.
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7 thoughts on “A Franco-American Doc, Poetry, and Potluck”

    1. Shannon, it is always great hearing Claire read her poems. Also, learned a thing or two about Maine that I hadn’t known.

  1. I was a great day, and I learned a great deal, too ! What struck me powerfully, was the passion in the presenter, Susan Gagnon, and her heartfelt story of her own family. I loved the interviews on the last day the mill ran, the pride and tearful memories, and the courage faced with losing their jobs when the mill closed. And I agree – what a surprise to learn of the mixed ethnicity. And the repercussions of the silence they endured outside the close community, but certainly not within their towns! and families.It seemed a vibrant, joyful community with much diversity, much hard work, much faith and support. Thanks for coming with me, Laurie ad your words about the poetry. It was a great morning and a good way to reconnect with my own mill working family of Irishmen… and a bunch of wonderful poets.

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