Poetry mentors

Rosemary loved red roses

I learned, this week, that Rosemary Cappello has died. She was among the first people to encourage my writing and was an advocate for poetry and the arts in Philadelphia, where she lived for most of her life. I would not call her a mentor of mine; but she has been mentor to many other people as well as instrumental in setting up poetry reading series, poetry events, and other gatherings. All while also editing and publishing Philadelphia Poets Journal, a literary magazine that started as an 8-page photocopied zine and became a 100+ page annual journal…what energy, what devotion! And such kindness–when I first met her in the early 1980s, we saw each other often at poetry readings and open mikes. Then I moved away, first to Connecticut and then to the Lehigh Valley. Yet whenever I returned to Philadelphia for a poetry event, it seemed Rosemary was there. She always remembered me, too! In recent years, I’ve encountered her on Zoom readings and events. And I knew she had health struggles and trouble with mobility, but she never flagged in her enthusiasm for the arts.

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If Rosemary, bless her heart, was not one of my poetry mentors, helpful and kind as she was, who were my mentors–and what exactly is a mentor? A teacher, a guide, a supportive expert in one’s field? Someone who advises, offers a network, feeds the soul, provides a model? Yes–but more than that, perhaps.

At my university, there are several programs or projects that purport to offer mentorship, but I get different answers when I ask people who qualifies as a mentor. It has made me think about my own mentors, most of whom have been in the creative writing field. I mean, I could count my dad or mother, but parents generally aren’t considered mentors—they’re doing another job, that of parenting.

This concept came up recently not only from my workplace, where we are launching programs to have our students be mentors to incoming freshmen, but also from a recent interview with Ocean Vuong that has been making the writing-related social media rounds. [link is here]

This video kind of floored me. I am aware that Vuong is young—but 33? He’s my son’s age! Much as I love my intelligent and funny son, he doesn’t possess the insightful earnestness that comes through in Vuong’s presentations, interviews, and writing. Not to mention his teaching! I am not so sure, at twice Vuong’s age, that I possess those qualities, either; yet I know I have been a mentor to some friends and students, mostly by accident. What defines mentorship?

I have not formulated a definition for poetry mentor or life mentor yet, but considering the possibilities may help me recognize what mentorship is and what it means. Therefore, I think I will devote the next few blog posts to beloved and talented friends and colleagues whom I consider to be my mentors. Alas, some of them have departed this earth, but that doesn’t mean their influence has vanished. I hope that writing and posting about them will keep the memory of them alive in that way that human beings have of recalling and integrating the compassionate and useful persons we’ve known and loved into the present moment.

Next time I post, I’ll have things to say about Ariel Dawson, to whose memory my most recent chapbook collection is dedicated.

On being understood

I’ve just learned that a poem of mine, “Fainting Goats,” was awarded a prize from the journal in which it appears, Philadelphia Poets. Liz Abrams-Morley was the judge.

To my delight, the editor of Philadelphia Poets (the lovely and talented Rosemary Cappello) requests judges to write their rationale for choosing the poems as winners, and here’s what Abrams-Morley has to say about “Fainting Goats.” She understands the poem, and that feels deeply rewarding to me.

A very close third place, Ann Michael’s “Fainting Goats” is a poem which intrigues and engages from its unexpected title (and subject) to its terrific, enlarging and emotionally challenging final stanza.  The opening is conversational, a straightforward statement which addresses the reader, and introduces an unexpected fact: “Next door, the neighbor is raising goats.” This drew me right in to the detailed treatise on the quirky fainting behavior of goats, which are almost playfully and so perfectly described as murmuring “like a small crowd at a/magic show” and rolling on their sides “like live piñatas.”   The poem takes a darker turn as Michael reveals that the goats are living distractions, bred by shepherds to draw predators away from sheep. “Think of the white sheep fleeing in droves,// …toward safety while the goat/recovers, bellering, attempting its escape.”  The neighbor, meanwhile, simply “chose them for their novelty,” a statement which chilled this reader following, as it does, immediately on the heels of the harrowingly detailed description of the goat as potential sacrifice to some predator.  As a reader, I felt the panic of prey animals and heard that goat’s cry.

Structurally everything about this poem works.  The unrhymed quatrains, even meter,  conversational language and line breaks—all the poetic choices Michael makes support the poem’s content and feel “right,” even inevitable.

The final stanza opens out the poem, enlarges its vision magnificently, transforms the goat story from conversational tale into powerful metaphor.  Michael’s closing is flat- out gorgeous and provocative.  It leaves the reader, as many of the best poems do, with a question to ponder, rather than with commentary or answer.  I found myself returning and returning to these lines: “This is how//we keep our frailties alive, inbred, and how we fall/ sometimes luckily, sometimes into the jaws/of a starving winter day, asking ourselves if it’s destiny/or heredity.”

I am always interested in how other people interpret my work and appreciate it when they see things that I may not have had in mind; but Ms. Abrams-Morley gleaned from my poem the very things I intended.

Thank you!