Wednesday, October 26, 2011

A Brief Field Guide: For Elizabeth

Reading over my previous posts, I realize I'm a bit of a whiner. "Bitch, you are IN PARIS. Act like it!" is, in fact, the first thing that came to mind after reading my last entry. So this week I am now acting like I am in Paris. I began by having the week off from classes (how French is that?), leaving me with ample free time to catch up on my reading and attend some art shows. This week, among other books, I've been reading Rebecca Solnit's A Field Guide to Getting Lost, which I thought would be an appropriate collection of essays for a year in which I myself hope to get lost--figuratively, if not literally, in my experiences here. The second thing I did this past week was to attend FIAC: an international contemporary arts fair in which 168 galleries from around the world gather at the Grand Palais to show off their wares. There were also some free art installations and videos around the Tuileries and the Jardin des Plants as well, so that those who couldn't afford the hefty 32 euro entry fee into the Palais could still get something out of this grand exposition.

As I was walking around the art fair, taking in the various canvases and art installations, I was thinking about Paris's long and illustrious history as a center of art, and was struck by something. A lot of the contemporary art in Paris galleries that I've seen so far seems, well, not very good. Not nearly as good as some of the contemporary work I've come across in LA or New York or even London. This puzzled me, as the museums here are fantastic, but the continued cultural production of art--the art on the ground, say--seems curiously out of date. This isn't to say that it isn't intriguing or occasionally even beautiful, it's just not terribly inspiring.

The second thing I thought was that it might be because contemporary artists in Paris are being buried by their competition. From the shop window dressers.

It's a cliché, I know, to say that the French are some of the most aesthetically motivated people on the planet. Still, one of the many things that makes Paris an endlessly fascinating city is all the ways that beauty works its way into people's everyday lives. It's not just the museums, the food, the architecture, the clothing; in other words, beauty that might be found in isolated moments that a consumer would actively seek out or purchase. A lot of this beauty is free or at least passively intersects these isolated moments. For instance, walking in Paris is as much about looking at what the people are wearing on the street, and gazing at the objects inside the shop window, gazing too at the display of the objects in the shop window, as it is about the architecture and sculptures of the city itself: the more self-consciously "artistic" contributions of civic life. The city seems to have cultivated a certain "seamlessness" between what is inside the gallery space and what is outside of it, what is purchasable and what is simply part of being alive, offered gratis to the casual viewer with or without money, but possessed of the willingness to really look and be present in the city.

For instance, you might go to Deyrolle to look at its amazing displays of every stuffed mammal and sea creature and insect in existence.

Or you could stop off at Sadaharu Aoki's Japanese-inspired patisseries and eat a yuzu tart.

Or you could wander past any one of Paris's thousand florist shops.

Or you might wander into the stamp collector's gallery near Rue Montmartre, and find some colorful stamps from Nicaragua for 3 euros.

(I know what you're thinking. It's the same thing I thought when I found these stamps. "Holy shit: I want to go to NICARAGUA!")

Or you could go to the myriad small parks around town, as I did a few days ago, walking the length of an old train trestle near the Bastille that was turned into a garden promenade.

This "seamlessness" which is, for me at least, quite charming, is something that seems to have caused some architectural concerns for some Parisians, if the billboard I read the other day is any indication. On a long white billboard that was meant also to act as a visual barricade for the reconstruction taking place behind it, was a quote from a Parisian architect (name I forgot: sorry) that said, essentially translated (and crudely remembered): "Paris is not a museum. We cannot limit our vision to the preservation of the past, but must continue to build structures that will keep Paris a capital of the modern world."

This was, interestingly, a billboard for the rebuilding of the new Samaritaine grand magasin.

The museum-like quality to Paris does not mean that everything is static or held to the same aesthetic ideal, and it certainly doesn't mean that looking is free, or at least financially "capped" at a small entry fee. Living in or even visiting Paris requires money, and "simply" looking inevitably leads to wanting, and wanting inevitably leads to handing over your rapidly thinning wallet to a shopkeeper. At some point looking in Paris is NOT free: it still comes with a cost, even if that cost is the pain of an unsanitary apartment in the 11th arrondisement, and one's own perpetually unsatisfiable desires.

