05 August 2021
Posted by Megan Laing
Can you summarize your previous experience of being mentored, and mentoring?
“So, In poetry terms, my main mentoring experience has been working with Carrie Etter.
When I started taking poetry seriously, which was kind of post thirty for me, I guess, and when I thought okay, you know, it would be good to have a specific poetry mentor, and Carrie is an incredible kind of presence in the poetry world and has mentored people I know, as well. And then was pushed onto her to work on my pamphlet and went for a conversation with her and we kind of got on and she was interested in the work. And, we worked together on that. She's brilliant, because she's kind of a great mix of the rigor of poetry and being precise and really thinking through the work. We occasionally meet and have a drink on Skype, we call it “wine Skype” but it's not Skype anymore it’s Zoom. So yeah, we have like a video chat and just talk about general poetry stuff and small amounts of gossip and that kind of thing. She's been a really, really great mentor.
I think mentoring is like much more than one to one. But then actually, prior to working with Carrie one-to-one, I had some other teachers. When I was in Leeds, and I was still working to make a move to poetry, I went on a series of courses with a poet called Rommi Smith, who's fantastic and amazing. We had like an advanced poetry group for a smaller group of this.
There's other people along the way. My main poetry mentoring experience with Carrie, and then I've had lots of other brilliant people who I've had great kind of learning relationships with, but not so directly about poetry.”
How does this influence the way you're delivering sessions with your mentee?
“I do a lot of tutoring. I've done a lot of one to one work in context, like people referral units, or tutoring I was doing for a while as well so I really enjoyed that kind of coaching. I've done some coaching through my work for The Poetry School, a little bit there which I've started this year.
I think there's always a kind of interplay of your experience having been tutored or mentored, and being a mentor, you know. There’s kind of a constant flow of the two. I guess, I just try to be mindful of the wider context someone's working in and actually, you know, with any art form including poetry, there's a whole person going on there. And you've got to be kind about what's going on as well as rigorous.
My experience with my mentors has been good but the ones I really like have taught me to recognize your whole context, rather than just being like, you can't do that with poetry, especially if someone's writing about really sensitive stuff.”
What links your practice as a poet to your role as a mentor?
“It's that kind of feedback loop of teaching and learning, tutor and tutee or mentor and mentee, or whatever it is. I think you have to kind of consider yourself in a cycle the whole time.
All poets love editing other people's poems, I think. And for me, since I really feel like my practices come on massively because I got some Arts Council funding, and I was able to spend real time with my own work editing, but also that when I'm doing that, for other people's work, having that kind of critical distance is so helpful. It's really great to look at other people's work, and then to look at your work. But also, if you can stand back from your own writing enough, which I think means putting it down for a while so you're not attached to it and then coming back, to be your own great critical friend, as well as getting other people to help you. So I think that's a huge gift. I think that the editing part of the process itself is just not really talked about enough. It's incredibly creative. I mean critical in a good way, as in critiquing.
I think also like if you're freelance as well, being a good boss to yourself. Actually, if you can be a good mentor, a good tutor or guide, and practice that kind of compassion towards others, one-to-one or in a group. I have said that to myself, as well, quite a lot of the time “you're not going to get all those things done. And that's okay, stop it. It's all right”. So practicing a kind inner voice that is also an outer voice when it needs to be too. Because I think I'm quite sensitive and so I try to be aware of that because I don't like upsetting people.
I've been doing work with The Poetry School and we did a session on owned feedback, and how to critique your own feedback. There is that kind of tendency to wish to apologize because you're offering developmental feedback.I get it, you know, because we want to be kind. And actually being kind can be, can mean being rigorous sometimes and being really precise. But you can do that in ways that feel less. Not too direct, or direct enough? It’s a whole session on those elements of coaching language and having owned feedback. So the practices are saying things like “for me, it was a bit like this….” and “I wondered if you wanted to think about this…”. What I'm saying is the same thing, you know, really, I'm saying that this bit needs work, but I'm doing it in such a way that feels generous, and it feels developmental and collaborative. As poets, we're kind of open to different ways of phrasing things and capturing things.
