Sunday, March 01, 2009

Women and mentorship, sigh...


What can anyone say? Here is a comment from Lady M. regarding women's reluctance to appear as expert and therefore able to give advice:
In my experience, even very established women writers shy away from proclaiming this. Is it insecurity? A lack of hubris? Perhaps--huge generalization--women are more likely to live in the grey, believing we all still have so much to learn, we are evolving, we are all so different.
And Annie's point:
...women poets ask less for mentorship than men, as a rule. This may be the reason for Roberto's observation that Stein and other women tend to mentor men more (imagine if Sylvia Beach had mentored a woman instead of mentoring Joyce--or if Lady Augusta Gregory or Harriet Monroe had made a point to mentor women). Men ask more.
Yes they do ask more. And yes, women often privilege a different kind of thinking, one that is more fluid, changeable, open, and often derided as less critical. At least in the poetry world. My academic friends in English and History at least, do not report this same problem with perception and/or feeling mentored and included. So, this issue is specific in some way to the poetry world. Or, from my perspective, heightened in the poetry world.

My male poet friends know that they need to stick together. Many of them roam in bands nipping at the heels of naysayers and slapping each other on the back encouragingly. Not all mind you, but an impressive number.

I'm wondering if that exists for women? Or, if as one comment suggested, women don't perceive other women as having power, so they look to men for guidance and/or support in their career.


Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl said...

I've often thought about that nipping at naysayers and backslapping thing you mention - whether it's at all healthy or if it's perhaps just a definition of friendship. You stick up for your friends, right? Alot of the times it hasn't much to do with hardcore literary debate, it's more just, yes, friendship. That being said, I do believe as much in sticking up for my girlfriends as my boyfriends.

But perhaps it's not good. I don't know (throws up hands in confusion!).

I feel I've had many mentors. And at least some of them are women - angela rawlings, for instance, has been both a great influence, a friend and a conversational buddy about things de poetry. My publishing house editor is an older woman whom I respect dearly. Going back even further, it was my mom who'd read literature to me as a kid, who'd encourage me to read this or that or whatever. Who got me a library card. Like most guys though, or gals, most of my closest friends are of my own gender.

And I'm just thinking aloud in your comment box. Sorry about that.

Chris said...

Should I feel bad that I don't think I was ever "mentored"? I've taken poetry writing workshops in school (mostly an excuse to write a write a bunch and have an audience, to "lose the first fifty games of go quickly", so to speak) and I took Bernadette's workshop (her first one after the stroke) (which featured a lot of guest lecturers, so I got to meet a lot of famous poets that way, but wasn't anything like B. looking over my shoulder as I wrote and offering guidance). If anything, my one moment of mentoring was when a freshman comp teacher (an adjunct, female, who I later became friends with) suggested I look up Ann Lauterbach and the langpos, which I did, and that opened up whole new avenues of writing for me. But, mentoring? Were you mentored?

Shameless Hussy said...

Virginia Woolf is my mentor.

More later.

VanessaP said...

Memento, you mean.

Shameless Hussy said...


Will you be my mentor?


VanessaP said...

Ah, sugar, I already am.

Shameless Hussy said...

Hey Chris. You should feel very bad indeed. If you were being mentored right now you wouldn't feel bad at all. So you see what you're missing?

Eiríkur, I think simply being aware of one's power of inclusion, support, etc., is already amazing.

Ms. P.,
You are indeed. I think I am best mentored by the jet stream of strong women. Though once in a while it's very nice to have a live being of any size, shape, or gender, simply turn and say yes.

Pearl said...

Interesting subject. Part of me wants gendercide, part wrestles with it as existing.

"Women don't perceive each other as having power." I could see that as a factor.

Women, in the raised in listen to your father, be quiet girl culture, by default defer to men as having power. There's a lowering of tone, eyes, head, giving the floor that's culturally embedded, more subtle than it used to be but still present and on low scale contentious when challenged.

I've seen it happen in volunteer boards where a female speaks and is spoken over, makes proposals that other females shrug at and the same words repeated by male is then seized on as a good idea. It doesn't seem gender-incidental.

Some may oversteer away from male groups or male as power broker to avoid the dynamic.

An Old Girls Club? I'm not sure that there is an Old Boys Club even. It's a pattern of association of individuals who like each other and can "hear" one another.

Is there a parallel system for females as Natives set up to not cooperate in the mainstream structures but set up their own publishing houses, awards shows, network. WomPo is trying. There's gender criterion, pro-female inclusiveness for half the planet.

Part of mentoring is just support, friendship, fondness but a Mentor is someone further along the path not walking at your side and level.

What are the patterns at play? Is there gender clustering as much as it seems? Males start journals, submit to journals and win awards at a higher proportion than females. What does this come out of? A matter of willingness to lead? Hang up a sign as expert?

*If* females aren't doing this proportionally, and I've seen numbers and done head counts that suggest women aren't, what are females doing instead? Mentoring equals in flat hierarchies in small circles? Producing but not publishing? Using the potential energy in different creative expressions?

If women more generally mentor men, why? and where? Is it analogous to Men being the head of the house but women being the neck? Equality, parity but different pubic expression of?

Shameless Hussy said...

Great questions Pearl. Obviously it's complicated. The numbers issue and discussion around this on the Poetry Foundation website a while back spoke to some of this.

We all know how much energy it takes to not only write poetry but think critically about it and engage in community thinking about it. Part of me thinks that women have less of this time--no one wants to hear that but the reality of gendered labour division is still with us.

How many female poets have men tucking a sandwich and a cup of tea in at their elbow so they can finish a blog post about a great poem they read?

And how many women get to publish other women? Or promote them? Or review them? Or introduce them? Or be introduced in a thoughtful, critical way? All of these things matter and any of us can choose do this work--though my experience has shown that we often seem to let the most verbose male take the helm of such projects. In fact I've been in situations where I've felt tremendous pressure to back away and let certain male poets take charge.

These are complicated moments with no easy explanation and certainly no bad guy/good guy consistency-- just deeply, culturally ingrained assumptions that can be very harmful to all.

We tend, in the poetry world, to defer to those who review and organize, who do anthologies and police opinions...these assumptions unexamined, lead to an unchallenged and often skewed perspective. Gender or no gender.

But this has veered away from mentor into gender...a mentor would, in my ideal world, role model and professionalize women in this way.

Random, rambly thoughts, but it's all I have time for at the moment.

Shameless Hussy said...

Eiríkur and Chris, I'm sure you would bring me a sandwich, no? And derek, I know you would, and Jason and Ryan...and Vanessa. Yup, a sandwich would be had I have no doubt. And I love you for it.

But you know what I mean!

Chris said...


(I might, right now, have too much romantic investment in just that moment of preparing food for someone who is busy, and having food prepared for me when I am busy.) (Though almost certainly more of the former.) (I miss cooking, it's not as much fun to do it for yourself.) (Etc.)

So, have we touched on the connection between mentoring and sexuality? (Or, maybe I mean, sexual expression. I mean the connection between mentoring and sex.)

VanessaP said...

And cake.