Thursday, April 21, 2011

One Love: A Mentor's Influence

(for K.D.)

Today, I learned that someone I once regarded as a mentor in my writing career is leaving the position that chanced our meeting for another spectacular opportunity. I am sad for the institution, the students and the writing community that will lose him and excited for the mid-western university that extended him the invitation to join them.

As I thought about this mentor and his influence, I had to remind myself that he had not died, he is simply changing locations. I am certain that I speak for many when I say that once his imprint finds its way to your voice and manuscript, neither are ever the same. Time, life and geography altered our writing relationship, but his influence on my writing experience still lingers in the poetry collections that I have written since the last time we spoke.

At times we were contentious opposites. Thankfully our love of poetry was a sufficient adhesive for our amity.

There are three points of influence for which I am grateful for my first writing mentor.

That he introduced me to a Japanese poetry collection entitled, “The Ink Dark Moon: Love Poems”, by Onono Komachi and Izumi Shikibu. One of my favorite poems follows:

No way to see him
on this moonless night ---
I lie awake longing, burning,
breasts racing fire,
heart in flames.

The poems, which delicately knit love and eroticism, were written by women of the ancient court of Japan between the 9th and 11th century C.E. They read as if they were written within our time, offer hope to the inexperienced or skeptical lover and poet, and serve as my numinous introduction to the authentically sensual periphery of poetry.

That he showed me how to “Haiku” my way out of writer’s block; not the type that is the result of a distracted life, but the kind of mental intrusion that denies the writer of words, rhythm and voice. The exactness of the form exercises the poet’s demons and restores a semblance of sanity to the writing process; until the next episode. During a particularly challenging time in my life and under the influence of my Japanese predecessors I wrote a collection entitled, “Haiku in Captivity”:

New love-- a surprise!
bends behind shadows of fear
to light a dark place.

I can hear my mentor reminding me that I personified “Love” in this piece--a “no-no” in this form.  My attempts to remedy this particular error remain a challenge. But the form is my faithful companion as I navigate around a frequent literary charlatan.

Finally, I am grateful that I could safely share with him my frustrations with the politics of writing. We could fervently disagree over the root causes of my angst without making fiction out of my perceptions. Once we had a heated discussion over whether or not writers of color must always qualify their work with their racial identity. I voted “no”, joining the ranks of Langston Hughes and others who did not want their race to define the merits of their literary contributions. My mentor suggested that I lived on an island of racial denial as I retorted that while I may be of color, my existence and experiences do not reflect the presumed “of color” experience. Even today, I feel that what I write is universal and without racial hue.

Years ago another mentor and friend told me that people would come into my life for specific purposes; for a fleeting or an extended moment; for better or for worse. I was cautioned not to hold on to the transitory; that life will ultimately have its way in the matter regardless of our resistance to change.  The truth of the warning was a difficult divination to accept.

In his comments to the local newspaper announcing his departure, he was asked how his relocation would affect his writing. In the midst of the uncertainty that accompanies any move, he reaffirmed his commitment to “listening”; to eavesdrop on the rhythm and landscape of his new community and allow its gait and echo to inform a new voice.

 Today, I celebrate all that is  inspiring, virtuous, and prosperous in all of my blessed mentors who have temporarily shared their appointed space on my continuum.

And, here’s to you K.D.

One Love!