How They So Often Fail Us

As a long-time student of poetics and literary theory, I have spent quite a bit of time in various education systems. I have seen firsthand how easy it is for the system to break down, to take the money of students, issue us a few homework assignments and then leave us to our own devices. Teachers intent on furthering their own careers, selling their creative work, their names and in general seeking for more and more self-empowerment and self-promotion, so often overlook one of the primary elements of their jobs: to make it possible for their students to join them.

My experiences with most teachers in this regard has boiled down to strictly regulated “office hours” often seeing students in fifteen-minute increments and using most of that time to talk about their own projects and how their projects relate to something you, as a student are considering. I once spoke with a teacher about a project I was working on, only to have him come to class the next week incredibly excited about a project HE was working on that completely mirrored the project I had told him about the week before. On top of that, he failed to even acknowledge how speaking with me had stimulated his own creative process– something that a person is more likely to communicate to someone he thinks of as a peer and not to a student or mentee. Teachers are quick to suggest books to read or readings to attend, and that’s great. But in actual conversation, talking about theoretical problems one is looking to solve within the confines of one’s on poetry, the results are almost always disappointing.

I am not asking any teacher or mentor to take responsibility for my success; but I do want to demand that they take an active interest in the work that I, along with other students, are producing. The trouble is, many teachers consider students a platform for sounding off their own knowledge and ideas without giving credit to the students for having unusual and creative thought processes of their own. Instead of viewing students as potential contemporaries, established poets and authors often view their students as their audience. Students who learn under established poets will likely eventually require their own students to read the works of the poets they have studied with, thus keeping the poet’s name and vision alive. The time when a student will have students of his or her own seems far enough in the future to allow the teacher to avoid taking immediate responsibility for a student’s success. That always seems to fall on some nameless individual in the distant future. As a thirty-something, however, I feel that both my biological and success clocks (both personal and professional) are ticking away, wasting precious seconds on non-committal professors and would-be mentors.

One of the problems with the teacher/student or mentor/ mentee relationship is a failure to meet with their pupils on equal footing. And, from their point of view, why should they? With so many accolades and publications to their names, teachers often feel that they have reached such a high plane that no current student could compare. This causes the teacher to be so elevated in their thinking that they aren’t even willing to give students credit for being able to think of anything new. (This is my assessment based on the behavior of these teachers. If their intent is different, then they need to step up and show us by their actions that they disagree.) Often, when a work is presented to the professor of literature, their first thought is to point out any breakage of rules and to chalk that breakage up to inexperience. Based on this assessment, they will then suggest how the student should adhere to the rules in order to make the work better. However, professors don’t usually consider that such breakages could be intentional, based on theoretical principles that the “student” is trying to subvert. Consider Godard’s breaking of the “fourth wall” concept of film. Technically, it’s a mistake, but such “mistakes” intentionally call into question the watcher/reader’s role in the poem/story/film. Such discounting makes the “not-yet-emergent” writer’s advent into the “contemporary” category even more difficult to attain than it would be otherwise. The deck is stacked against us, so to speak.

Myself along with several other more gifted writers I know, suffer from a lack of a supportive community of established writers. Established (as opposed to “emergent”) writers tend to be insular, exclusive, and (sometimes without meaning to be) insulting in their consistent belief that “student writers” no matter their age or experience, are somehow beneath them and incapable of creating fresh, thought-provoking ideas. Many students have expressed disenchantment and anger at the poetry community’s consistent dismissal of us. Many of those established poets disdain the acquisition of the MFA as unnecessary, ruining the actual “raw creative genius” of works by making the production of poetry more studious and systematic, more self-aware. However, these naysayers are most often those upon whom the degree of Master of Fine Arts has already been conferred. Sure, it’s easy enough to say you shouldn’t desire to scale the heights when you are already sitting so high on a perch. Furthermore, WANTING the success that generally comes with acknowledgement is considered a base desire in many cases. If you “want it too badly”, you are somehow less than if you simply let the work speak for itself. This is based on an idea that success will come to you if you are deserving. Yet, amazing writers such as Lorine Niedecker were completely overlooked in their lifetimes and died practically unknown. The world realizes what a treasure has now been lost, but they realized this too late to save Niedecker’s journals, for example, which no doubt detailed her process and offered incredible insight into her craft. In fact, when she asked established and famed writer Louis Zukofsky (a friend and lover as well as mentor) to endorse one of her books, he refused even though she had given all of his work glowing reviews. I get angry every time I think about how Zukofsky hoarded his success. The world could have been offered more of Niedecker’s work and would have become richer for it.

