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Monday, November 3, 2008

Women and Mentorship: Jena Osman and Sarah Dowling

by Julia Bloch

28 October 2008

Reading the How2 feature on women and mentorship reminded me of some discussions on the topic now available on PennSound. In fall 2006, a few of us started the Emergency reading series at the Kelly Writers House in Philadelphia. We wanted originally to ask poets about this idea of the “emerging” poet, a word we were so accustomed to seeing on the backs of new paperbacks, on calls for first-book prizes, in residency announcements. We wanted to showcase poets who hadn’t seen a lot of exposure of their work; we also wanted to put them in conversation with more widely known poets to hear what they might have to say to each other about this word but also more broadly about influence, community, and practice. Our first pairing, the first reading of the series, featured Jena Osman and one of her former students, Sarah Dowling.

Sarah read selections from her manuscript “Keepness,” which deals with the intersections of documentary form and private perception, and “Amateur Cartography,” written in response to a series of found photographs. Jena read and projected images from “The Interruption of Strategic Influence,” which is named after the U.S. government office responsible for planting false stories in the foreign news media and which included a performative challenge to the audience, a moment in which she asked us, “If I asked you for help would you give me help?” Not really sure if she were breaking the fourth wall of the poetry reading, we hesitated, giggled nervously, and then let her continue. (The awkward moment turned into an extended listserv discussion on the Writers House site about the ethics and psychology of poetry readings.)

The Q&A after the reading became an extended discussion of some of the contours of mentorship, contours that you can see in some of the poetry from that evening, too: Jena mentions that parts of her piece were written by a mentor of her own, Thalia Field. Afterward, Jena and Sarah talk about shared material interests, including a shared interest in what Joan Retallack calls poethics, or the act of linking aesthetic practice with the experiences of everyday life. Retallack writes about putting ethos in the foreground of aesthetic process and asks questions like: how does art come into contact with contemporary experience? how are writing and reading integral to making sense out of everyday life? or, as Sarah describes it, how do we meet our historical moment with compassion? how do we address presentness in our work? For both poets, a poethical practice manifests as an intense interest in documentary materials: Jena describes the experience of poetry as an alternative to consuming the newspaper uncritically, poetry as a way to meet and confront daily events.

Both poets feel the word “mentorship” to be a somewhat vexed term: Jena talks about the “baggage” of the word mentorship, suggesting Robert Creeley’s concept of company as an alternative, and Sarah shares the surprisingly gendered results of her Google search for the word “mentorship,” from odd psychodynamic corporate models to “disastrous alliances” between Ana├»s Nin and Henry Miller, H.D. and Pound, and so on. Their own mentoring relationship, she said, felt less like a top-down instruction model and more like a “discussion”: “finding these webs of shared materials, shared concerns, not just between ourselves but also moving outward toward other people, other versions of community.”

In the introduction to their anthology Women Poets on Mentorship: Efforts and Affections, Arielle Greenberg and Rachel Zucker write that they chose to feature women born in the 1960s and 1970s, in the middle of second-wave feminism, to talk about their living mentors and role models. Their assertion is that women of this generation (and maybe later?) have a tangibly different relationship to poetic lineage—and to the history of women’s writing. Certainly for Sarah and Jena, overlapping aesthetic practices say something about their overlapping generations. But I wonder, too, about the gendered contours of “emergence” in the twenty-first century, and whether we need a new vocabulary to describe the poetic “career.”

Click here for a directory to the sound files for the evening. The Q&A is hard to hear in the beginning, but gets easier about three and a half minutes in. Not all the questions were miked, but stay tuned for the poets’ answers.

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