Having a mentor who believes in your talent is invaluable to an artist. In a world that doesn’t really care all that much about what you are doing, having someone “get it” and think it’s worthwhile can be the impetus that carries you for years—maybe forever. This has certainly been the case with me. I have had two chief mentors in my poetry-writing career: Carol Ann Russell and Jane Hirshfield. Carol Ann was the first, and probably the most influential. I’ve talked about all the ways she has influenced me, but never written about them. Last Friday night, I had the great pleasure of seeing Carol Ann, reading with her, and exchanging our books. As we were signing them to each other, she said, “Did you ever think, all those years ago, that someday we would be doing this?” That got me thinking about all those years ago, and how her mentorship persists even in her physical absence.
I started writing poetry somewhat seriously about 20 years ago when I was assigned to teach Creative Writing at WoodburyHigh School in Woodbury, MN. I had written a few poems as a child and as a teen, but hadn’t stuck with it. I took a couple of writing classes in my undergraduate years at IowaStateUniversity, but none in poetry. So I felt a little at sea during the poetry writing unit in the class I was teaching. I decided the best way to see if the assignments were useful and inspiring was to do them myself, along with the students. After those undergraduate years of half-heartedly (and unsuccessfully) flailing away in fiction and creative non-fiction, something clicked; I had found my genre.
Fast-forward five years to a point of huge upheaval in my life. I was going through a terrible divorce, and felt that as a matter of sheer survival, I had to do something different. I asked for a leave of absence from teaching and entered graduate school at BemidjiStateUniversity (in the interim I had relocated to northern Minnesota). After two weeks of classes, including Carol Ann Russell’s fantastic poetry-writing course, the school where I was teaching called me back to work. They hadn’t been able to find a long-term substitute.
I called my professors at BSU and explained why I would have to drop their classes. All of them were appropriately reassuring and kind, and wished me well. Then I called Carol Ann. I had saved her for last, because hers was the class I hated leaving most. I said “I’m sorry, but I have to drop your class,” and explained the circumstances. She didn’t hesitate in her response: “No, you are not dropping this class. You have talent, and I won’t allow you to drop. If we have to meet in coffee shops on weekends, or meet by phone, we will. You are not dropping this class.” This is when my poetry writing life began. It’s a cliché to say that I will never forget it, but I will never forget it. At a time in my life when everything was dark, Carol Ann lit a lantern that still burns.
There were other transformational moments in my work with Carol Ann. Three stand out most in my memory.
For the first few weeks we worked together on my poem drafts, and I happily incorporated every suggestion that Carol Ann made or even hinted at. Change that word? Sure. Cut out the third stanza? You bet. My confidence was building, as was my distress at my life circumstances, and I wrote a draft that was far more honest and revealing than any I’d written up to that point. Carol Ann made a suggestion for a revision, and I very meekly resisted making the change. Her face lit up and she said “Now, you’re a poet. Now you are writing something that means something to you.” It is hard to express how transformational that was for me. I’d been so steeped in being “good” and “nice,” in getting gold stars and A’s and awards for compliance. To get affirmation for being honest, and not-nice and contrary was a new and life-changing thing. I still struggle to be as honest and as open in my poems as I’d like to be, but I remember Carol Ann’s encouragement and try to be true.
Carol Ann was also the catalyst for a second transformation in my writing life: she encouraged me to work with Jane Hirshfield. I was looking for a workshop to attend, and Carol Ann brought me the brochure for the Split Rock Arts Program at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, and said “If I could pick any teacher for you, this is who I’d pick.” I took that Hirshfield workshop, and began a long period of seeking out her teaching and her writing. I’ve had the incredible luck to work with her several times since then, and her teaching and her writing are second only to Carol Ann’s early influence in making me a poet.
The third transformational moment in my work with Carol Ann was the day she said “I’m not sure there’s much more I can teach you. You’ve got it. Whatever comments I would make on your poems now would just reflect the places where your style differs from mine.” That was a scary and a thrilling moment for me. It felt good to know that I had internalized at least some of her poetic wisdom, and a little frightening to have to go forward with it on my own.
Sometime, I’ll write about other adventures in poetry with Carol Ann, like our 2005 trip to Italy. But for now, I’ll leave you with what I hope reads as a tribute. It certainly is intended as one.