On Mentoring

 

“In order to be a mentor, and an effective one, one must care. You must care. You don’t have to know how many square miles are in Idaho, you don’t need to know what is the chemical makeup of chemistry, or of blood or water. Know what you know and care about the person, care about what you know and care about the person you’re sharing with.” — Maya Angelou

 

Sustenance                                                                                                                                                                        

We all know that sharing our work, at any stage, is an act of daring. It requires a courageous willingness to be exposed. An effective mentor creates a safe space for this risk, engaging the writer in conversation that begins with and builds trust, curiosity, nourishment, and enrichment. Like the writing craft itself, the mentoring process should be liberating.

As a collaborative endeavor, the mentoring process flourishes when there is positive, productive, and fluid conversation.  Honest and open, I am as focused on and dedicated to the writer as I am to their work—they are the one with the vision and the bulk of the labor. Exploration and learning should be poet-driven, and I acknowledge that each individual comes with their own prior knowledge, experience, and working style.  I’m willing to be challenged by writers, their process and their material. As a mentor, I position to enhance these elements, as the writer strengthens their own sense of, and value of, their distinctive creative output.

Substance

At the start of mentoring, by email correspondence or Skype, I gather a sense of what a poet is hoping for with our engagement, specifically what overall goals and outcomes they have in mind. Certainly, each writer has their own vision for what they want to achieve. Understanding this frames how I approach our interaction and sets a guideline for accomplishing the desired end results in an ideal way. I work to encourage a writer’s comfort, curiosity, and risk.

Regularly through the process, I ask for feedback on what methods are fruitful and about how the poets I’m working with might feel stuck. My role as a mentor evolves to continue to meet their expectations, which do often change. I read, re-read, and re-read submitted work, willing to see that I had it all wrong the first read through. It’s a immersion.

Each new conversation scaffolds from our last. I ask probing and prompting questions, offer revision strategies, compile readings lists and research material, and integrate generative writing exercises if desired. I also provide magazine/book publication and grant application advice. I give comprehensive feedback, in a purposeful and considered way. I am there to listen, to guide, to note the poet’s strengths, to draw out their own creativity, to give encouragement if and when they feel lost, and to promote a poet’s confidence to venture out onto new ground.

One of the most challenging acts for a writer is to achieve their vision for their work. As a mentor, I foster their practice, helping them actualize richer, more fully-spirited poetry, as well as a richer, more fully-spirited craft. Together, we investigate the overall intention behind the work, clarity, precision, nuance and complexity, sound and structure. Sometimes this may simply mean inspiring and advising them to identify what is unique about it, not in a precious kind of way but in a manner that recognizes the ways in which the writing startles and up-ends the reader’s thinking and feeling. This doesn’t always come from a questioning of ‘best fit’ for the work, but it certainly points out entries towards deepening a poem or the poet’s approach to writing itself.

A great pleasure for me is suggesting detailed line edits and ways to enhance the poem or manuscript’s structure. Part of my strategy is to invite poets to express why and how they feel a particular piece is working well—what specifically do they like about it? Then, to enhance content and tone, I examine each element (i.e. word, line break, layout) to see if it suits and elevates the poet’s vision, while also letting the overall work indicate for itself what it strives to be. Every element is interconnected and each must work on its own. I emphasize the need for active, purposeful, and vital choices.

A poet often suspects instinctively what impasses may exist in their writing. As their guide, I draw this out, while also giving each person a heightened sense of their individual strengths. Poet-identified concerns become opportunities for confidence. If appropriate, I do encourage risk outside of comfort zones, but I also emphasize that this field of creativity is a home for all kinds of work. An inclusive community is vital.

 Confidence

A gauge of success for me as a mentor is to see poets thrive. Students I’ve taught at Carleton University had the experience of public readings and seemed to genuinely appreciate their work being received in this way, and many past students have since received acclaim for their work. My involvement with Ottawa Supportive Housing and Mental Health Services’ “Footprints to Recovery” program for people living with mental illness was astounding. I witnessed a poet transform to find strengthened autonomy, transitioning from working in a place of fear to one of confidence. Her writing did refine over the course of twelve weeks, but it was the remarkable change in her sense of self and her new found value in and respect for her creative process that affected me most. The program culminated with this poet reading, chapbook in hand, at a fundraiser in front of 200 people. Shortly after, she received her first acceptance to a publication. A poet flourishing in their uniqueness is my motivation and my reward.

For more information on the mentoring and editing services I provide, please see The Poetry Lab page where you can find three packages reflecting three levels of engagement.

I welcome the opportunity to work with all poets, emerging and established, and I support the Ontario Arts Council’s policy on Priority Groups and the Canada Council for the Arts’ statement on Equity. An inclusive, barrier-free community is a necessity.