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Conversation between Mary Cantrell, Vida Cross, Rachel Hall and Anna Leahy

The Path Remains a Thicket: On Friendship & Mentorship

The four of us met more than thirty years ago, as students at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. While we didn’t head to graduate school at exactly the same time, we overlapped with each other as students in the MA program at Iowa State University (now an MFA program in the writing of place). We shared the same professors as we came into our own as writers, and we’ve kept in touch with each other for thirty years since then. Not long ago, we talked about our friendship as women writers and about mentors and mentoring at the C. D. Wright Women Writers Conference. We welcome the opportunity to extend that conversation about role models, mentors, and friends here at Tinderbox Poetry Journal.

Anna Leahy: Since our panel a couple of years ago, I’ve continued to question how to define mentoring. I used to think that mentors had to take a personal interest in my success as a writer. But in an essay for the edited collection Stories of Mentoring, I wrote the following about Wendy Bishop: “I have been shaped as a professional in this field both by Bishop’s writings and by her modeling for me a mentoring relationship. Her work in the field and her encouragement via e-mail validated my commitment to collaboration […].” I never met Wendy Bishop, but writings about creative writing pedagogy offered me guidance about teaching when I needed it. Was Bishop a role model, like a portrait on the wall, or was she really a mentor for me? 

Rachel Hall: I’ve been encouraged and sustained by writers like Alice Munro, whose stories gave me what felt like permission to write the stories I needed to write, stories that focus on the lives of girls and women, but also leap around in time and leave the reader with certain kinds of questions. When you really know and love the work of a writer, you feel as if the relationship transcends the page. And maybe there is a particular value to a mentoring relationship of this sort, the distant advisors you describe.

Mary Cantrell: I like the idea of a mentor as someone who can model something we need to see at the right moments in our career—I can certainly name writers who’ve done that for me—but I’d define a mentor as someone who takes a genuine interest in your potential, who guides and encourages. According to that definition, I’ve had excellent mentors all my life: relatives who praised the family newspaper I wrote with my sister and cousin; a feminist mom and dad who gave my Free to Be, You and Me for Christmas; really smart high school teachers who introduced me to women writers like Carson McCullers, Alice Walker, and Sylvia Plath; talented, encouraging male and female professors both at Knox College and at Iowa State; brilliant, engaging friends and colleagues like you three, who read my fiction, who invite me to join their writing groups, to participate on panels and in these sorts of conversations. Whether intentionally or inadvertently, all of that encouragement has contributed to whatever successes I’ve had, both as a writer and as a teacher.

Rachel Hall: Mary, your description of positive mentorship reminds me of a quote from an article about mid-career persistence in Poets and Writers, by the writer Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum. This is what she wrote about her path to publication: “By some incredible magic—and with the help of a graduate advisor to whom I’ll always be indebted—an editor at a midsize press, Chronicle Books, read and bought my first collection just weeks after I’d turned it in as my master’s degree thesis…. Building on its success, I was able to find an agent, who sold my second collection to the same editor.”

This is the story we all want, isn’t it? A path lit by a mentor’s beaming approval, faith, and connections as well as family and friends cheering us on in a more general way. We want a champion, a fairy godmother. And as writers, we want publication! But this is the rare story, sort of like the one about the literary agent who invites his clients to his summer home, makes them homemade pasta, never forgets their birthdays, their children’s birthdays. It’s stories like these that make most of us feel unmentored—maybe even unloved. I mean, nobody ushered my stories into book publication! No one did that for me! On the other hand, like Mary, I did have a lot of support from friends and family, including an artist grandmother who modeled for me her whole life—and she lived to 103!—what it means to be a working artist. These less dramatic, less tangible mentoring experiences, however, are often sadly and easily overlooked or taken for granted.. 

Vida Cross: I, too, define mentoring as strong family and ancestral influences. However, I would advise a young woman, especially a person of color, to find a mentor who is actually in her field of interest to talk to, to observe, to follow. Sometimes, you need more than motivation and encouragement. Sometimes you need concrete examples. Anna is a mentor for me because I am always tracking her and it helps that I know you, Anna, because I can then call and ask questions.

Mary Cantrell: Our definitions grow out of our own experiences with people we regard as mentors, but Vida, your advice to a young woman of color makes me think about our own roles as mentors. As a community college professor in a poor state, I teach students whose parents are incarcerated, students in overcrowded and underfunded high schools, students who work forty hours a week to help support their families. Many of my students are first-generation college students, English language learners, nontraditional students, and from marginalized populations. Am I the right person to mentor them? 

