This year, three first-time Portland authors published books worth noting: "Dog or Wolf" by Bill Schulz, "Moon in Full" by Marpheen Chann and "Portlanders" by Nick Gervin. Credit: Covers courtesy of the authors

PORTLAND, Maine — Stephen King is awesome, of course. Everyone knows that.

But when it comes to Maine’s literary landscape, there’s more than just supernatural prom queens, vampire-ridden hamlets and killer clowns lurking in storm drains.

This year, these three first-time Portland authors published books that give windows into different Maine experiences.

One is an aching, spare volume of poetry about grief, anger and acceptance, written by a 70-year-old putting his life back together. Another, is a book of photos, 10 years in the making, documenting the gritty side of Portland that tourists never see. The third is a coming-of-age memoir about finding a place in Maine when you’re gay, Asian and adopted by a white, evangelical Christian family.

Poet Bill Schulz sits at one of his favorite Portland coffee shops on Nov. 21, 2022. Shulz, 70, has been writing his entire life and just published his first collection. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

“Dog or Wolf” by Bill Schulz

Six years ago, at age 64, Bill Schulz’s long-simmering addictions and personal demons led to his arrest and the disintegration of his marriage. He also lost his job and, without a home, found himself sleeping in his grandchildren’s playroom.

Then, with thoughts of suicide, he spent Christmas 2016 at Spring Harbor psychiatric hospital, alone.

“It was a good place for me, at the time,” Schulz said.

In fact, he’s grateful for it and the mercy he found there.

The rock-bottom position gave Schulz a solid starting point to do the work of piecing his shattered life back together. Part of that process was writing poetry, discovering the truth about himself and his previous life.

“Most of these poems are post handcuffs,” Schulz said.

Schulz, now 70,  has written poetry since he was a student at Deering High School in the late 1960s. Schulz remembers climbing out onto the school’s roof and painting his verses on the slate shingles.

“You could do stuff like that back then,” he said.

Master degrees in both theology and English, and several published poems followed. Today, he runs the online literary magazine Hole in the Head Review.

But this is the poet’s first, complete volume of verse. It’s published by Nine Mile Books in New York.

Broken up into four sections, the mostly short poems progress roughly from loss and anger and through peace and understanding — with some rough patches in between.

Water, birds, roads and crickets make recurring appearances, tying the collection together from beginning to end.

Nowadays, more than a half-decade since his personal meltdown, Schulz is doing better. He’s found work and new love. Married, he’s living in a stable home.

But getting there wasn’t easy, and he has poems to prove it.

In one poem, dated Christmas Eve, while he was hospitalized, Schulz describes pacing a hallway, counting his own steps, alone.

“Am I invisible — man vomiting — a ghost, or shadow, dog or wolf?” he writes, “You will never know and I will never tell.”

Though the poems are serious, they never descend into self-pity or wallow in despair. The poet has chosen his words too carefully for that. Pared down to linguistic bare essentials, there are no extra phrases, no adjectives to spare.

In the last few pages, the poems seem to exhale in relief, as if the poet can’t believe he’s made it there.

In the final piece, Schulz describes finding a cricket under his pillow.

“Like me, though, it seemed alone and in need of a companion to get through the dark alive,” he writes.

One of Schulz’s own important companions in the darkness seems to have been poetry.

“I had to write them, whether they ever got published or not,” he said.

Nick Gervin, a Portland photographer and executive director at the Bakery Photo Collective, has released a new book of documentary pictures made in the city between 2011 and 2021. The monochrome, gritty and thoughtfully designed collection was published by U.K.-based Photo Editions LTD. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

“Portlanders” by Nick Gervin

It took Nick Gervin 10 years and 70,000 shutter clicks to create his stark new photo book, which feels like a monochrome love letter to the dark side of his city.

Since 2011, Gervin has prowled Portland’s streets, mostly at night, in search of secret scenes and characters few locals — and zero visitors — ever have witnessed.

“The whole city is the subject from tunnels and basements to streets and rooftops,” Gervin said.

There’s plenty of fabulous characters, too.

One flash-lit frame shows a shirtless man in shorts getting hauled off down an alleyway by two police officers. One lawman is grinning while the other’s face is shielded by his cap visor.

