Friday, September 7, 2018

Writerly Mentors: David Fenza, Ken Irby, Victor, Contoski, Stephen Meats, More

I just returned from visiting my older brother in Arizona. Our conversations ranged from politics to 
geography to writing. In high school, he had reported for  the Emporia Gazette, and since then he has perfected many kinds of writing, When he returned home after his first year at Harvard, he gave me writing assignments, such as, "Explicate Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony." I was twelve, bookish, and thrilled at the attention. His suggestion kept me busy for weeks, as I read liner notes, went to the library, and listened to the symphony over and over. This was July, when thunderstorms on the plains make an apt accompaniment to Beethoven’s grand chords. He was my first mentor.
As I became more interested in writing poetry, though, I found a landscape of misogyny. Some of the Black Mountain poets were active in my hometown (Lawrence, Kansas) at different times (Edward Dorn, Kenneth Irby), and also Beats writers, especially William S. Burroughs.  These men were often gracious, but I was not on their planet. The dearth of women’s voices in these schools has been discussed in other places. I sought women mentors, but there were few—not many had been able to penetrate the male kingdom. 
Plus, I was not an ideal mentee. Two active children blessed my life by age 24; at 32 I held a full-time English department position (five sections of composition a semester the first five years); and by 44 I had two failed marriages. I was busy and had an attitude. As I developed, oh so slowly, other writing mentors entered the picture.
Victor Contoski was my first college poetry teacher, and he gave everyone high grades. That allowed me to relax and focus on writing. He also encouraged publication, and through him, I found my first literary publisher, Dan Jaffe of BookMark at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.  Jaffe was tough, professional, and a true editor. He red-inked my first book manuscript beyond recognition—in fact, it became a chapbook. Now I thank him. He helped me understand how a book goes from typescript to edited, proofed pages.
Stephen Meats was another literary editor who took extra time to encourage a developing writer in the great “Midwest” (or whatever you want to call river towns anchored west of the Mississippi and east of the Rockies). He was poetry editor of Midwest Quarterly. He liked a suite of poems I sent, asked for more, and published a selection as a chapbook. He and his wife are still treasured friends. His encouragement helped boost me into the poet laureate position of Kansas, and I am truly grateful.
David Fenza, former executive director of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, is another male mentor who helped me integrate administrative skills into a non-profit arts environment. At my college, I was the English department chair and then dean of my division. I had basic knowledge of budget, personnel issues, and program development and assessment. Fenza helped me see a larger context in AWP, a national, 50,000-member organization, including arts advocacy (he worked with NEA and other groups). I had the opportunity to write an op-ed for the Kansas City Star, one of my weakest genres, at the same time I had poet laureate and dean deadlines. Fenza provided tactful assistance with this task. He was always professional, warm, funny, and smart. He understood the intersection of business and the arts. He is one of the most remarkable men I have met.
Kenneth Irby became one of my revered mentors, near the end of his life. His curmudgeonly strains of earlier years eased (once at a poetry reading he attacked my factual knowledge about the Pleistocene, incorrectly, but that’s another story). In the 2000s, I realized how much I had always liked his poetry despite everything and how we shared an affection for gin. That culminated in a “poetini” group, convened by Joseph Harrington, that met weekly to celebrate both. As I looked back across the decades of his writing, often inspired by shared deep geography, I appreciated the scope of his influence. What a healing to come to terms with Irby in his last years. I was lucky to interview him for New Letters on the Air a few months before death. AWP’s Writer's Chronicle published a selection of his poetry and more of the interview. 

Without these mentors, starting with my brother, I would be a much lesser writer. These men mentored with no guarantee of success, no payback, no hint of impropriety. Mentorship is an act of hope for an unseen future. The best gratitude is to pass on the gift of literature.