I like to think I’m in a good position to make a difference. I hope that I challenge them in a way that helps them see their potential, not as writers necessarily but as smart, capable people. In her convocation speech to women at Douglass College in 1977 (published as “Claiming an Education” in The Common Woman and collected in her book Lies, Secrets, and Silence), Adrienne Rich tells students to take their education seriously by “seeking out criticism, recognizing that the most affirming thing anyone can do for you is demand that you push yourself further, show you the range of what you can do.” That’s part of how I define what I do as a mentor, but my students aren’t ambitious writers, hoping for publication, and I know they don’t see me as a fairy godmother, so maybe I’m just a teacher for my students? I’m certainly not a fairy godmother. 

Vida Cross: I never had the expectation that someone would come, like a fairy godmother, and mentor me. I can be shy and introverted so the thought of someone coming to me to do something for me never crossed my mind. However, looking back, and knowing what others have received and knowing, in some cases, what it takes, I can say that I was definitely not mentored in college. As one of several African American students in Knox College’s creative writing department, I do believe that I was seen, heard, and appreciated; however, if mentoring means listened to, steered, and directed, then I was not mentored.

In an article entitled “The Hero Paradox: Junot Díaz and the End of Empowering Our Idols,” Shontel Horne writes:

Not once have I asked a veteran writer to share advice about which common career pitfalls I should avoid, and I’ve never reached out to any of the accomplished journalists, novelists or screenwriters in my circle to gain wisdom that only comes when one dedicates her life to a respective art form. Instead, the writers whose lives and careers that I have come to admire have always served as distant advisors, from whom I’ve chosen to gain insight through the lens of a fan—and always from afar, by reading their work and devouring interviews, podcasts and videos where they discuss their personal journey and creative process.

I understand Shontel Horne’s journey and I have never met her. Yet I lived near and worked with you three, and the mentoring experiences you had seem isolated and sometimes foreign to me.

Rachel Hall: It sounds like Shontel Horne is to you what Wendy Bishop is to Anna or Alice Munro is to me. That is, someone whose work provided mentoring. I’ve been lucky to have in person mentors as well. At Knox, my teachers, in particular Robin Metz, the patriarch of the writing program, provided support and guidance. I had professors who wrote me letters that got me fellowships and into graduate programs, who read my work carefully and found ways to make my voice and vision more clear. 

Anna Leahy: Maybe, Vida, you didn’t experience the same level of believed-in as Rachel did, and when we were in college, I wasn’t thinking then that we each might be having very different experiences as young writers. But, of course, race and gender shaped our relationships with each other as writers or with our professors.

Vida Cross: I, too, must say that we had very different experiences that I am just now realizing. However, Robin Metz was a verbal champion for me and my work after I published my book and before he passed away.

Anna Leahy: Having distant advisors—writers whose work you admire—seems a way to chose your mentors by something other than proximity. I like that because of the control it implies, the possibility of pushing through systemic bias. The way Shontel Horne describes mentorship makes it her responsibility to ask, to reach out. That places the onus on the mentee. 

Vida Cross: I do believe that the process of finding a mentor, a person who can be there for you in some capacity, is partially the responsibility of the student/writer. I attended Knox, Iowa State, and then The School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s Master of Fine Arts in Writing Program (SAIC). It was not until I was at SAIC that I found a mentor and began looking for additional mentors: assembling mentors. Calvin Forbes is one of my mentors. I talk with him about the writing process and publishing. He is not a time waster, so I am limited to maybe several times a year. If I call him, our calls never go beyond ten minutes. So, because I have known him as a student writer and now a professional writer, it is my responsibility to understand the depth of his statements.

I found a professor who could impact my writing in the classroom and beyond. My first book was published because Calvin invited me to read with him at the Poetry Center. Someone representing my publisher was in the audience. As an MFA student, I remembered thinking, who will I turn to when I leave here. I chose Calvin because I hoped he would be there as a mentor once I graduated. Not every professor can continue a relationship after you graduate and not every writer can mentor you and also respect you as a peer.

Rachel Hall: While I had professors who believed in my work, I also found, in graduate programs that I’d selected in part because of the faculty there, that some potential mentors—the giants of the program—were busy, distracted, doing their own writing. One such giant, a Pulitzer prize winner, generously agreed to an independent study with me and Mary in my last year in the program. To our disappointment, she read our stories in the thirty minutes before class, her feet, in pink Reeboks, up on her desk. In her discussion of our stories, a character of mine might find herself in Mary’s story, or one of Mary’s characters might wander into one of my stories. We, good girls, never corrected her. And to be clear, we were—even then—old friends, roommates who even one night had the same dream, so maybe our stories were easily confused.

Anna Leahy: Mary and I were in several poetry workshops together, and like your experience, peers would comment about how alike some of our poems were. Perhaps, it was because we were two young, white, vaguely Catholic women who had gone to the same college. And Mary and I would share our poems outside of class, so we probably influenced each other very directly on specific poems. At one point, I started consciously considering whether I could imitate Mary’s voice and craft—and she, mine—just like we imitated published poets in prompt exercises. That sounds terrible, in a way, but it made a difference in figuring out the distance between my work and that of other writers and how to not imitate.