One thing that struck me while wandering around the Palais this weekend was just how much Paris was all about this connection between art and commerce. While the galleries at FIAC seemed interested primarily in shocking viewers into stopping and "shopping" through either crude, absurd or deliberately UNartistic images, the Paris shop window invites the viewer to take part in a more conventionally sensuous experience, one that is both playful as well as visually satisfying. And yet the Paris shop window knows that it, too, is using a highly refined aesthetic to appeal to the gazer's consumerist sensibility. But, unlike FIAC, at least the Paris shop window has a good sense of humor about it.

In fact, the longer I spent at FIAC, the less interested I became in the art, and the more interested I became in the space that housed the art, and the people who were marketing and collecting and looking at the art: all things that seemed, in their way, to be far more artfully engaged than the "art" itself.

It also filled me with longing for the afternoon I spent at the Bon Marché where I had my usual aesthetic breakdown in the food pavilion.

Somewhere after I purchased the perfectly wrapped, perfectly shaped citron tartelette with meringue, after I drank the mint tea poured into its tiny white porcelain cup and wandered past the freshly buffed chrome cheese cave with the shopkeepers in their crisp aprons, then past the artfully arranged aisles of biscuits and dried fruit and pastas, on to the gourmet-inspired pre-made meals ready to purchase and eat on the sidewalk if I wished, I hit the fruit and vegetable displays. And there, dear reader, I lost it.

Because there, before my eyes, were the most delicious piles of bright red and pale green apples, the most tantalizing little half-pints of fresh raspberries, stacks of radishes and butter lettuce and fresh spinach, some sort of yam-sized root vegetable the color of arterial blood, butter-yellow and knuckle-sized cooking potatoes, cherry tomatoes cradled in plastic boxes, and a whole row of vegetables and lettuces being gently bathed with a rolling spray of mist more like the steam off a distant waterfall than anything contrived with a lowly grocer's hose.

It was, in short, the most beautiful grocery store I'd ever seen in my life.

When I told an American historian this the other day she laughed and said that there was a book recently published about the 19th Century controversy over the opening of the Bon Marché. Evidently, so much care had been taken over the aesthetic details of the store, critics were worried the effects would send the store's female patrons into something disturbingly akin to sexual ecstasy. "And based on your reaction, perhaps they were right!" she finished.

Perhaps they were. But thank GOD they went ahead and built that store.

But this kind of presentation isn't limited to the big stores, it's everywhere, from Colette (which didn't let me take pictures, but someday soon, please just go there) to the tiniest shop corner.

Interestingly, I was just reading another 19th Century writer who has been commenting on exactly this particular phenomenon. A few posts ago, my friend Elizabeth suggested that I track down a notable woman from the 19th Century who'd visited Paris and scope out some of the same places she visited. After rooting around, I found Frances Trollope, a prolific British writer from the early-mid 19th Century who wrote a book entitled, Paris and the Parisians in 1835. She's perhaps most famous for two other "works," however: her 1832 book, Domestic Manners of Americans (which I've also been dipping into), and Anthony Trollope, who was her son. The last fact alone was enough to make me pick her: many years ago I went through a long period of insomnia and, if it weren't for 19th Century British and American novels, I might never have survived it. I plowed through Henry James, all of Dickens save for Little Dorritt, all of Eliot and Gaskell, Hardy, Wharton, hit a snag after Victor Hugo (I did hit the French novelists too) and then came across Anthony Trollope who, I discovered to my eternal blear-eyed gratitude, wrote 48 novels.


And that was how I got through 1995.

Anyway, this is what Frances Trollope says about the French and their storefronts:

"There is an elegance of taste about these people which is certainly to be found nowhere else. It is not confined to the spacious hôtels of the rich and great, but may be traced through every order and class or society, down to the very lowest. The manner in which an old barrow-woman will tie up her sous' worth of cherries her urchin customer might give a lesson to the most skillful decorator of the supper-table. A bunch of wild violets, sold at a price that may come within reach of the worst-paid sonbriette in Paris is arranged with a grace that might make a duchess covet them... Their expressive phrase of approbation for a well-dressed woman may often be applied with quite as much justice to the peasant as to the princess, for the same unconscious sensibility of taste will regulate them both."

