Finding my Poetry Mentor and How that Changed my Writing Life
by Associate Member Representative Lesley Strutt
Before beginning this blog, I took a walk into my village to clear my mind. By chance, the swing bridge over the locks was open to let boats through. I was delayed long enough to notice a flock of small birds rising and swooping out over the cascading water from the dam overflow and winging their way back to the branches of nearby trees. One of the birds perched close enough for me to see that they were Cedar Waxwings. What a lucky chance the bridge was open or I’d have missed seeing these exotic little birds cooling off in the mist.
Lucky chance also brought me my poetry mentor. In 2005 I was signed up for a beginner poetry writing workshop at UBC’s Booming Ground. There weren’t enough students in my group and I was asked if I’d consider joining Patrick Lane’s intermediate workshop. I said yes but I was very nervous.
The workshop was designed for experienced poets who were working towards a first collection. I was way out of my depth, hadn’t even published a poem yet, but this group of fine people included me easily and took me under their care as I navigated my first real poetry writing workshop.
I’d read Patrick Lane’s poetry since the 60s when he was a wild young man making a mark for himself. I remember how his poems had knocked the wind out of me. I was intimidated and honoured to sit in that workshop and I worked hard on every exercise he gave us. I wrote pretty bad stuff, and he wasn’t one to mince his words. But this was a good thing. I’ve come to realize how slowly I write, and how stubborn I am through the process of finding the poem.
I listened, I wrote, I rewrote, struggling with every word, every line. Patrick pushed hard. He was fierce with me, as if he believed I could be more fearless. By day four I had finally produced a poem – not a copy of a Patrick Lane poem, but a piece of my own. That experience altered something inside of me. The poem was published within the next year, and I went on to publish more poems and eventually join the League of Canadian Poets.
I continued to be mentored by Patrick over the next 10 years. He taught me how to listen deeply to what a good poem can tell us, and how it accomplishes this. I practiced reading like a writer, taking note of the small turns of phrase, rhythm, rhyme and more. I learned to think about what a poet is creating inside the space of a few lines. Even more important than all that, I became aware of what poetry means to someone who has spent his life writing it.
Through the years, in all the workshops I took with him, Patrick’s main message to us was to tell us to keep making poetry no matter what. He invited us time and again to enter the ditch of life and dig deep. He encouraged us to send out our poems, to produce our own chapbooks, to share our poems at readings.
It was lucky chance that led me to a mentor who helped me realize that poetry is a lifelong devotion that has little to do with winning competitions or getting published. In truth, the poetic path has everything to do with being alive in this precious world and paying attention to the fleeting moments that otherwise would go unnoticed.
We’re excited to have this excellent post from Lesley Strutt kicking off our Poets’ Corner column here on the blog! The Poets’ Corner is a place for members of the League to share their professional experiences as they have navigated this crazy thing we call poetry. We believe our members’ experiences and insight can be a great tool–or just a fresh dose of solidarity–for members and non-members alike who are hoping to grow their careers in poetry, writing, and publishing. If you are a member of the League (full, associate, or student) and you would like to contribute to the Poets’ Corner, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. Right now, we are especially interested in stories about mentorship, but we are always keen to hear about other subjects as well!