Poetry mentor: Ariel Dawson

Adrian Owles. That was her anagrammed alias. She used that name for things like electric and phone company bills when her real name set off “overdue payment” notices, resulting in her inability to get services. She did, in her youth, have a conniver’s sense of how to skive and get away with it. To some degree. She learned the skills from her father, a brilliant alcoholic from a once-wealthy family. From her mother, she learned poetry and an idealistic, romantic outlook on life…but also that she should be independent and never rely on men to take care of her or keep their promises.

Well, maybe she learned that last part from her father. Her parents never divorced, but her father was an absentee dad. That’s the picture she supplied to me. I suspect it was true, but I know only a tiny part of her story. Ariel Dawson, my poetry mentor, was a year younger than I but so well-read, aware of the “poetry scene,” reading craft essays and books before I knew such things existed–and taking reasoned issue with some of the writers, too, in ways it never would have occurred to me to do. Question such recognized authority? I would not have dared.

What is a mentor? A kind of teacher or model of behavior? Ariel’s behavior was far from conventional, which did appeal to me. We hitchhiked from Michigan to NYC and back. We stayed up almost until dawn and drank wine and talked about poetry. We ganged up on the poor man teaching a creative writing class at our college by questioning his pronouncements and asking about poets and poetry he had not specialized in. We sneaked into bars without paying the cover charge or having our IDs checked (Michigan had a liquor law that permitted 18-year-olds to drink, but Ariel was only 17). I kept wondering quietly to myself: Is this how poets behave? Is unconventionality necessary to the craft?

Well, yes and no. A certain aspect of the unconventional probably helps writers of any kind, but risky antics are not required. An individual perspective on heartbreak or trauma can be useful. Some of Ariel’s stories made me fear for her, feel heartbreak for her; if I never knew how factually true they were, I sensed a fundamental truth in what she told me. One example is her “love affair” when she was 13. She believed she was having an affair with a man in his early 30s who was from Pittsburgh, which she thought was an eastern seaboard town (so much for Detroit’s 1970s educational system as far as American geography goes). He disappeared one day, and she set off by herself to find him in Pittsburgh, where the police eventually located her. They sent her home to her mother. Now I look at this story as grooming by a pederast, but at the time she considered it oddly romantic of her. What makes trauma, if the victim doesn’t feel traumatized? If she can imagine the experience into something naive and…sort of like love?

Ariel’s poems appeared mostly in the early 1980s in print magazines; she taught creative writing at a couple of universities, but eventually her love of dreams and the mythic led her to pursue Jungian scholarship. Last I heard, she was working as an analyst in New York state. Perhaps unfortunately, she remains best known for a letter she wrote to the Writer’s Chronicle/AWP Newsletter in which she took a stance against New Formalism. She always did love a controversy.

My book Strange Ladies is dedicated to her memory. For a whole bunch of reasons and for a number of Ariel stories I can’t even begin to relate here. But most of all, because she urged me to write. And to revise. And to read as many poets and as many craft books as I possibly could. And never stop learning, and keep on writing. She got me to give poetry readings aloud to an audience. She kept me laughing. She was wild and lovely, and I am sorry she is no longer among us.

Meanwhile, here is the link to register for an upcoming Zoom reading by some strange ladies, including yours truly:

https://us02web.zoom.us/meeting/register/tZArdOypqj4iG9KaR7UrcoyJzPS3YYLcNCLA

~

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