I was interested in this quote, as it seems suspiciously apt even today (though the class distinctions may not be quite so hierarchically regimented), and started wondering whether there really might be something to a stereotypical "national" temperament that actually can be traced through the ages. If good taste is a French stereotype dating to at least the early 19th Century, then what does Frances Trollope note about Americans in 1832?

Evidently, that we hate intellectuals, lack an appreciation for education, and are--as a whole--dismally swayed by evangelical movements.


One last note about the beauty of the shops in Paris: weirdly, it makes it HARDER to buy something. In a more aesthetically impoverished city, finding a particularly beautiful object is an event. You would be hard pressed to find something equal to it, or even distantly like it, in the next shop. But in Paris, you can. And it's likely that you can find something even MORE beautiful there. There are so many attractive things, and they aren't limited to particular goods or "genres." There are beautiful children's books, and handmade shoes, and delicate cakes, and silk dresses, and creamy notebooks, and miniature engravings, and endless, endless, endless fresh-cut flowers. You could even spend a whole day, as I once did, trying to figure out which postcards to buy.

You can, essentially, be overwhelmed by the beauty that this city, relentlessly, offers you.

After FIAC, I decided to spend my time walking around Paris and its environs more, to take advantage of some of its "freer" pleasures. Besides discovering the Promenade Plantée, I've been wandering in the geometric gardens of Versailles, especially in the King's Forest, which today had turned an appropriate pale and rust gold from the turning of the leaves. The air was cold, and there were piles of dank leaves the gardeners had raked up in neat piles but which still filled the air with the rich scent of decay. Because it was fall, the lanes were largely quiet: only the occasional rented golf cart zoomed by, filled with Italians or Germans, trying to steer their carts according to the English directions broadcast--amidst sudden bursts of 19th Century opera music--out of the tinny speakers. As I was standing, admiring a long line of what looked like ancient oaks laid out in stern rows, a cart caromed up to me.

"Excuse me," a man in a black leather coat said, leaning out, waving his hands at the speaker. "We are not understanding this voice. Where is this place?" He gestured, confused, around him. His wife, holding the map, looked out in the distance, squinting towards what looked like the boxy hedge of a giant maze.
"I don't know," I said, realizing that I hadn't taken a map upon entering the Chateau. "I have no idea where we are."

"Neither do I," the man said. He leaned over and spoke to his wife in Italian, and she shrugged and folded up the map. "But it is so beautiful here," he says. "To be lost: maybe, who cares!" And then he and his wife scooted away, trailing a cloud of opera music behind them.

Friday, October 21, 2011

In Which We Learn the Value of 'No'

One of the things about having all this free time to myself is discovering, well, what I would do with a lot of free time to myself. Like, for instance, would I suddenly sleep all day or take up drinking in earnest, would I start making weird little dolls with dried apples for faces and join up with the last living descendants of the Huguenots? Would I take up shoe making? Or would I finally give in and learn to play the banjo, joining the rest of my tin-eared musician neighbors for jam sessions in this apartment building of the damned?

Would I--in other words--become even more of a nutball?

It turns out that what I do when faced with endless amounts of free time is get up around 8:00, write for a few hours, take a long walk through some new city district of choice, go to school, come back home, work out, eat dinner, and read for a few hours before bed. I go to a lot of public lectures (this week, the Stein Conference at the Grand Palais, headlined by Marjorie Perloff and Joan Retallack). I go to a lot of poetry readings. (For those of you in the area, check out Gallery Eof, which hosts a fair number of truly excellent American and French poets, and the Ivy Writers, which doesn't but at least meets at a bar. And if you go to Eof, go eat afterwards at L'Office at 3, Rue de Richer, which is what I did last night after hearing Thalia Field and Charles Bernstein, where--tired and a little worn out from poetry--found in that gustatory dead zone just above Les Halles a sustaining plate of something I now like to call The Chicken That Changed My Life. It's not the cheapest place I've found, but I DID experience spiritual ecstasy over the poulet, so we can't discount that. This is actually one of the other things I do with my endless free time: search for Paris's Holy Grail: that amazing, little-known restaurant in which you can get a delicious and complete formule (entree, plat AND dessert) for under 20 euros. It can be found, my friends, it can be found. But only the truly worthy can pass the test.) If there is a great gallery opening or museum show, I go to that. I go out with friends. I go shopping. And sometimes I go out to a movie.

