Do you have a writing mentor? Or did you, at some earlier point in your journey? Are you mentoring another writer?
I just finished reading a recently published book called Women Poets on Mentorship: Efforts and Affections, edited by Arielle Greenberg & Rachel Zucker (U of Iowa P, 2008). I was very glad to see it come out -- I'd been hearing about it for months, and I was totally intrigued. I was curious to the point of feeling nosy about what it was like to be mentored as a poet.
Mentoring is a valuable thing to have, in my experience. I've been mentored by people in my first and my current profession, as well as during my years as a grad student en route to a Ph.D. My current mentor -- my most direct mentor -- is every mentee's dream. She is savvy, generous, full of wisdom and willing to advise, but never suggests that her advice is law to be obeyed. I feel comfortable asking her the "stupid questions" and feel certain that she has my back when it counts. When I count my blessings, she's high on the list. : )
But she mentors me in my capacity as a literature professor and scholar. What I haven't had is a comparable mentoring experience with regard to my work as a poet. And because I know how great being mentored is, I've always felt like I'm missing out. I couldn't help imagining that I've made numbers of huge mistakes along the way that would have been totally avoidable, had I only had a mentor to steer me clear of them.
So I began reading Women Poets on Mentorship avidly. And I learned a lot. What I was thinking of as mentoring (or mentorship, to use the word the editors chose) is only one of many forms it can take.
The book has 24 essays by younger poets about their experiences in relation to mentoring. Each essay is followed by a short sample of poetry by the writer and, in most cases, a poem by the poet-mentor as well. The poets selected for the book have a variety of styles and aesthetics -- their mentors even more so.
And what I was very fascinated to learn by reading them all is that I have been mentored as a poet -- just not in the same way as I'm being mentored as a professor. There are several essays by poets whose mentors are women they studied with in school, which is perhaps the most conventional type of mentorship these days. But a number of others took a different shape. Jenny Factor opens the collection by describing how she came to be mentored by Marilyn Hacker, first, through an intense relationship to Hacker's poems and only later, after meeting Hacker at a reading/book signing, through a correspondence and poetry exchange. Joy Katz felt mentored by Sharon Olds, though she experienced that relationship only through her connection to Olds' poetry; same for Crystal Williams regarding Lucille Clifton. In these cases, the established poet's work was strong and unusual enough, in some way that spoke directly to the need of the younger poet, that the encounter with the work was sufficient to inspire and guide her in a way that made her feel mentored. One poet, Cin Salach, fell in love with her mentor, Maureen Seaton, who loved her back; the mentoring relationship overlapped with a romantic partnership of some years. (I image that would be extremely difficult for my ego to negotiate, but each person should do whatever works for her, of course!)
In these essays, mentoring becomes visible as something more (if sometimes more contained) than the long apprenticeship of an admiring beginner to the seasoned role model. Mentoring can be the work of a single occasion in which the younger poet learns an indelible lesson about the craft and one's relationship to it -- as in the lovely essay by Mendi Obadike, who writes about a powerful experience of seeing (or hearing, actually) Toi Derricotte practice what she preached during a Cave Canem retreat, or the tribute by Jennifer Moxley to Susan Howe, who wrote the younger poet once, and only once, but with words that offered encouragement at exactly the moment they were needed.
The essay that was in some ways most important to me, however, was by Kirsten Kaschock, who bravely wrote "on Being Nonmentored." Kaschock tries on a handful of voices in different sections of her essay, as she describes her isolation and how she learned to work through it, the people and things besides mentors that have moved her forward as a poet, and, finally, her picture of traditional mentoring -- the pros and cons -- and how, despite the disadvantages she saw, she longed to have that kind of relationship with an established poet. I admire Kaschock first and foremost for imagining that this essay needed to exist and be a part of this project (for which the editors also deserve some credit here). In a sense, I don't think I could have learned as much from the other essays as I did, had she not given voice to the perception I had of my own experience going into the read.
And ultimately, though I feel that I have been mentored by certain books and by the example of poets I've not met or encountered only briefly, the essay that most sharply refocused the way I understand my own experience of mentoring as a poet was by Daphne Gottlieb, "on the Circle of Mentorship" -- that is, on being mentored by one's peers. I have been lucky to be surrounded by poet-friends of various ages and backgrounds, who have been willing to read my poems, offer feedback, answer the stupid questions, and provide me with good examples of how to do, not what I hoped to do someday, but what I would likely be doing tomorrow. I have several, sometimes overlapping circles of mentorship of this type -- I won't begin to name names, because I might never be done with it -- and it has been these peer-mentors from whom I've learned most directly how to achieve the things I want to achieve (even as more established poets have been incredibly supportive -- support being an equally wonderful, but different animal). As Gottlieb puts it, in my favorite line from her essay: "I have moved forward by looking sideways."
So, I leave you with the questions with which I began, and hope to hear from other poets and prose writers in the comments: Do you have a writing mentor? Or have you ever had one? And (a subject for another blog post perhaps) are you mentoring a less experienced writer now? Tell me all about it!