Vida Cross: Here’s another experience that made a difference to me. In my first semester in college, I took a fiction writing course. I, a nondrinker, a sheltered kid, a tightly-wound girl, did not fit in. My first piece followed the pattern of one of my favorite songs at that time. The professor could not make sense of what I was trying to do so he suggested that, as a first-year student, I was not at the level of the other fiction-writing students and I would be better off taking a poetry course. The English Department had just hired its one and only female faculty member, poet Robin Behn. My second, third, and maybe fourth creative writing courses at Knox were poetry writing courses taught by the one female faculty member in the department.

I remember Robin Behn as being very serious. Her classes were structured. She sniffed at the idea of holding classes in a bar. Occasionally, she would hold class on the lawn or take us to Iowa City to hear speakers. She would challenge mediocrity. With that said, I did not spend a lot of my time speaking to her on a personal level or about my desire to be a poet. I don’t remember having a desire to be a poet. I just wanted to write good poems. I also remember reading, outside of class, writers’ works that influenced me greatly: Alice Walker, Leslie Marmon Silko, Rita Dove. And this seemed encouraged. 

I did take one fiction writing course in my senior year, and I won the Davenport Fiction Writing Award for my short story the year I graduated; however, I sharpened my skills in the poetry writing courses.

Anna Leahy: In his book This Year You Write Your Novel, Walter Mosley talks about how he took a poetry course every semester, even though his goal was writing novels. Like you, Vida, I shifted from fiction—or was shifted, which I hadn’t considered until hearing your story here—to poetry and to working with a female professor.

Vida Cross: Not every misguided nudge from someone is a bad one.

Mary Cantrell:  It’s amazing how long-lasting those experiences at Knox and Iowa State are, how much I still feel my writing is similar to Anna’s and to Rachel’s. Your stories and poetry were every bit as influential as the published writers I admired back in the day. 

Mary Swander, someone I think we’d all point to as a great mentor from graduate school, once said during a workshop that years from now, the critics would notice similarities in the style and subject matter of those of us studying together; we’d be known, she said, as products of the Iowa State workshop. It was a comment meant to express confidence in us—a bit facetious, no doubt, but I think she was trying to give us a vision of our future selves as successful writers. Maybe she realized that emerging writers can mentor one another.

Vida Cross: I don’t think I write like any of you all. I now know that as an academic, from grade school on up, I had been studying, independently, the greats on my own. I had read and been influenced by Langston Hughes long before I had committed his name to memory. I am a blues poet and, for me, it’s part of my culture. 

Calvin Forbes is a blues poet, too, but my style is different from his. And I don’t believe he taught me to write “the blues.” I think he taught me to see the blues around me.

Some years ago in Iowa, I hosted a panel presentation, and Mary Swander was one of the presenters and she presented works that were all about folk music, maybe blues music. I think she pulled out a harmonica. She was communicating farm culture, rural culture. I was shocked and at the same time, I could see that we as writers allow ourselves to transform.

Mary Cantrell: Mary Swander is multi-talented! Back then, I struggled with a fear of flying, so Mary taught me self-hypnosis. That seems far outside the expectations we have for teachers or mentors. I didn’t realize at the time how incredibly generous she was. Of course, she also taught me so much about poetry, and helped me land a job by writing me a beautiful letter of recommendation.

Vida Cross: Here’s another Mary Swander story. There I was, the only African American student in the department. In that context, to be mentored simply involved me being listened to and understood. In a rare moment, I was seen as a student writer who was there to receive instruction. My father had recently passed away and every time I returned to campus, I became saddened by the corn fields and acres of farmland that is the Iowa landscape. I was enrolled in Mary Swander’s poetry writing course and would not talk. Mary pulled me to the side. She wanted to know what was wrong. I told her I didn’t like talking in class when my work was being discussed, and I didn’t like what I was writing (I was writing about Iowa), and I liked writing with rhythm and didn’t see how that would fit in this environment. Mary said, you’re welcome to do all of that here, and if I remember correctly, she adjusted the course to suit me.

I do believe I was mentored then. At that moment, I was seen as a student, a person, a beginning emerging? young?  poet.

Anna Leahy: Do we need to be seen by others as a writer before we’ll believe it ourselves? The word confidence comes from the Latin for trust, and I’m wondering whether we trust others more than ourselves as writers, at least at certain times.

Mary Cantrell: Without confidence, though, maybe we don’t trust others or ourselves. Not too long after I had my graduate degree in hand as proof I was a writer, I attended the Oklahoma Quartz Mountain writers’ institute, a three-day workshop during which the instructor, Steve Heller, encouraged me to send one of my stories to the journal he was guest editing. I never did. Did I think he didn’t mean it? Was I afraid of rejection? How hard would it have been to whip out a quick cover letter, stick the story in an envelope, and drop it in the mail? 

