I was just watching an interview with Mark Wunderlich (a fine poet who teaches at Bennington, my alma mater) in which he spoke of an early correspondence he had, at age 19 or so, with acclaimed poet Mark Doty. Wunderlich says that when he sent a letter to Doty he felt he may as well have been sending it to Santa Claus. Two weeks later, a parcel of gifts arrived: two of Doty’s books and an encouraging letter.
This made me think about my poet-mentors.
Bob Arnold, my poetry teacher at Stoneleigh Burnham, was a maverick force in the all-girls’ private school and made me feel like an outlaw too, my holster full of half-cocked poems. He awarded me first place in the school’s poetry competition for a piece about rough sex that I delighted in reading aloud in front of the school on awards day (see my friend Susan Dodd’s illustration below – I can’t get enough of her awesome doodle). It was a glorious moment for a seventeen year old narcissist behind a podium, the poem making love in my sweaty hands.
My second mentor was Laurie Kuntz, a gentle, talented poet and friend of mine. We met in Misawa, Japan, when I was in my late twenties running a massage therapy school in a converted art gallery there. Though she was an award-winning poet, Laurie was kind and patient in her feedback of my stumbling poems and eventually I was publishing in the small press. We both delighted in writing poems about rural Japanese village life; so different from anything I had ever known: streets striped with drying seaweed, children walking mice on leashes at the seaside farmers’ market for ten yen, mamasans counting our fruit tab on abacuses, vending machines on the side of the highway selling Coke, raw eggs, and used panties, Shinto shrines in the forests with cigarette butts offered to nature spirits. Northern Japan is an embarrassment of poetry; her riches compensated for my early cumbersome verse and I started thinking I just might become a poet one day.
My third mentor was Li-Young Lee, one of my favorite contemporary poets. My experience with him was similar, I think, to Wunderlich’s experience with Mark Doty. I had just started up the online literary journal –Rock Salt Plum Review – and wrote to Lee asking if I could interview him. I was a complete unknown and my online journal was just cutting its teeth. I was pretty sure I wouldn’t hear back from him, especially since he didn’t have email at the time; getting back to me would involve answering all of my interview questions by hand, in an old fashioned letter. And he did just that. I couldn’t believe it:
“I sensed, even in early childhood, an infinitely receding background to my life, a thread reaching through my heritage and beyond it. Like threading the eye of a needle, or several eyes of several needles, in fact, that line up beginning with my heart, running through my parents’ hearts, and on toward God’s own oceanic frequency. Or like Odysseus shooting his arrow through the lined up axe heads. This isn’t just my ambition, Jalina, but what I assume, judging by the poets I love to read, to be the mission of poetry in general.”
Lee mentored me by taking me seriously, by investing hours of his life in my journal, by engaging with me thoughtfully, in human time. His meditative, gentle way mirrored his still-life poems. I was so pleased to walk the periphery of his mind for a little while, and to walk it one on one, slowly.
A few years later I wanted to join an MFA in Creative Writing program. The problem was, I didn’t have a high school diploma, let alone a BA, which of course was the prerequisite for an MFA. I looked into programs anyway, despite the long odds, and settled upon Bennington. I called the Director – the late, great Liam Rector – and told him my story. He laughed at my audacity in an avuncular, warm-hearted way and said he couldn’t stop me from applying. I did, and later that year I was in the program (here I’d like to also thank Nancy Henry, Kelli Russell Agodon, and Laurie Kuntz for their fabulous letters of recommendation, and Victoria Clausi for her many kindnesses from 2005-2010). The writing program changed my life. I flew from Germany on military cargo planes just to attend the residencies, and even though my attendance was choppy owing to my husband’s constant military deployments and TDY’s, I finally graduated after five years of pond-hopping. Liam’s generous spirit changed the trajectory of my life, and changed the way I see myself. I’m not sure I ever properly repaid him.
My Bennington instructors Henri Cole, Major Jackson, Susan Kinsolving, and Amy Gerstler were all incredibly supportive – Susan Kinsolving in particular. She encouraged me to write a poetic memoir about my unorthodox life in Europe. If she hadn’t nudged me and believed in me, I’m not sure I would have had the confidence to write it.
I’ll end with Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem “Shoulders”
stepping gently, looking two times north and south,
because his son is asleep on his shoulder.
No car must splash him.
No car drive too near to his shadow.
This man carries the world’s most sensitive cargo
but he’s not marked.
Nowhere does his jacket say FRAGILE,
HANDLE WITH CARE.
His ear fills up with breathing.
He hears the hum of a boy’s dream
deep inside him.
We’re not going to be able
to live in this world
if we’re not willing to do what he’s doing
with one another.
The road will only be wide.
The rain will never stop falling.