Another photo pictures a Black Lives Matter protest with people lying in the street. Upon closer inspection, one man in the foreground is completing a lottery scratch ticket while prone on the pavement.

A single, relaxed forearm and hand protrudes from a parking lot attendant’s booth in another frame. It could be waiting to take a ticket or it could be a corpse. Either possibility makes visual and stylistic sense.

Gervin moved to Portland when he was 11, but didn’t start photographing the city until an assault and subsequent head injury put him out of work a little over a decade ago. The injury complicated lingering symptoms he already had from a childhood concussion, suffered when he was still living in south Boston.

Unable to work after the second trauma, Gervin discovered a camera gave him a creative outlet and helped organize his thoughts. Seeking solitude at the time, photographing at night, just felt natural for him.

Now, after amassing a huge collection of Portland photographs, London-based Photo Editions LTD has published Gervin’s first book.

“We edited my work down to 500 photos at first, then to 200, then the 53 in the book,” Gervin said.

The luscious, boutique tome has an almost handmade feel to it. Each photograph gets its own page and no caption, which is just as well. The images are almost all riddles, asking nearly as many questions about what is going on, as they answer.

Gervin is currently executive director at the Bakery Photo Collective but still spends his shooting time on the streets. He doesn’t like being called a “street photographer,” though. Instead he pervers to be known as a documentary shooter.

Because, after all, he’s making pictures of the whole city, not just the streets.

“The city, itself, is an object of art,” Gervin said. “The guts, the buildings and all the layers.”

Author and community organizer Marpheen Chann sits outside the Osher Library in Portland on Nov. 21, 2022. Chann, 31, published a memoir this year describing his personal journey to find his place in Maine as an adopted, gay, Asian man growing up in an evangelical Christian family. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

“Moon in Full” by Marpheen Chann

At just 31 years old, it might seem premature for Marpheen Chann to have already written his memoir. It’s a genre often reserved for wisdom and reflective pronouncements doled out by authors well into their golden years.

But Chann has done too much living, struggling and triumphing in his first three decades to keep it all to himself.

Chann was born into a Cambodian refugee family in California in 1991. He moved to Maine with his mother in 1998 to be close to relatives. But his mother struggled with alcohol and mental illness. Both were exacerbated by untreated trauma suffered while escaping the repressive Khmer Rouge government in the family’s home country.        

“My mother was still haunted by her experiences in Cambodia and would watch Cambodian movies about the Khmer Rouge, which I knew was dangerous,” Chann writes, remembering his childhood. “One movie she watched was of a Cambodian woman being subdued and raped by soldiers. It wasn’t the movie that I remember clearly; it was how fixated she was on it. I tried to change the channel on the TV, but she snapped at me.”

After Maine authorities deemed his mother unfit to care for Chann and his siblings, he ended up in foster care and was later adopted by a white evangelical Christian family in Naples.

The family also adopted his sister and sent them both to a religious school where they were the only non-white students.

At the same time, Chann was realizing he was gay — which caused a lot of friction at home and at school.

“Whenever gay rights came up in the news, the teachers would all get up in arms, and next thing you know there was a week of classes and chapel services focused on praying for the salvation of the gays, and how God forbids being gay, and that if we were gay, we were confused and should seek help,” Chann wrote.

Chann said he started working on his book, published by Islandport Press in June, eight years ago as a reaction to then-Gov. Paul LePage’s attempt to cut off General Assistance funding for asylum seekers in Portland.

Later, other news events spurred Chann to keep writing, including the white supremecist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, the shooting at the gay-friendly Pulse Nightclub in Miami, Florida, and the election of Donald Trump in 2016.

“I wanted to figure out how my story fits into the larger narrative of today, in this country and in Maine,” he said. “I wanted to plant my flag and tell my own story.”

Now, Chann has a law degree and works as a community impact manager at Good Shepherd Food Bank, where he helps match marginalized people with the food they need. He’s also a board member at Equality Maine and the leader of a local Cambodian cultural organization. He previously served on Portland’s recent Charter Commission.

Chann is still in touch with both his biological and adoptive families, too. He firmly believes in keeping lines of communication open and flowing.

“[My adoptive family] still don’t agree with me being gay,” he said. “But I’m still having Thanksgiving dinner with them. They can’t learn anything if I cut them off and never speak to them again.”

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Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.