In other words, I do exactly the same things I did before I left home.

This means one of two things. 1: I had a pretty good life before I left home. Or 2: I totally lack imagination.

I prefer to go with option #1.

Of course, there are notable differences in these activities. For instance, when I read in bed late at night, sometimes this is ALL night. This is something you can do when someone isn't lying next to you with his head wrapped in a sweater to block out the light from your IPad. And when I write, I can spend all day on a poem if I want, and not squeeze in little notes between classes and meetings and students weeping at me in the halls. If I go exercise, the person yelling at me in class is now yelling in French, thus supposedly exercising my translation skills as much as my biceps. Though I actually had a moment the other day when I thought, 'Wow, my French is really getting GOOD,' because instead of having that annoying little lag-time in my brain between the word being spoken and the word being translated, the kind of mental voice-over you do in your head like one of those bad martial arts movies, the words were going STRAIGHT INTO MY CONSCIOUSNESS: something I was slowly becoming aware of, rather like someone realizing that his yapping dog has actually been speaking clear, coherent sentences to him his entire life: "Wait, wait, what are you saying, Fifi? My wife is cheating on me and I'm dangerously over-invested in REITS?" All of this was what I was thinking, happy for two whole minutes until I realized that the barking instructor was actually barking English song lyrics at us in phenomenally bad English.

Another dream dies.

The friends I have here have also been acquired in a different way, too, in that I got them NOT through the patient accrual of meetings over the course of weeks or months, but through the kind of desperate land-grab mentality native to certain 19th Century Minnesota settlers. "Hello! Are you American? Do you want to have dinner?!" is almost exactly what I yelped at the woman sitting next to me at the reading last night, at which she--equally adrift it seems in Paris--yelped back, "I'm a poet! Are you a poet?! You look like a POET! Yes!" For those of you who don't know, no one who is actually a working poet will admit to being a poet in mixed company for fear of seeming pretentious and any future social reprisals regarding discussions of medications and/or requests for writing an epithalamium for someone's wedding. Here, however, strangers go straight for the intimacy jugular. People don't have time: you got to drop the dirt NOW. Which is why I've been lunging across aisles at likely-looking strangers, crumpling sweat-stained slips of paper with my email address on them into various palms across town. I'm a friend whore, people. It's just who I've become.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

On Writing Mentors

I've been asked to write a piece a piece about my writing mentor for an upcoming anthology. I've been putting it off for awhile now and the essay is finally due, well, Monday. I'm happy to write it, but there's just one small problem:

I've never had a writing mentor.

The reasons for this are many, and most of them aren't sound. But that's the bald fact of it: throughout my professional writing life, I've never had a mentor.

Let me be clear: I've always had people helping me. I've had editors and publicists and colleagues and other writers. I have an agent, whatever use that is to a poet. But a mentor, in the ways that I understand this figure to exist in the literary life, has been curiously absent.

The main reason for this is, simply, that I have never trusted anyone enough to be my mentor. A mentor, that is, who offers the professional insider's details about prizes and publications, who offers collegial protection and support, who over the years provides the sustaining encouragement and occasional wine-soaked dinner necessary to develop as a writer; in other words, the kindly overseer to one's career and protein intake during the artistic lean years. A person who has a stake of his own in your developing career and who hovers between father-figure, teacher, and aide-de-camp.

