FIONA SZE-LORRAIN Reviews
Women Poets on Mentorship: Efforts & Affections, Edited by Arielle Greenberg & Rachel Zucker
(Wesleyan University Press, 2008)
A pioneering literary endeavour to champion poetry that is written by women, this much-applauded book has a lucid thesis that is quintessentially synthesized in its title: “Women,” “Poets,” “Mentorship,” “Efforts,” and “Affections.” While it is not inaccurate to claim that the book celebrates various types of privileged mentorship—be it literary, personal, or inspirational—that American women poets share today, its essays have in fact progressed beyond a mere superficial celebration. What is considered as a mentorship? Why is it important (or not important) to women, in particular? These are the two pointed questions that underline each young poet’s testimonial in this book.
“A central theme does emerge in these essays, that of self and selfhood, and of the ways in which the connection between the self and poem—between identity and form, biography and aesthetic—is the heart of the mentor-mentee relationship,” pronounce Greenberg and Zucker in their introduction. Twenty-four chosen young women, all born during or after the Second Wave feminist movement, explore the delicate nature of mentorship by choosing a particular woman poet from their preceding generation—one whom she considers to have significant influence upon their writing lives—and write about how she relates to her mentor’s aesthetics and life, an example or starting point that she uses for her own poetry and growth. Amongst these twenty-four lady poets, Danielle Pafunda (born 1977) is the youngest, while Valerie Martínez (born 1961) heads the age list.
The choice of young women presented in this anthology is eclectic, unexpected yet healthy. Jenny Factor, Matthew Harvey, Kristin Prevallet, Robyn Schiff, Kathy Lou Schultz, Crystal William… Considered by the editors as emerging but established writers, one may think that not all of them are the so-called “household celebrity” names in today’s poetry scene. Yet, each of them has already published at least one full-length manuscript by a known American publisher during the years of 2000—2005, and each in her own rights can speak for her contributions. Some forge strong friendships with their mentors, like in the case of Eleni Sikelianos and Alice Notley. Not all, though, enjoy an everlasting, smooth or straightforward relationship. Cin Salach, for instance, saw a life-changing relationship/collaboration with Maureen Seaton, which ended on a difficult note, after an intense romance. Some—e.g. Joy Katz and Robyn Schiff—have never even really met or known their mentors in person (i.e. Sharon Olds and Gjertrud Schnackenberg), though they relate much to the intangible “something” in their writings.
What stems clear from their essays is a historical reality, of how both generations had struggled differently, having invested much of their womanhood in what they believed to be an important passion and humanity: the art of poetry.
Witty, intelligent, provocative and serious—these essays are written by women poets of diverse writing styles, social and cultural backgrounds. Some are confessional (like Jenny Factor on Marilyn Hacker), or funny (such as Aimee Nezhukumatathil on her discovery of Naomi Shihab Nye, and subsequently her vocation as a poet). Some, like Kirsten Kaschock and Daphne Gottlieb, prefer, however, not to name specific people. Instead, they offer more analytical readings on what mentorship means to them. A few poets focus on interpreting intellectually selected works of their mentors in their essays, thus eroding some of the personal or intuitive touch in literary relationships. Yet, each young woman poet must be acknowledged for her honesty and courage to share. Afterall, what they have written belongs to a private space, next to silence and solitude.
What I find most valuable in this book is how these young women poets have chosen their mentors. Their process of seeking other voices. This act of consistent searching that is so pertient to any form of art creation. And this pursuit speaks more volume than mentors being chosen, the other half of the equation. In fact, many of these mentors are not teachers whom the mentees know through their MFA institutions, but rather ordinary (even the best artists of the centuries are ordinary people, despite their extraordinary artistry), normal people who see beauty in the ordinary, live so as to write, and not write so as to live. I see this as a very healthy sign, a gesture that opposes the need for one (perhaps even more urgent for a woman? ) to “institutionalise” in order to assert her social niche as an artist. While some might have met their mentors since their childhood (as in the case of Rebecca Wolff and Molly Peacock), some met theirs by accident or unexpected twists in life. Like Jennifer Moxley who encountered Susan Howe’s Pythagorean Silence during a painful period of loneliness. Eventually, Howe’s work gave her the strength to see what she had in her to intertwine life with the poetic craft. Real dialogues had indeed happened between these poets. Their paths had crossed through poems (not necessarily places, nor institutions).
Accompanying each essay is a sampling of poems by both the young poet, and her chosen mentor. This is an interesting editorial strategy, because it allows one to trace aesthetic parallels in the works of both the mentee and her mentor. Yet, this does not imply comparison. Comparing their works is not—and should not—dominate such a reading. It is about finding out where or how their differences lead to a commonground. It is not about finding parallels to make reductionist similarities. As an example, Valerie Martínez cites Joy Harjo’s “She Had Some Horses” as the specific poem that touched her when she first embarked upon reading serious poetry after leaving college. Having Harjo’s poem that follows in entirety right after Martinez’s essay serves more to the reader’s advantage than justifying causes of the essay itself.
As a reader, I feel that it is very fulfiling and vital to read this book as a documentation of mentorship by women poets, a nouveau experience, a study. It should not, however, be read as a nihilistic statement, one that implies the absence of male mentorship, or that mentorship of male poets to young women has been less than positive. Other than Erika Meitner, for example, who relates in her chapter on Rita Dove a rather nerve-twanging experience she had with a male poet (who clearly did not seem to be able to respect her value as a writer-in-apprenticeship), none of the women poets (not even Meitner) denies the importance of male poets’ works in their maturity as poets. That being said, should one consider this a feminist reading or social study? As both Greenberg and Zucker have summed up, “the poems are always central here.”
Fiona Sze-Lorrain, née Fiona Sze, publishes poetry and essays under her nom-de-plume, Greta Aart. Graduate of Columbia and NYU, she edited Silhouette/Shadow : The Cinematic Art of Gao Xingjian (2007), translating Gao Xingjian’s poetry from the French. Recent or forthcoming works appear in Raven Chronicles, La Fovea, Oak Bend Review, Houston Literary Review, etc. A musician, she lives in Paris, France. (www.fionasze.com)