As for myself, in all of the years of my writing practice, I’ve never had a “real” mentor. When in class, as soon as the semester is over, the dues have been paid, and the grades conferred, the teacher goes on his or her merry way, and young poets never usually hear from that professor again. Part of this is due to the nature of schooling and the fact that higher education is first and foremost a business. Schools take more and more unqualified graduate students in order to make more and more money. Teachers are loaded up with students, making it necessary to establish office hours in which students sign up to meet their teachers in fifteen minute increments. This is barely enough time to say “Hello,” much less than to explain a complex book or poem idea. Due to the overabundance of mediocre students, high performers are spurred on by the belief that if they continue to excel, getting better and better, eventually, they will stand heads above the crowd and a teacher will take an interest in the work and will be willing and ready to champion it. Time and time again, those who try this approach are often disappointed and eventually disheartened.

Of course, it is a student’s responsibility to ask for such championing. We have to let others know that we are serious in our intent to pursue success. But what happens when students have done everything within their power to prove themselves? Teachers are often too underpaid and too overworked to be able to notice new and exciting projects.

This last semester, for example, after being encouraged to go to a teacher’s office twice during the semester and present current work for additional commentary and discussion, I brought in a copy of my fledgling collection, Sotto Voce, for the teacher to see. During the meeting, I explained the project and the teacher expressed excitement about seeing my work and possibly working with me to some degree on my thesis. At the end of the semester, the work I submitted (probably about ten to fifteen poems) was returned with a note that said, “I’m going to wait to read this until all the thesis business is sorted out. I am drowning in student papers, but will very much look forward to reading your work when the time comes.” Unfortunately for me, the “time” never seems to come. After expressing interest in my thesis and working with me the next semester (“the Time”), this same teacher sent an email to me stating that she was not going to be available to work with me as either a thesis director or reader. She was “buried” in other student theses, of which mine was not one. This is only the latest in a string of disappointments I have experienced regarding poetry community and mentorship. A couple of years ago, when I first arrived in California, I thought my luck was about to change. I met Sharon Doubiago at New College of California and she heard me express frustration in class that I had never had a mentor. She offered to mentor me, and I must say, that of the mentors I’ve had (0), she has been, by far, the best one. I really admire her work and respect her poetic voice. I feel we have a similar aesthetic. She expressed real interest in my work, suggested corrections that were consistent with MY vision, and celebrated some publication victories with me through one line emails promising to read my work “soon” and let me know what she thought. But so far, it seems like more empty promises. That’s not to say that mentors don’t mean well. Currently, Sharon is in the middle of an extensive and emotional process of her own, and I understand that. I get it. But where are the days of old, when poets and mentors (Anne Sexton and W.D. Snodgrass, Tom Clark and Donald Hall, Denise Levertov and William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop, H.D. and Ezra Pound, to name a few) established long-standing epistolary relationships in which they could discuss complex problems related to their craft? Why have a whole generation of promising writers been thrown by the wayside by the very people they admire and rely on? The very individuals who are supposed to understand our difficult predicaments? Perhaps it is technology. Communication is so readily available that one-line correspondence is deemed sufficient. I personally am tired emailed red-herring promises of “I’ll read that later and send you my comments” or “We’ll talk” that never seem to materialize. Perhaps it’s the economy. Perhaps it’s oversight. Perhaps none of our work commands respect in their eyes. OR perhaps our “mentors” have neglected their duty and social responsibility to keep writing alive by nurturing and championing its new voices.