I use the pronoun "he" here deliberately. I'm part of that odd generation of women taught by an increasingly mixed though still male-dominated teaching profession, one for whom the most visible literary giants were primarily male. I had notable female teachers--Alice Fulton, Heather McHugh, Thylias Moss among them--but somehow the offer of mentoring was then, and maybe is still now, largely a service offered by older males. The reasons for this are familiar to anyone reading this. Women were and are less likely to mentor due to significant family and career constraints of their own. Women of the previous generation had little experience being mentored; it was likely, in fact, that their own mentors were men, and so they'd developed little idea of how to initiate or foster their own female-helmed mentor-mentee relationships. Women were, and maybe in some circles still are, seen as direct competitors with each other. And perhaps there is something harder to pinpoint: the lack of confidence certain women suffered about their ability, their right, to offer guidance to a younger and equally ambitious generation of writers.

It takes stamina and high self-esteem to make yourself into somebody's mentor. Not only do you have to believe you know more than the person you are mentoring, you have to believe that what you have to offer--the insights, the editorial connections, the flashy list of email addresses--essentially, your own professional status--is worth a younger writer having. For this reason alone, I don't fault the women writers I studied with for not stepping up with advice, for attending our readings or offering to hook any of the young female writers in their class up with contacts. At the time, I wouldn't have dreamed that this was a task they should undertake. I, along with almost everyone else in class, was happy just to sit with them for three hours each week, learning how to write.

And it wasn't as if offers of mentorship weren't being made. Offers were being made, and on a somewhat regular basis since I began writing seriously in college. These offers were always from older male writers and, yes, several of these offers carried with them the faint whiff of sexual attraction, sometimes even predation. There was, for instance, the writer in Ireland who was drying out but liked to have me down shots of whisky during his office hours, who said he liked my poems and offered to take me to literary parties around Dublin to meet "important" people. There was the famous male poet at a conference who took me aside to praise my work and then spent the rest of an hour telling me about the beautiful whores he met in Asia. There was the novelist who directed my graduate program who, when I asked for advice on how to choose between the two agents interested in representing me (one of only three times in my entire life I have ever asked anyone explicitly for mentoring help), looked me up and down, smiled and asked: "Do you photograph as good as you look?"
And then there was the poet I studied with as an undergraduate, a wildly talented man who was also a brilliant teacher of prosody. He gave me the first piece of praise that I actually wanted to believe--and that I respected--when I read it. At the back of a sheaf of my poems, he'd written a long letter discussing my various successes and failings with meter, and then ended it with this: "You have a ways to go. But you are much farther along than I could have dreamed of being at your age."

The hope this sentence offered, coupled with the clear-eyed assessments of my current abilities, seemed like writing well could be--would be--a realizable ambition for me. The letter made me almost light-headed with relief. It was better than praise. He was allowing that not only might I attain what he had, he was subtly encouraging me to try to best him at it.

It was one of the most generous things anyone could have offered me.

And then, a few months later, when I'd moved to Ireland, I received a letter from him. I don't know how he got the address, whether I'd given it to him or my parents had forwarded it on, but one day a couple of hand-written pages came in the mail, and I didn't know what to do with them. The letter said nothing inappropriate. It made no insinuations, didn't attempt to provoke or sexually court me in any way, but still I felt it was odd. I didn't know what answering it would mean, what a friendship between two professional unequals would entail. I was 20 years old; he was somewhere in his 40's. I didn't feel harassed, but I also didn't feel powerful enough yet to answer him. And so I never sent back a reply. My silence was meant to make clear to myself if not to him what my position would be in the world among writers: I wanted people to help my work, not me. Frankly, I didn't even want there to be a me.

Over the years, I have continued to receive a smattering of letters and offers of professional attention that hover between the intellectually interested and baldly flirtatious. More established, sometimes famous, male writers asking to see poems or books. Asking me to send them work. And, true to my then-20 year-old's sense of decorum, I have never responded to any of them. About this decision, I have been both right and wrong. Were some of these men more willing to help me because they thought I was pretty? Yes. Did I ever feel unsafe with them or worry that I was at their professional mercy? No. Was it unfortunate that my experience of mentorship to date had relied occasionally upon my appearance as well as on my writing talent? Absolutely. Should I have thus rejected outright all these offers of help? No.