Apparently, for me, pretty hard. Besides, I had a syllabus to write, papers to grade, an invitation from the college president to serve on a committee. I’ve always worked harder at teaching than at writing, and I honestly don’t know whether that’s because I really want to or because of self-doubt. In her essay “Men Explain Things to Me,” Rebecca Solnit writes, “a certain amount of self-doubt is a good tool for correcting, understanding, listening, and progressing—though too much is paralyzing and total self-confidence produces arrogant idiots.” Her point, of course, is that men are overly confident whereas women tend to be full of doubt. Vida, maybe you had too much doubt about your subject matter, so thank goodness for Mary Swander, someone who affirmed your unique vision as a poet. But we’ve all encountered young writers whose confidence far exceeds their abilities, and sometimes, a good mentor needs to be critical rather than encouraging. How do we maintain a healthy degree of doubt but avoid paralyzing self-doubt? 

Anna Leahy: So, confidence is not a resting state. At least not for women writers. Interestingly, Solnit adds, “my life is well-sprinkled with lovely men, with a long succession of editors who have, since I was young, listened and encouraged and published me.” She mentions these lovely men briefly after her dinner-party example, as if to preempt a not-all-men response. On some level, the gender of our mentors doesn’t matter, but then it does.

Rachel Hall: Curiously, my faculty mentors have mostly been men. Is this simply because there were fewer female writing professors in the programs I attended? Or that I didn’t click with the women professors for whatever reason? I was studying abroad during Robin Behn’s first year at Knox, but I’d been excited about her hire and was eager to work with her. I hadn’t had any female professors until this point, my junior year. This is embarrassing to recall now, but I phoned Robin’s office wanting to set up a conference to talk about poems I’d written. I remember the Violent Femmes were playing loudly in my dorm suite when we spoke, and she had to ask me to turn down the music. I wasn’t even in a class with her at the time, but I was really excited about these poems. Not surprisingly, she wasn’t as welcoming as I’d hoped and expected. Now, I understand that as a young female professor, she’d wisely set up boundaries.

For me, this speaks to the dangers of mentoring for women: I had expectations of instant connection and easy mentorship with Robin because she was young—just a few years older than we were, right?—and a writer whose work I admired, and because of the Knox ethos governing professor-student relationships, the casualness of having workshop in a bar or the faculty member’s house, for instance. These expectations were heightened by her gender. I understand this now, after being in her shoes with my own students, who like my younger self are seeking a big sister, a cool aunt, another mother.

But then, Robin Behn encouraged me to apply to Iowa State and she did the same for you all, too, right? Interestingly, it was her friendship with Mary Swander that made her certain the program at Iowa State was a good one for us. Funny to think about our paths being determined to some extent by a female friendship beyond ours. I like that and it makes me think about other ways women might support each other.

Vida Cross: I was encouraged to apply to Iowa State by Jane Smiley. She had come to Knox to judge the Davenport Writers Award and met with students for one-on-one critiques. It was then that she encouraged me to apply to Iowa State, in part because she knew the three of you and figured maybe I’d fit in.

Mary Cantrell: Rachel, you started at Iowa State a year ahead of me, and it was you who encouraged me to apply. I don’t know whether I would have pursued my master’s if you hadn’t called me up, if I hadn’t read stories you wrote there, if I hadn’t visited you there. We have lots of examples of female friendship leading to our next steps.

*** END OF Part 1***

*Read the rest of this fascinating conversation on mentorship in our fall 2020 issue!

BIOS:

Anna Leahy is the author of the nonfiction book Tumor (Bloomsbury) and the poetry books Aperture (Shearsman) and Constituents of Matter (Kent State University Press). She directs the MFA in Creative Writing program at Chapman University, where she edits the international poetry journal TAB. See more at www.amleahy.com

Mary Cantrell is a Tulsa Community College English professor, a George Kaiser Family Foundation Endowed Faculty Chair, and, sometimes, a writer. Her most recent publication is “Diggers in the Garden: The Habits of Mind of Creative Writers in Basic Writing Classrooms,” a collaborative essay published in Teaching English in the Two-Year College

Vida Cross is the author of a book of poetry Bronzeville at Night: 1949. She is a Cave Canem poet and she has been nominated for a Pushcart Award. Currently, she teaches English full-time at a two-year college, Milwaukee Area Technical College. See more at vidacross.com.


Rachel Hall is the author of Heirlooms, a linked collection of stories, which was selected by Marge Piercy for the G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize (BkMk ). Heirlooms was also awarded the Phillip McMath Post Publication Prize. She is Professor of English at SUNY Geneseo. See more at www.rachelhall.org