Connecting the Generations: Part 2

Posted on July 21, 2015


Find Part 1 Here

I can hardly express the sense of pride and satisfaction I feel at seeing Lia Greenwell’s successes as a writer, a scholar, a teacher, and a mentor. When I decided to write about my career as a teacher, I knew I’d ask her to be a part of the project. I asked her to write about mentors. This is what she wrote.

Dear lisa,

The word “mentor” is thrown around a lot in low-residency MFA in Creative Writing programs (not the one I attended in particular, where it is a called a “supervisor” but generally). When students in these programs say “mentor,” they often mean the person they will study with for the semester, the person who will read their work and respond. The loose use of this term always hollowed it for me, someone who has been lucky enough to be mentored into a life in poetry, one I couldn’t have imagined for myself 10 years ago.

I was first mentored by you, lisa, when I was 15 years old and in your English class.  What made you a mentor, not only a teacher, to me, was that you nurtured me as a whole person—seeing that my creativity was linked to who I profoundly was but had not yet discovered. So, it was not just talent that was nurtured, but me—an awkward and therefore occasionally biting 15 year old who loved to read. Mentorship is holistic in this way. It is encompassing and ongoing.  Like when we met at Big Boy to talk before I was supposed to go to Church on a Sunday with my family.  Wasn’t that a moment where it was clear how many forces were at play, and how I would need to take a stand for my ability to make choices? You helped me grow into my own autonomy by showing me alternate paths, alternate ways to live.

We kept in touch throughout college, and you continued to let me know how my work was useful to other students, and I would send you my writing from my first poetry workshop as an undergraduate.  What this illustrates about mentorship for me is how it is flexible. You did not see our roles as rigid: you, the teacher, and I, the student. Mentorship should allow for growth of all parties, the sharing of power.

In college, I was mentored by a poetry professor, Diane. Diane was intimidating to start.  She ranked poems from best to worst in front of the class. She suffered no fools!  When she said something complimentary, however, I knew that she meant it. I took her beginning and advanced workshops, which exhausted most of the poetry writing curriculum. She went from professor to mentor when I began an independent study with her at her home. Each week, we would meet alone, read from a book of poems we selected and critique my poem for the week.

Diane has an incredible sense of hospitality.  She would brew a big pot of tea from her wall of loose leaf teas, have fruit or pastries around. We did this for two years, sometimes with other students joining us. She was always critical, but she also reflected back to me my poetics. She reveled in the sense of lushness and physicality in my work—she showed me what was unique about myself. She, too, was interested in me as a whole person—in my family and roommate dramas, in my other interests like cooking and farming. She was generous towards me, paying me silly amounts of money to reshelve the walls of poetry books that lined her living room (she had a “novel room” upstairs!). I could tell this was more than convenience—she wanted to help me in any way she could. When I moved to New York, she gave me a dress and jacket of hers, and a photo of her. She said she would miss me, which from her meant a lot.

After I moved to New York, she continued to invite me to Skype in to her weekly poetry workshop. This fall, she did a reading in NYC which I attended, and she treated me to an incredible dinner. I will always appreciate what Diane gave me, how she saw me—that is, a capable, talented, passionate artist.

Photo Credit: Tyler Klifman

Photo Credit: Tyler Klifman

In graduate school, I had four “supervisors” over the course of my two years there, and only some became mentors. The difference being that the mentors did not just respond to my poems in a perfunctory manner. They wanted me to think LARGE, about poetics, about my intentions and motivations as an artist. They kept in touch over time; their commitment didn’t end when the term did. They sought to give me a “leg up” as time went on by offering their counsel on matters of the writing life, by keeping the door open for conversation.

There is also an ineffable part of the mentorship equation—our connection as human beings.  Part of mentorship on the part of the mentor is sharing themselves. Not only the mentee can be vulnerable. Each person must share of themselves to develop trust and respect. I’ve felt this in all of my mentor/mentee relationships.

It has been gratifying to return as a mentor to your classroom. After reading through your students’ responses to my visit, I was surprised at how much they got out of such a short session. My time and preparation seemed small compared to the impact it had and the insights of your students.

As a mentor, I hope to show a possible trajectory for students that they might not have imagined.  The mentors I’ve had have shown me different lives of writers and thinkers, helping me to envision the broad plane of possibility in my own life. I hope to be able to offer that to students from my own hometown, who are from the same cloth as me.

Indeed, Lia’s virtual visit did make a huge impact on students. In her end-of-year portfolio reflection, Hannah wrote, “Along with Szymborska’s poetry came one of my favorite days of the whole year, discussions with Lia Greenwell. Her insight and knowledge about the poems just opened up so many more ways to think about it for me. Not only what the poem says and what it may be meaning, but also how it was translated and whether they translated important things like how it sounded. Did they translate that Szymborska used light or heavy diction, did they translate the alliteration or the significance of the number of syllables? Talking with Lia always helped me view poetry so much more complexly.”

In 2009, Lia and I decided to become pen pals–on paper! We decided that we like writing on paper, we like getting mail, and we like supporting the postal workers’ union, so we’d write letters. In her latest letter, Lia wrote:

I am at a cafe before work, having just come from an interview with a very cool mentoring organization called Girls Write Now. They pair professional writers with “high need” high school girls to work on writing as well as college prep. 100% of their mentees have gone on to college. I’ll find out in a few weeks if I am a finalist. If so, I’ll be part of orientation and trainings in September, followed by weekly meetings with my mentee to work toward her writing goals. They have Saturday workshops once per month in a different genre each time! In my interview I got to talk about my experiences (physically and via Skype) in your classroom, and the importance of my mentorship in high school. I hope I become part of the program. It will make for a very full fall, but I’m excited by the possibility of mentoring a young woman writer and learning more skills as a teacher.

Lia was accepted to the program. More recently, Lia was awarded the Beebe Graduate Teaching Fellowship at Warren Wilson College, Asheville, NC, where she will be teaching courses in composition and creative writing to undergraduate students starting in Fall 2015. I know that Lia will be an excellent mentor to all those who will have the privilege of working with her. In my mind, I’m waving to her students, as my mentor, Cathy Fleischer, once waved to my students in the bleachers at a soccer game long ago, connecting the generations.