Because to dismiss outright all offers of professional help based on the desire to be seen as competing and existing in a meritocracy, to insist that I be treated solely as a collection of a poems, to be essentially un-selfed, is unrealistic. In the end, you seek a mentor to help ensure your work finds an audience, the widest one it can. Let me be clear: I am not suggesting that I should have sexually compromised myself. But the fact is, my looks were my looks. They were there, and one day they would not be.

I couldn't hold off taking advice from those who offered help in order to make me feel perfectly comfortable. You engage in a mentoring relationship for professional, not only personal, reasons. In retrospect, I think I was too fastidious--or just naive--about certain emotional entanglements of mentorship. The envy I have felt--still feel--for people with mentors who have helped get them jobs and awards and certain high-profile publications is, I realize, an envy entirely of my own making. I, too, could likely have benefitted more directly in these ways and not had to scrap for every little thing in my career. But this is what I have denied myself. In my search for the perfect mentor, I overlooked a number of people who certainly would have been good enough. I didn't want to understand that mentorship at its heart may be practical, but it is also messy. It is, if both writers are meant to benefit from it, an unfolding work.

Also, the fact is, the question of my "appearance" had already been a significant factor in my professional life. I am not simply talking about the problems (and benefits) of female attractiveness, but about the fact of my being mixed race and passing (or not passing) for whatever race the audience of the moment wants me to be. To say that I didn't want an older male writer to mentor me because I was afraid of being objectified misses the point. I was always already being objectified. And I had also been doing a little of this back. Because the reality is that I, too, was looking for a very specific physical body to mentor me: not a man, but a woman, and a woman I hadn't yet come across, on the page or in the classroom, a woman I couldn't even yet imagine.
And I was ruthless in my rejection of potential mentors. In graduate school for medieval studies, there were only two female professors teaching in the Institute, one of them a young, ambitious and as-yet untenured scholar of Avicenna, the other a 55 year-old Art Historian who had been relegated to also being the Institute's "secretary." Unfairly, I despised this woman. I nicknamed her "Trembles" for the way she cowered in class, stammering and unsure, overpraising the male students while casting a nervous eye at her female ones. "Trembles" was the product of years of professional bullying, I now realize, which was why--at 55 years of age and with 25 years of teaching in the same institution--she remained untenured and permanently saddled with secretaryship, but back then I didn't care about the generational struggles she represented and had weathered; I wanted someone I could look up to without reservation. Someone I could be or admire.
Had I been paying attention, perhaps I might have spent a bit more time focussing on that Avicenna scholar, but by then my attention had shifted to the literary world where, still seething from my institutional time with poor "Trembles" who I wrote off as a feminist betrayal, I went on to dismiss a long parade of teachers for various personal failings. This one was too lazy, that one too grasping, this one competed with her students, that one got high before class. This was true, but with why did this necessarily make them useless as fonts of information about writing? Why didn't I press them for names of other writers to read, journals to submit to? Why hadn't I asked them some of the many questions I'd privately collected about strategizing how to assemble a collection of poems into a book? How, even, to publish said poems as a book? Why was I so interested in perfection, when what I really needed was someone simply "good enough"?

Added to these mentoring "sins" was one I knew was worse, and certainly more personally painful, than all the others. Were I to list all the casually or implicitly racist remarks about other writers (and even myself) that I'd either overheard in the hallways or outside the classroom or during the wine-soaked dinners at writing conferences over the years, this post would go on for pages. The worst part of the racism of the liberal artist or academic, however, is that it is largely hidden, unleashed just when the possible mentor figure has earned your trust, when you are likeliest to accept him or her as your professional advisor. This, too, is one of the reasons I think that, over the years, I've resisted mentorship. In the end, it's too disheartening to hear the writer you admire privately suggest that so-and-so got his job or prize due to affirmative action or white liberal guilt. It is physically painful to then consider whether your silence afterwards is the basest form of cowardice or the more practical attempt to keep the fact of your own biracial identity a secret in order to protect yourself, to ensure that this decorated writer or colleague will not--if he or she has not already done so--say the exact same thing about you.

