1. Can a poet’s mentorship exist unawares to mentor and mentee? Must a mentor love all the mentee’s efforts? A mentorship, after all, involves master and apprentice, advice that is passed down, and what I am about to discuss involves players, two poets, who fulfill both roles and wisdom passed one. If this relationship, if we can call it one, isn’t acknowledged at the time, can we name it so after the fact, years, decades later?
2. I’ve been thinking about these questions lately as I look back at mentorships that I have had, or could have enjoyed, if only I were more open to having them.
2a. For a writer to expect mentorships from a poetry teacher, to even envision such a thing happen, requires models. This is true. Witnessing a real, live mentorshop growing up in many ways offers a possibility that it can happen to you as well. Although I have had many excellent teachers in my lifetime, I never thought I could I’ve enjoyed the benefits of having mentor.
3. In Fall 1991, I took my first real poetry workshop led by Michael S. Weaver (now Afaa M. Weaver), paid for with money I had gotten from a product liability settlement when a lawnmover ran over my ankle. I was a nonmatriculated student, admitted, bafflingly, by the same English Department I’d tormented for five years as an undergraduate.
4. Instead of living in Camden, I lived in nearby Haddon Heights, in an apartment with a manchild psychology grad student obsessed with the English band Ultravox and a very large woman with a boyfriend who liked to cross-dress when they were making love upstairs. When I heard those size 15 pumps plunk on the floor, followed shortly by beams buckling, I knew it was time for headphones and poems.
4a. At night I shelved books in the library, looking over my shoulder for a violent ex-girlfriend who, when I moved out, had put my album collection and clothes on the curb. It sounds worse than it was: I lived above an awesome record store and across the street from a place that sold the best panzarottis ever made by mankind.
5. Our class met in the special collections room in Rutgers Camden’s Paul Robeson Library, around a large wooden table upstairs surrounded by books inside glass-enclosed shelves significant to South Jersey’s rich history. As a stand-up comedian said once when visiting our campus, “you can just feel the history seeping through the painted-over cinderblocks.”
6. All that didn’t matter. Sitting there, I felt like I had made it to The Show. The Poetry Show. I was chomping on the bit to write poems, real poems: not apprentice work or mere exercises for class, but poems I would have written anyway, poems for the ages.
7. God I was serious. I read T.S. Eliot’s essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” on a monthly basis, pondering over statements like “The emotion of art is impersonal” and the indispensability of history and tradition “to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year,” an age I was approaching. The papers, cringe-worthy in their dudgeon and formality, were supposed to cover “prosody,” and even though I had looked the term up, I hardly mentioned the “science and study of poetic meters and versification,” choosing to focus instead on my own struggles to Find My Own Voice. Which is pretty much what I’m still doing, as I think of it.
8. I see now that Eliot was doing some pretty entry-level straw man shit, right from the beginning. “In English writing we seldom speak of tradition,” he writes, “though we occasionally apply its name in deploring its absence.” Of course now I can question if we ever seldom spoke of tradition, but since T.S. Fucking Eliot was saying it, I took it all as bible-truth.
8a. “When I write now,” I wrote in a paper from that semester, “I try to make sure I’m not stepping on my traditions’ toes too much.” Reading other people’s poetry “comes in handy” when writing one’s own poetry, I was proud to point out. “A critical understanding of my aesthetics dictate that suggesting changes in someone else’s lines aren’t really suggesting changes in someone else’s lines, but a way of breaking the critical ice with another poet.” I was great at parties.
9. There were 23 students, huge for a graduate class. I didn’t care. I wanted to be the star of the class. I was a 22-year-old English grad and felt like I was running out of time.
10. Weaver wasn’t your typical professor, and this is where the notion of mentorship begins. He worked in a factory in Baltimore for more than 10 years before moving on in the world of writing. By the slowness of his gait, his shoulders, I could tell he’d lifted things, moved large things around. My dad’s Teamster shoulders rounded down like his. There’s a certain way people who work on their feet and do physical labor sit in a chair. I still sit that way, years away from mopping and washing cars. Weaver sat that way, too.
11a. He was the first professor—really, the first person–I had who seemed to understand what “blue collar” really meant while offering model for breaking the mold. Tall, black, about 40, Weaver would walk into the room and rarely move from his chair until the class was over. I hung on his every word.
12. It was a workshop, the kind where you make copies of your poems and exchange them with the class, but it wasn’t just about that. Weaver made us read. A lot. We bought about 20 books by current poets that semester.
12a. It was all killer and no filler: Lucille Clifton, Sharon Olds, Allen Ginsberg, C.K. Williams, Garrett Hongo, Li Young Lee. I had a bodily reaction to these lines by Philip Levine’s “What Work Is,” from the book of the same name. It’s not an understatement that poetry—reading it, talking about it, listening to it, and writing it—saved me, gave me purpose. During that workshop, I wrote, like, 5-6 poems a week, a rate that I can only dream of now, and came into Weaver’s class with a fire I can also only dream of now.
12b They’re all terrible, of course, the poems. I did, however, know how to give things titles, probably most of my reading came from record stores: “Eliot’s Religion & a New Way to Screw,” “Complicated Bar Elegy,” “The Aesthetics of the Pennsauken Mart,” “I Always Fall in Love with Waitresses.” I don’t mind reading the titles. It’s the poems I see now that were under-nourished by reading, experience, technique. You name it.
13. But Weaver saw something. Toward the end of the semester, Michael and I sat down in his office and, in his deep voice, asked me a question that changed the course of my life.
14. “Well Dan,” he said, looking at a stack of poems, “what are you going to do with all these poems?”
14a. In previous attempts to put a name on the moment after I heard this question, I’ve used words like “life-changing,” “earth-moving,” and “epiphany.” But lately, I’ve just used the word “mentor.” Afaa Weaver was my mentor. A mentor does more than validate of a student’s work, to be sure, but with this question, Weaver became mine.
14b. Before I could process all this, we talked about this thing called graduate school, where you can get a degree in creative writing. In poetry! I’d never heard of such a thing. The idea seemed ridiculous to me, at least at first. Ridiculous and glorious, I mean. It also seemed too good to be true.
14c. I resisted. I said that I wanted to live out in the real world, whatever the hell that meant. Can I go back and slap myself?
14c. “Well Dan, you could keep writing poems and see what Beer Guzzler Joe at the bar has to say about them,” Weaver said. “Or you could find other poets and study with someone whose work you respect.”
15. We talked about New York City. “You can always find a street corner,” Weaver said, “where people will clap for whatever you’re doing.” People would clap? For me?
16. Is that mentorship? I hope it is.
17. Let’s be honest: although Weaver and I shared a lot—poetry and work, a love for Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays”—but we were totally different people. And to expect a mentor requires no small amount of entitlement, and if there was anything I wasn’t in my twenties, it was entitled. In young adulthood, the full effect of one’s background still asserts itself, and I was taught to expect less so that nothing disappointed. Lots of things disappointed me back then. Weaver was not one of them.
17a. What I have learned is that it’s best to acknowledge one’s mentors, and, two decades later, that’s better than not doing anything at all. I look back at times with a terrible regret for not being more open to having mentors or acknowledging them. I think of Afaa Weaver now as a mentor, one of only a few, but that’s all you need in a lifetime. Thank you.