Paul Farley and John Challis on mentoring

Posted by Paul Farley and John Challis

John: To kick us off, I thought I’d ask you outright what you make of the idea of mentoring. How important is it for apprentice poets to be mentored?

Paul: The idea of ‘apprentice poets’ implies there’s a mentor somewhere. Serving time in the hope of being schooled or initiated or trained in some way, under the aegis of some tutelary figure. I like it that it’s a word from poetry, straight out of Homer, the name of Telemachus’ advisor. But, it’s not obligatory. There are plenty of writers who’ve found their way in the usual muddled fashion by which we might pick up a few moves in any walk of life. It’s interesting to think of how easily writers can ever develop or quicken without being part of a network or mutually supportive gang of some sort. I wonder how often that happens? In some sense, there’s nearly always either the approval or criticism of an individual or peer group, or the seeking out of figures the mentee is attracted to for whatever reason. It’s all a kind of permission or approval seeking, a confirmation.

John: I like how mentoring takes many forms. I have a small group of writer friends and we’re always passing work back and forth between us. But for me, it was also hugely beneficial to have an established writer I knew and liked to take a look at the work. It put a different, perhaps less competitive perspective on it. When you were starting out was there a writer who mentored you?

Paul: Yes there was: Michael Donaghy. He started out as my teacher in his night class but it developed into him being there a lot in a kind of advisory capacity, as he was for several other poets, him being the generous sort. He had all kinds of ideas about poetry, and I think he liked sounding out and challenging younger writers. He liked sharing work. Mentoring as sitting in a parked car by Finsbury Park and looking at drafts of poems. Mentoring as talking on trains coming back from somewhere with a hangover. It wasn’t what you’d call structured but he knew what he was on about and set a great example.

John: Mentoring as passing questions back and forth over email too? For me, every conversation on poetry seems to do something; it reaffirms, sharpens or expands what I feel it ought to, or can do. What does the mentee need to bring to the table in order to benefit from the process?

Paul: They’ve sought out their mentor for a reason, hopefully, and that makes all the difference; whether it’s a writer whose work they admire, or somebody they’ve grown to respect for their insight or their slant on the whole thing. So, you know, I think they’re bringing something to the table right there. They want to be at the table. That’s crucial! Even the shortest apprenticeship is pretty intensive and demanding, so they have to be up and ready for that. Also, not assuming the mentor has this big golden key that will unlock the secrets to a successful and rewarding career in poetry. The pleasure is in the writing. The agony is in the writing. It never changes. The mentee has to get that. Otherwise, it’s fucked.

John: I’ve heard people speak of mentors with concern. The usual fear is usually one of influence – that the mentor’s style and interests will rub off too heavily on their work. Personally, I see it as a dialogue. The chance to speak directly to a writer you admire about poetry in general, and about your poems specifically. What do you think of the mentor/mentee relationship? To what extent is it a dialogue?

Paul: I don’t know, I think that’s a bit of a parochial anxiety. You want the writer to be as good as they can be, at what they want to do. To work with their interests and capacities, which are different from yours. Their world-view. It doesn’t simply follow that mentorship leads to a diminishment or echo chamber effect. I’m not seeking disciples. I don’t particularly want people to write like me. I’m not entirely sure I even know what that is. I like it that my work is read, but that’s a different story. If anything, a closer working relationship takes the exchange somewhere else. As you say, based on dialogue, and all the seesawing backwards and forwards that implies.

John: You have to leave anxiety at the door, I guess. I’ve met some writers who flat out refuse to read anything contemporary in fear of being influenced, which seems somewhat ignorant and reductive given that writing, in some way, is always a response to other writing. Does the process of mentoring allow influence to flow in both directions?

Paul: It has to, yes. It’s not a situation where one-sidedness helps. In the earliest stages, even before a working relationship has been ratified, the mentor has to want to work with the mentee, too. With you, John, the situation was slightly unusual, in that I’d known you and taught you when you were an undergrad, so I had a good idea of your temperament and inclination to work. But in any case, it’s always good I think to meet and sound each other out first. When it’s working, yes, the mentor has something to gain too, if he or she is tuned in and listening. It’s a conversation rather than a lecture. When you come down to it, the mentee is another writer. They’ve already got abilities and instincts.

