Guest Blog Post, Heather Foster: Fifty Ways to Leave Your Mentor

Heather Foster

Just drop off the key, Lee

And get yourself free

–  Paul Simon

 We begin romantic relationships with the best of hopes. We believe in forever, or at least, we thrive on the thrill of not knowing how or how long a relationship will endure. How happy or miserable can we possibly be? At what point does the façade wear off so that we start leaving our dirty socks in the bathroom floor, stop pretending we don’t eat Twinkies at 1:00am? And how, in a flurry of rage or discovery, or in a moment of can’t-take-the-standstill-anymore, will it end, once and for all? When will we change our Facebook status to “single” or “it’s complicated”? And how will it feel when people tell us, “I’m so sorry you and so-and-so broke up”?

A writing mentorship is a kind of love story, a kind of celebrity crush come true. As an undergrad, I was told that the MFA was an apprenticeship, and that I should choose a program with poets whose work I loved. I did. I picked a poet whose books wormed their way into my soul and left me dying to know how he could help me—me, the underprepared unlikely MFA candidate, who had just switched from pre-med to English 18 months before that moment, who hadn’t read or written nearly enough—learn to write great poems.

The first morning of my first residency, I met him. He walked into the room, tall and grey and good looking, but with an air of assholery that didn’t sit well with me. He was still wearing sunglasses, and his hair seemed to have been styled via a handful of gel and a few quick trips around the block in a convertible. He was in shorts and sandals. And when he opened his mouth, he spoke loudly in a thick New York accent. He seemed to know everything, and to want to be sure we recognized it.

This wasn’t going to work, Heather the farm girl, who drove a pickup truck with no cruise control, who still had red mud on the tires, and the hotshot New York poet. In our first conference, he asked what poetry I’d read. My answer sent him on a tirade about getting serious, about being in over my head, about how far behind my classmates I was. I hated him, and I thought about quitting the program. I went back to my room and packed everything up—everything except his books, which I’d left on my nightstand, hoping to have him sign.

I picked up my favorite in the stack and opened it. All over again, I fell in love with it, and I did what any girl does when she likes a boy who seems out of her league—I resolved to make him like me back.

That semester, I took masochism to new heights, cranking out sestinas and sonnets, reading twice the recommended number of books, doing annotations on all of them, listening to and desperately trying to implement my mentor’s suggestions for my poems. His passion for poetry was wonderfully contagious, and we turned out to love many of the same poets. Sometimes, he’d call what I’d written “bullshit,” but only when it was totally true, and I came to crave that no-nonsense attitude. When the praise came, I knew he meant it, and during the time we worked together, I lived for it.

Three years later, after my thesis defense, I went back to my motel room and cried like a brokenhearted seventh grader. The defense went brilliantly. I passed with flying colors. My committee members were pleased. But my time with my beloved mentor was officially over.

He had become a surrogate poetry father to me. Even though I knew all along the end was coming, when it came, it hurt. Because when a mentorship is at its best, you give yourself over to it; you become a willing horse to the shadow of your teacher’s whip. You let yourself forget where it’s going.

When it ends, it ends on good terms, and you find yourself in foreign territory. You see him again someday, with other students, and you want to punch their noses in. You can’t write a damn thing post thesis, and this is totally normal, but you don’t know that yet. You want to talk to him again, but you’re afraid to be a nuisance. You send heavily edited emails at carefully spaced intervals so as not to appear like a stalker.

You are grieving everything—the end of the routine, the end of the feedback, the end of his constant motivation. Your toes are curled over the rim of a canyon and you are shouting his name across a vast chasm and your whole life is the echo it makes.

Eventually, you realize he misses you, too. Eventually, you reach a frequency of communication you can live with. He hasn’t vanished into the abstract. He is still a source of encouragement.

Keep writing, he tells you, every time you speak. So you do. Finish that book, he tells you. So you do. Keep me posted, he says. So you do. And that urge to please a beloved mentor—that desperate need for his atta girl—it never goes away. You never stop hearing his voice in your head when you revise. You never throw away the drafts with his notes on them.

Yes, there will be times when you will not be able to write, no matter what. There will be times when you’ll think of quitting. There will be times when you will drink a caramel vodka milkshake at 10:00am on a Thursday (yes, it happened).

But here’s the thing—you’ll let the misery have its moment, but then you’ll do what you learned to do years ago, the first time you felt that way. You’ll go to the shelf, and you’ll pull down his books, and they’ll remind you why you never left. And you will take those poems into your body like a cure.