So my hope is that when you start to embed that in poetry culture, it makes for a much kinder, more affable space. I think we're recovering from hundreds of years of academia being run by a particular demographic for whom it was the done thing to shout over each other and tear each other's work down. That doesn't make for a nice atmosphere, and there's loads of other ways of doing things that are much better. So that's kind of why I'm quite passionate about reclaiming spaces. I think the whole thing about critique is fascinating.”
How has meeting with your mentee changed / influenced your plans for further sessions?
“When we met,we did Romalyn’s [Ante] excellent form and I often have a kind of manifesto I do one-to-one which I do with tutees when I work at the Poetry School, and we kind of did something similar. I did a sort of writing activity working with April [Egan] that was solely about getting to know each other. So you kind of lay that groundwork of trust and actually feeling that we know each other a bit before you're planning on into this very sensitive work of poetry.
Then we agreed on what the outcomes might look like for April, because they’re not for me to say. It's very, very particular, our writing lives and how they look through each of us. And so we did that and we'll check back in on those when we next speak. We've just been in the very kind of nuts and bolts process of making sure the poems fit on the page. We've been talking about line breaks and stuff.
There's a point also, I think, I realized this the other day, when I was a bit like “Oh, I wonder if you could clarify that a bit”. But we've talked about it a few times, and they're April's poems, and I have to be like “okay, you know, these are your poems”, and then they're also going to go to Aaron [Kent], and it'll be another process there. You can't keep too tight a grip. That's been a helpful thing to think, where do I just let go?”
Has there been anything that has surprised you or made you reflect on your own writing practice while working with your mentee?
“April and I have had some conversations about illusions, as well. Illusions and things like that, and how we bring a reader in to the right extent without over explaining.
There’s one of her poems, and I actually just added “see what you think about adding back in an epigraph saying that the poem is a cut up based on the Cossacks by Tolstoy” because I haven't read any of that stuff. And to me, that gives me an ‘in’, and April loves that stuff. So there's an interesting cultural crossover. She's read a lot more classics than me and, and other points when we're talking about pop culture and things like this, where we do kind of, say, thinking about the cultural world of your reader, and how we can make sure that we kind of give enough to bring them into the world of a poem.”
What pieces of wisdom / advice would you give to other emerging poets?
“I met with two poets yesterday, and we were doing a session about residencies and commissions. And so the two subjects I'm gonna lead on the first one is money. We don't talk about it in poetry well enough, and actually, if you're not from money, then you need to be able to manage money and ask for it. And, of course, you know, we always have food on the table, we went on camping holidays to France, you know, pretty sound, but there was no big push, there's no trust fund. And actually, I couldn't afford to do a Master's because it was too expensive. It's like £12,000 or something of student fees. So I've made a separate path. I would say kind of make your own path and, as part of that, make sure that you can thrive and flourish. The way that we have to do that within this world is making enough money to do so.
There's a whole load of interesting work there around the stories we tell ourselves about money, valuing our own skills, articulating our own skills. I've had a few series of business coaching sessions. Not just coaching around the craft of poetry, but also your skills as a freelancer with people who can talk about what you do, who can ask for your worth, and assert that and walk away when people aren't paying that. Otherwise, how are you going to pay rent, how are you going to eat? And I think if we're going to have a more egalitarian poetry world, it needs to be accessible to more people, which means that they need to be able to survive and thrive on what you can earn between and across all the projects you do poetry and beyond. So, have conversations about money and earning a living and don't be afraid to do so and see if there's some free business coaching because it's out there. I got free business coaching, and it was really, really transformative.
If you said “I want to be a business person”, people are going to say “how are you going to do that?”. But, of course, what you are as a creative, or an artist or a freelancer, effectively a business person. But it's not a business that's about growth, or about making as much money as possible. It's about generating other forms of capital, which is social, cultural, creative, wellbeing as well as all these other kinds of ideas of capital if we're going to be in a non-growth model of economics.
It's really good to say now actually, I could sustain myself really well, if I had a bit of support and if I had the training and the knowledge, because no one says that you shouldn't be a business person or an entrepreneur. And actually, I'm an entrepreneur. I think we need to reclaim that language, because a lot of people just denigrate and devalue being an artist or being a writer. And yes, it's good to have other skills for sure. But that can all be part of a kind of network of enterprises, the core of which is you being a writer. I really want to reclaim being enterprising or being entrepreneurial is something that's not just about making you loads of money, because it's really not.”