It’s not just poetry. In fact, my thoughts on this issue were once again brought to my attention when considering knights of the SCA and how often they fail those in their charge. As Tym and I were driving home from an event in Cynagua, we started discussing my belief that his mentors in Trimaris had ultimately failed him. It seems that those who have already been knighted for some time often forget what it is they have been charged to do. In Tim’s case, he has been squired to two knights who eventually dropped out of the group for various reasons. Life happens. I get it. Tym’s success is not entirely dependent on the mentorship of an established knight. There are things one is expected to do. A person must show an interest in being elevated. One must involve oneself in practice of the craft, must chase down opportunities to perform the craft and must endeavor to learn what it is they do not know. They must also become self-champions of a fashion, learning to market their own skills so that a mentor will not feel that time spent helping the individual to achieve recognition will be wasted or will at sometime reflect poorly on them. This means that mentors of all kinds (knights included) should be more selective of those they decide to mentor. Mentees also should have a responsibility of performing actions that illustrate their intent to succeed. Once an individual obtains a mentor, he or she must do everything in his or her power to maintain a good working relationship and to prove his or her continued interest. It is in both parties’ best interest that the mentee succeed since such success reflects well on the master.

Perhaps this reflection is not something that the master wants? A true mentor would desire that the student surpass him; however, the mentor must understand and accept the eventual fact of this eclipse which is necessary to further the cause. This does not debase the master, but merely builds upon the master’s legacy.

The art of self-promotion, which is required for success in any venue, is hard for some of us to learn. We expect that our work will speak for itself and gain recognition on its own merit. But we are taught that desiring recognition lessens our character in some way. Thus, we display through our actions the values that we want others to notice. We feel uncomfortable constantly bringing our work and passions to the attention of others. Such self-championing feels so. . . conceited. To constantly have to say, “Look at me!” in order to remain in the forefront of the thought of others enough to accomplish the goal seems antithetical to all we’ve been taught about the value of humility and authenticity. Knighthood, particularly, has come in the SCA to embody humility, teaching, service. Though, so often, it has become a way for the elevated individual to tout his or own ability while neglecting those they supposedly serve. Mentors seem to forget that we are working together collectively to build a dream. This is unfortunate and ultimately destructive.

As one who struggles hard to achieve, it feels terrible to be forgotten when you have put your passion so boldly on the line for others to scrutinize. Every snub, every deferment, every failure to acknowledge the skill of our work, or at the very least, our devotion to make it skillful, constitutes a slight of the most painful kind. It tears at our passions which define us;disheartens and embitters us.

I have been a writer since the age of twelve, at which time I penned my first complete novel. Crappy as it was, the completion itself represented a single-mindedness and self-discipline which is one of the greatest achievements of any writer and the most hard-earned and difficult skill to acquire. Yet, for all my work, I am not even yet considered “emergent.” If any other person had been practicing a craft for nineteen years,they would be considered “professional” and would be ready to teach and mentor others pursuing the craft of writing. My sheer “stick-to-it-iveness” should have been enough for some kind of recognition. But should everyone get a reward just for playing? Let’s face it: some writers (and SCA fighters, too)just aren’t “good”, no matter the amount of practice they have had. They perhaps lack some kind of natural talent or physical ability).However, many excellent writers (and fighters)fall beyond the wayside simply because they do not know how to market themselves (or they are not comfortable with doing so.) It is in this area where the mentor should take on the responsibility for championing the cause. Self-promotion is a difficult beast to tame. On the one hand, tooting your own horn lets people know what you are capable of (or at least what you BELIEVE yourself to be capable of). The loud trumpeting draws attention to what it is you are doing. On the other hand, such self-promotion does not often encourage humility and cooperation. And what happens if you fail? You lose credibility when you tout your own cause and fail, whereas, it is easier to recover your dignity after failure when it is someone else who has spoken on your behalf. Their speech could represent a goal you have yet to attain, not a promise you couldn’t deliver on.

Those who hold the keys to success should bear a certain responsibility for helping unlock the door for those who come after them.After all,it would behoove the successful to acknowledge that it is the “rest of us” to whom your future legacies will be entrusted.

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~ by ImaginaryCanary on February 27, 2011.

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