Guest Blog Post, Dinah Lenney: On Finding a Palette In Just the Right Key

Dinah LenneyA confession: I am—in the car, for instance, or on my stationery bike—likely to listen to oldies stations; what’s more, I’m inclined to sing along, and not very well (pity my husband and children), with the likes of Earth, Wind, and Fire, Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, Bonnie Raitt, and the Doobie Brothers. Also Paul Simon. Also Etta. And Chaka. And Mel Tormé. In this way, I’m starring in my-life-the-musical, and it’s mostly a comedy, mostly a slice of domestic pie. Not that a good song can’t make me teary (“Try a Little Tenderness”), but I’m scoring the ordinary here: trips back and forth to campus, to Trader Joe’s, to the post office, to the dry cleaner; or a cycling break between folding the laundry and starting dinner. I mean to say it’s only every so often that I’m after something loftier—not for lofty reasons, mind you—it’s when my soul is roughed up in one way or another, and lyrics won’t do: rather, they distract or annoy—they get in the way and that’s when I opt for the local classical station, KUSC.

So—all that preamble—the point is, you know Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings”? Of course you do, I promise you do—I’m not putting on airs, really not: it’s not like I knew what I was hearing when it came on Pandora a few weeks back—me pedaling away, not in the mood for words, tuned into Vivaldi Radio therefore (which is one of my stations). I had to shift in my seat to see my computer screen on the floor beside me, to put a name to the music that was turning me inside out—the real me, exposed and on display—those strings (violins, violas, cellos) pulling me along, and up and up. The stakes started high and they just kept rising—taking me to the edge of something important, some recognition, precious and momentous (and sad), unnameable and inevitable—
and here’s what I wound up asking myself: Who wouldn’t want to write something like that? Who wouldn’t want to make that happen on the page, with prose?

See, used to be, I had this idea that writers could do for painters and musicians what neither could do for us. As if writing had something on the other arts—

writing as descriptive—writers straining to describe, getting as close as we can, every once in a while managing to pin the thing down, whatever it is; although, more often than not, as soon as the moment is writ, it’s lost to us, isn’t it? Whereas music and fine art, I suddenly realized, inform the moment over and over—are the moment, in fact—the moment we writers can only approximate. Music and art don’t aspire to sentences and paragraphs—don’t concern themselves with the ekphrastic, for instance; describing art is a writerly preoccupation, whereas painting and music, I decided, have a better shot at the real deal. O woe.

This discovery, when it happened, had something to do with the Adagio, sure, and everything to do with my own frustration; my inability to put this life to words—my longing for colors just outside my imagination, and the ability to diminish or augment a phrase (like a chord), and so fill it with hope, or sorrow, or joy (or all three at once).

Here I’d been lording it over the others—those other disciplines—as if they don’t generally transcend my own efforts. Now I realized—now I considered: What is Chagall’s “The Birthday” if not a poem; and Hopper’s “Nighthawks” tells so many stories; “Christina’s World” by Wyeth feels like memoir, doesn’t it?; and what about De Kooning’s “Self Portrait with Imaginary Brother,” what is that—some wonderful blurring of genres there, right? And with music: consider Ravel’s “Pavane on the Death of a Child”; “The Poet’s Heart” by Grieg; what about Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” and Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata”—I’m going to do better? I’m going to describe to you how Beethoven contains the moon in the sky? As if he needs me to translate; as if, having heard his sonata, I have anything new and worthy to say about the light of the moon. Deeper I plunged into my funk.

But then. A few days after my brush with Barber, on my way to the market, still tuned intoVan Gogh's Mulberry Tree classical, I heard Erik Satie: “Three Pieces in the Shape of a Pear.” A composer—a pianist—with still life on his mind. And a few weeks after that, at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, I found myself rooted for a very long time in front of van Gogh’s “The Mulberry Tree,” in which he intended for the brushstrokes to be “firm and interwoven with feelings like a piece of music played with emotion.”

Turns out, we’re all on the same team, right? All rooting for art in the broadest sense, all wanting and willing to beg, borrow, and steal from nature and each other, since, so wrote Nabokov, “Both [are] a form of magic, both [are] a game of intricate enchantment and deception.”

And so. I’m back at it—back to work, I mean. Determined to compose an essay in Bb for piano and bass: it will maybe feature a piccolo; cymbals, too, perhaps, I’m not certain just yet. I will paint with a palette of blues and greens not found in nature—or only found in nature: that would be something, wouldn’t it? The canvas will have texture; and the song will take my reader right to the edge; and he’ll want to cry out —to get as close as he can and reach into the frame and touch…