Lately I’ve been reading the extremely compelling collection Women Poets on Mentorship: Efforts & Affections (Iowa City IA; University of Iowa Press, 2008), edited by Arielle Greenberg and Rachel Zucker [see her 12 or 20 questions here]. Made up of non-fiction pieces by various American women poets on older American women poets, what really impresses, apart from the pieces themselves, is how both mentor and mentee, after each essay, have space for a short selection of poems each, relating to the essay/relationship. Responding to a particular dynamic of women writers in the United States, the editors write in their introduction:
While this is extremely interesting, and makes for a magnificent book of pieces, why do the divide have to be one simply of gender? There are so many important ways in which writers are influenced by other writers (and not necessarily the writing; I could talk, myself, of Michael Dennis [see his 12 or 20 questions here], Henry Beissel and Diana Brebner).
In order to document and celebrate the clamor and community of contemporary women’s poetry and, in particular, the relationships between these two generations, we invited American women poets born in the 1960s and 1970s, in the middle of the second wave of feminism, to write essay s about their living mentors or role models. We asked each to identify the poet she most wanted to write about and were pleased to find almost no overlap, which further proved the wealth of existing mentors. Some of the women our contributors wrote about here were chosen for their aesthetic contributions to poetry, having caused readers to radically change their own way of writing or thinking. Some were chosen for their personal generosity and kindness or because they were brilliant scholars or great lecturers. There are stories of admiration, jealousy, friendship, loneliness, ambition, vanity, and independence. There are funny essays about eccentric personalities and lighthearted encounters, serious pieces about religious doubt and the work of art-making, and exuberant essays about charismatic teachers and performers. The essays describe how older poets make younger poets feel acknowledged, powerful, eager to keep working.
These essays shed light on how our contributors became poets, where they find inspiration, and how they came to make important poetic and life choices: the essays also describe a new kind of influence, one less hierarchical and less patriarchal than the traditional model.
Still, one of the pieces that really stuck with me was Kirsten Kaschock’s “on Being Nonmentored,” providing an interesting counterpoint to the premise of the collection. How does one exist without a specific mentor? As she writes in her piece,
(i’veneverbeenthisfuckedup). in a well sought dream remember pop
song proclamations, Nicole’s big shoes and how she tipped them,
flirty, Clementine, third grade flat rug, your leotard itch—committing
with mastodon eyes the masturbations of Marilyn Munroe—or, mass-
produce doodles of perfect ballerinas
the decoration of the senses
the pornographic mailbox
widow to the investigation
go home & eat bowls of cereal. the kitchen circa 1903 w/ new cabinets
— Elizabeth Treadwell, “distomap for the coded mountains, pale frontier, or the devotions”
Books sit still as you dismember them. Books get naked with little embarrassment. Once you find out the machine inside them, it becomes evident that the stuff you hated is inextricable from the stuff you loved, and you begin to understand them. Aside from family, few real people hang out long enough to go through this process. This makes my finding a mentor unlikely—since, as far as I can tell, a mentor is someone initially drawn to you because of your positioning of self as disciple. I like to position myself as coroner. I cut up work, and it’s best to do so coldly, without becoming entrenched in consideration of the victim’s family.This is a beautiful and compelling collection, and perhaps someone might even do a follow-up, furthering the conversation.
I Do Not sleep for Sleep Is Like the Wing and Trees Amazed
I do not sleep for sleep is like the wind and trees amazed
by sleep’s persuasive gaze
and self’s insistence
signals in a speechless insect’s cochlea:
I do not sleep, I do not sleep, but is itself this seed
In glistening jelly themes and hollower than Appalachian minds
my praise, applause, my anathemes, my subtle worms combine
when moon a world-dividing language sings,
above the hook-and-ladder’s dipthonged, crystal, ruby fountain sounds.
Such is my state, my stateless mind
a widowed turtle or green mother in some shady grove,
lost in her native tongue.
— Miranda Field