As I write this, I see that I have two competing arguments in my thoughts about mentors. One is that the personal traits and failings--the person--of the mentor doesn't matter so much as the information this mentor has to offer. The other is that the mentor as person is all that matters. I have a harder time defending the second argument considering my conflicted feelings about the relationship between identity and art, and yet in all honesty this is the argument that most emotionally engages me. I am aware of the criticisms, fair and unfair, of identity-based writing. I have absorbed, consciously and through the slow osmosis of cultural self-hatred, the blunt "truisms" about what constitutes Poetry. The assurances drilled into me as a young writer--implicitly and explicitly--that issues of race and gender and sexuality and politics must never enter into poems, or enter either primarily as self-conscious parody of these subjects or as examinations of form which might rescue their inherently reductivist sentimentality, are ones that most people reading this are probably familiar with. And these assurances were not only drilled into me in the uber-pale midwest college town where I went to graduate school, but even by my Chinese American mother, who has spent her life teaching and promoting multiculturalism in the Seattle school district, and who told me after my first book on biracial identity was published that one day I too might write something "universal." As I've matured in my writing career, I see that one of the most important questions I have wanted to ask and have answered, the one part of my writing life I have never quite grasped myself, was how to balance this continued expectation that writing should primarily constitute an act of formal experiment and innovation, one that both utilizes and transcends personal experience, all the while consciously ignoring 3/4 of what has defined my human experience in the world.
And who, really, can answer that?

When I think of that word "mentor," all these problems and conundrums bubble up. And yet another memory, too, swims up to me: one of a night three years ago in Denver, giving an off-site reading at the Associated Writing Programs conference in support of Kundiman/Cave Canem and finding David Mura sitting right in front of me in the audience.

David Mura is a writer I have had a lot of arguments with. Not in person, as that night was the first time we had ever officially "met," but in the classrooms where I've taught him, and in my thoughts after finishing one of his books. He's infuriated, inspired, and intrigued me. His work has forced me to re-examine the terms in which race and ethnicity and gender do--or don't--get written into a poem. A Japanese-American Nissei male, David Mura is someone who, in many ways, I don't have a lot in common with but whose presence, as I watched him watching me from his little table in the front row of that packed reading, I realized had been undeniably powerful to me.

Powerful in the ways that the presences of Maxine Hong Kingston or Frank Chin or Lois Ann Yamanaka or Myung Mi Kim or Theresa Hak Kyung Cha or Li Young Lee or Carlos Bulosan would have been had they also been in that room, impossible as that thought is. Though I have attended plenty of AWPs, have met and listened to dozens of writers I admire, that night in Denver was the first time I had ever felt electrified by the presence of another writer. I was now standing and reading my work in front of someone who I knew had made his own similar forays into the literary world, running up against problems that--if they were never the same as mine--certainly tread a very familiar path. However much I disagreed with or admired or fought against his work, David Mura had cracked open the subject matters and genres in which I myself was now working; he had made a connection into the literary world that made it possible for me to make my own. I was, quite literally, on the verge of tears leaving the bar after that reading. I realized that over the years, I had been denying myself not only the information that would have made my writing career easier to manage, but the ability to express gratitude to those whose work was written, if even in part, for those like me.

And that is what I now understand the acceptance of mentoring to be on the part of the mentored writer: a sign of gratitude. In its way, a debt of honor. I understood, suddenly, the true meaning of what I had denied myself and others, and since then have had to take comfort in the knowledge that, even if I'd never admitted this debt of mentorship consciously to myself, I had at least taken advantage of a deep engagement with Mura's, and other's, work over the course of my life. In that sense, I had long been mentored by writers who were also, conveniently, absent enough to let me experiment with my own language: to help me write as me. To bring me, in that sense, into being.
Perhaps this is the kind of epiphany only a writing conference whose social hub is a bar can inspire. And yet, it was there. I stumbled out of the Denver nightclub, blinking and breathless. A piece of David Mura, a scrap of Heather McHugh, snippets clipped from the Irish poet, a perfectly metered line from the prosodist, and more and more and others trailed after me. My own little poetic Frankenstein. Aesthetically incoherent, maybe, disordered in appearance, and professionally not useful, but something.

A something, for better or worse, which has become my more than good enough.