Mentoring Matters

For poets — as for the rest of us — role models

“I don’t think I would be a writer today had I not, at some point, decided I had the right,” writes poet Kristen Prevallet. Many of the poets in Women Poets on Mentorship: Efforts and Affections (University of Iowa Press, $24.95) describe such moments, when the decision to write took on a sudden necessity and significance. Editors Arielle Greenberg and Rachel Zucker, poets themselves, compiled essays by women poets born in the 1960s and ‘70s writing about their mentors, enabling us to watch these women find their voices and come of age under the knowing gaze of the generation of women poets who came before them.

The mentoring relationships depicted in these essays are as rich and varied as the poets themselves. Cin Salach’s relationship with her mentor Maureen Seaton evolves into a love affair; Rebecca Wolfe’s mentorship with Molly Peacock begins in ninth grade and spans a decade. Some poets are most influenced by their mentor’s poems: reading Denise Duhamel’s poem “Bulimia” gave Beth Ann Fennelly “the courage to be unsavory”; Valerie Martinez writes: “Joy Harjo’s poetry has been a force against my own destruction.” It is this sense of urgency that colors many of these poets’ early experiences as writers, and their mentors give them permission to speak their truths, to go against the grain of what is expected of them as both writers and women.

Some of the poets do not know their mentors personally (and Kirsten Kaschock’s essay is titled “on Being Nonmentored”), but for the poets who do, their mentoring relationships are intimate and involved. They not only learn how to craft their poems, but how to carve out lives for themselves as women writers. Jorie Graham taught Katie Ford that “the decision to write poems is… to live inside one’s difficulties, to inhabit them, to trespass against the solitudes they wish to keep.” Erika Meitner, a firstgeneration Jewish American poet who is pursuing a Ph.D. in Jewish Studies, learns that in order to take risks in writing, one must take risks in life. Each time Meitner runs into her mentor Rita Dove, Dove has taken up something new, from singing lessons to target practice in a shooting range. Dove teaches Meitner that “you have to learn how to truly inhabit and push against the world rather than move through it as an afterthought.”

The woman-to-woman mentorships described in Women Poets on Mentorship: Efforts and Affections are inspiring and serve as a reminder of the timelessness and unique importance of such relationships in the lives of young women. The book would make the perfect gift for an aspiring woman writer, but would appeal to anyone interested in the lively and absorbing stories of 24 women writers on the brink of discovery.

Wendy Wisner’s first book of poems, Epicenter, was published in 2004.