John: If there was some omniscient poem-god who had read and knew by heart every poem ever written, in which canon might they place your work, and would this grouping have anything to do with any teachers or mentors you had?

Paul: That’s so hard for me to say. It isn’t for me to say. I’ve made plenty of mistakes, and probably ignored some good advice. I hope it’s all still happening somehow. I guess we offer and receive advice on several levels. On the one hand, there are aesthetic choices and formal decisions and angles of approach to talk about. But don’t forget straight-up tips and suggestions. Like, ‘don’t write if you’ve nothing to write; do something else’. Or, ‘Have you read this?’ Or, ‘Try sending your poems to X, they might like them.’ Or, ‘You don’t have to say ‘yes’ to everything.’ Put yourself about, if you enjoy it. But exercise discernment. Be judicious. We’re all harried and busy, so remember to read and do nothing.

John: In ‘Letters to a Young Poet’, Rilke famously refuses to give the young Franz a critique of his work, stating that “nobody can advise and help you, nobody. There is only one way. Go into yourself.” How important is the critical feedback aspect of a mentorship? Does Rilke have a point?

Paul: It sounds like a very pointed way of saying that, in the end, it’s you and the poem. A mentor can advise and suggest and lead by example, but the best students learn a way of absorbing what they need, discarding what they don’t. The speed at which some beginning writers can sharpen up and concentrate what they’re doing can be astonishing, but only if they’re listening down into their poems, reacting to events unfolding if you like.

John: That’s one of the things I loved about the mentoring, how it opened up many imaginative possibilities that a particular poem could go in. The process also made me consider words with greater scrutiny. To test and question what each word adds or doesn’t. At one stage you brought to my attention the concept of a poem’s ‘ignition point’ – the part of the poem where it really kicks into action. Is this something that you are actively aware of when writing poems?

Paul: I think that’s Clive James’ phrase for it, and we know what he means. You know when it’s happened because it releases chemicals in your head. It gives you a thrill. It surprises you. You go back and it’s still surprising, like paint that stays wet. It can be a seemingly small thing, but it unlocks lots of other things. It’s finding a door you didn’t know was there in the words, which opens onto new rooms and spaces. I think the poem generates itself and finds a lot of its shape and tempo from this point. Sometimes it happens very early on; sometimes it happens after you’ve put a poem to one side for a while. It’s not like it’s predictable, but it’s something you learn to recognise and trust.

John: One poem you brought to my attention was Richard Wilbur’s ‘Walking to Sleep’ which seems to kick-off again half way through, with a line break and a question. By giving me examples like this you helped me consider how to keep the paint wet throughout. Why couldn’t it have multiple ignition points? The mentoring was hugely mind-opening. Not only did you have great insight into improving a poem’s form and content, you asked questions of the poems, which I wouldn’t have considered, and really gave me the opportunity to widen the shot. I’m interested in whether there was any particular poem/artwork/film/person that helped expand your imaginative horizons?

Paul: I’m glad you found it useful; I certainly enjoyed meeting up to talk. A mentorship scheme is an intensive event with definable limits but of course writers will often stay in touch and look at work from time to time. In fact, I’m having a look at your new manuscript right now! It’s hard to speculate on the imagination and its sources. All I’ll venture is that for me, public libraries had a lot to do with it early on. It must be the same for a lot of writers my age. But beyond that, there have been too many people and things to muster here.

John: I guess, in part, imagination is informed by the cultural networks we inhabit. Looking through the mentored poems now, I notice how quickly some of the drafts developed. By our third or fourth meeting the shape, form and even titles had all found more solid forms. I can’t imagine I’d have worked anywhere near as fast if it wasn’t for the mentoring. So I’m curious, what does the mentor get out of this?

Paul: Well, we’re all in this together, even though I know competition in the arts is real, and that we’re also all scrapping to find a space and to be heard. Confidence and belief are a big deal for writers just starting out. I’ve been teaching for long enough now to see several writers go on to publish books or write screenplays or whatever, so it’s rewarding. But mostly it’s the same as talking to any other writer in a sustained or irreverent or serious way about writing: it reminds you of why you’re doing it, and it gives you cause to think about how you’re doing it. Mentors still have a lot to learn.

Paul Farley at the Poetry Archive Follow John Challis on Twitter