When Odysseus sets sail for the Trojan War, he places his infant son under his friend Mentor’s protection. During Odysseus’s long absence, Mentor guides Telemachus into adulthood--sometime through his own sage advice and companionship; at other times, because Athena, the goddess of wisdom, takes his form to offer divine counsel. Now, because of these stories, Mentor’s name is the word we use to describe those wise and trusted advisors who teach and encourage us along the way.
As with Telemachus and Mentor, the original mentorship pairing, this relationship is important for almost everyone as we try to navigate our way through the world. In practical terms though, I think in writing it’s particularly important. This is a lonely business--just you and the words in your head--and so full of rejection that having someone more experienced encourage you is often what allows us to keep trying; a mentor’s approval can give you permission to believe in yourself. When the “We enjoyed your work, but...” slips pile up or when you look at your poems and image seems stale and every phrase hackneyed, mentors remind you that your words have value. And, of course, sometimes they also point you towards journals to submit to or job openings or new books to read that you might love.
I have been very lucky with mentorship, both with the mentors I’ve had and the students I’ve been closest to once I became a teacher. In high school, I was a Creative Writing major at Interlochen Arts Academy, a boarding school for the arts in Northern Michigan, where I was taught by Jack Driscoll and Michael Delp, writers whose workshops focused on craft, offering incisive and thoughtful encouragement rather than false kindnesses. Because the faculty treated our work seriously and brought in guests readers like Mary Ruefle and Stephen Dunn, I grew up thinking literature was a thing I could participate in making--that I could write books and edit and publish them--rather than something inaccessible created by mysterious people far away. I was also lucky in a way I didn’t realize until I also became a teacher trying to balance being present for my former students with the demands of my own life: my mentors stayed invested in my well-being long after I graduated--exchanging letters, meeting for coffee (or, when I was older, vodka martinis), and, later, bringing me back to Interlochen for a semester to guest teach. This, more than anything, is what I’m most grateful for: that Jack and Delp gave me the chance to pass on some of the same care and attention they’d once given me to students who I adored.
I found a similar attention to mentoring in my graduate program at The New School, where Meghan O’Rourke, Matthew Zapruder and our gracious host here, David Lehman, all not only helped me make breakthroughs in my poetry inside the classroom walls, but also ushered me into the literary community beyond MFA-world as an active participant--encouraging me to submit my work, presenting opportunities to gain editorial experience and graduate-level teaching credentials, and answering questions about practical things like distribution when I started my own press.
The further along I move in my own life--not just as a writer or a teacher or an editor, but simply as an adult who has lived in the world--the more I look at mentorship as being part of a continuum: I appreciate the guidance I’ve received over the years and so I want to help students whose work particularly speaks to me, as well as those I feel a certain protective affection for or an affinity with. I don’t know what sort of effect I’ve had on my students’ lives--good, harmful, or nonexistent--but I want to be a good mentor. What I do know is how glad I am to be part of the chain that connects us, my former teachers and my students, and how much I care about each one of them wherever they are, even long after the thread of actual interaction may have untied itself.
As I wrote this post, I found myself thinking about W.S. Merwin’s John Berryman poem which I first was assigned to read as a teenager in a workshop at Interlochen and now use in the workshops I teach. I love the poem for so many reasons, but one is how Merwin, in describing his teacher, also passes on what he has learned.
I will tell you what he told me
in the years just after the war
as we then called
the second world war
don't lose your arrogance yet he said
you can do that when you're older
lose it too soon and you may
merely replace it with vanity
just one time he suggested
changing the usual order
of the same words in a line of verse
why point out a thing twice
he suggested I pray to the Muse
get down on my knees and pray
right there in the corner and he
said he meant it literally
it was in the days before the beard
and the drink but he was deep
in tides of his own through which he sailed
chin sideways and head tilted like a tacking sloop
he was far older than the dates allowed for
much older than I was he was in his thirties
he snapped down his nose with an accent
I think he had affected in England
as for publishing he advised me
to paper my wall with rejection slips
his lips and the bones of his long fingers trembled
with the vehemence of his views about poetry
he said the great presence
that permitted everything and transmuted it
in poetry was passion
passion was genius and he praised movement and invention
I had hardly begun to read
I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can't
you can't you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don't write