I was on a panel at AWP in Chicago about women-centered mentorship and influence.
The new anthology that inspired the panel, Efforts & Affections: Women Poets on Mentorship, is edited brilliantly by Arielle Greenberg and Rachel Zucker. I'm pleased to have been included in it. Way more than pleased: excited. The book makes a wise mentor for writers starting out, and it's an enticing mucking about inside the minds of contemporary poets.
But so here's what happened. Five contributors — Kristin Prevallet, Beth Ann Fennelly, Valerie Martinez, Erika Meitner, and yours truly — read portions of our essays from the anthology. (Mine is about Sharon Olds and her first book, Satan Says.) Then we answered questions. A young woman asked whether it was important to have a female mentor. I said that to me it didn't make a difference. I learned the most important thing about writing poetry from my community workshop teacher — a man named Michael Wurster — and a different crucial lesson, about the morality of imagination, from Sharon Olds. Not that what I learned from Olds I could have gotten from Wurster, but I didn't learn what I learned from Olds because she is a woman.
Others on the panel made interesting comments about having female mentors in particular. Among other things, they learned from them how to balance children, teaching, and the writing life. A couple of panelists discussed the time they spent mentoring female students about how to lead their lives as poets. The great care and time they described putting in impressed me. Then it depressed me.
In a job interview last year I'd mentioned my home life. Chance was a few months old; we'd just adopted him. You're expected to be the students' Literary Mama, someone on the search committee said. To be in your office, there for them, all the time.
I resolved not to mention my kid again in future interviews, a mistake that caused me to be perceived as unavailable.
But if I were a Literary Mama, or L.M., wouldn't my having a child interest my students, both male and female? Not only because I'm writing poems and essays and teaching classes and charing committees while also being a parent, but because my young son is one of the shaping forces of my recent poems? (I say "shaping force" because time and consciousness are the subjects of the poems, not the baby. But now I'm conscious of trying to make clear that I do not make Bad Baby Art. Oh, I'm tired of being a woman poet.)
Were my potential male colleagues at that college Literary Papas? I wonder if, as L.P.s, they manifest the devotion and log the hours that my fellow panelists described when they talked about mentoring female students. I wonder whether such mentoring is always a good thing for the mentor.
How much energy does such deep and sustained role modeling take from our own writing? Is it good for the writing? As men. As women. Well yes especially as women.