Miller Oberman: On Mentorship

ObermanWhen I was sixteen, like many teenagers, I worked in a corporate coffee shop in a corporate bookstore; I won’t name them here. In that bookstore I started to read contemporary poetry. I read everything lucille clifton had written and could recite half of it, and I read Split Horizon by Thomas Lux. By chance, I saw in a magazine that he taught a summer workshop at Sarah Lawrence College, and applied. It was the first time I ever printed my poems and put them in an envelope. I was accepted, and my parents let me get on a bus alone to go from Virginia to New York. When I arrived, I was told that the workshop “was for adults,” but I argued my way into Lux’s classroom, and at the end of the week, he suggested I come to school there. I never tested well and wasn’t sure I could get in, but he said to apply and to “shove a note in there that says ‘see Tom Lux about this kid.’” I did. It wasn’t until he died in early 2017 that I realized how common this story is. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of poets Tom taught, helped get into school, found jobs for, believed in.

I had incredible teachers as an undergraduate. Marie Howe sat me down behind her desk and physically taught me how to make line breaks, and I think I have most of her book What the Living Do memorized. Suzanne Gardinier taught me patience and persistence, and that good poets are better readers, and Victoria Redel showed me the freedom in rejecting barriers between genres. But Tom was my first mentor, and the first poet who made me believe I could be one myself.  

Tom was an incandescent teacher. On the first day of class he read us Hart Crane’s “To Brooklyn Bridge,” performed it, really, and though I followed almost none of it, it was somehow the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard. Perhaps this is because after he finished reading it, he said, in the same tone as he’d read it in: “I would sell every single one of your souls to have written a single line of this poem.” I read it again. And again. Today it reminds me of Tom’s poem, “An Horatian Notion,” from Split Horizon, the book that caused me to apply to the summer workshop in the first place. Tom begins by describing what he sees as the illusion of God-given genius or inspiration, “the gift,” model, which he considers ridiculous. He counters, arguing instead:

 

              You make the thing because you love the thing

              and you love the thing because someone else loved it

              enough to make you love it.

 

For Tom, the removal of the common fantasy of the artistic “bolt of fire” only adds intensity to the process. The poem concludes:

 

              And with that your heart like a tent peg pounded

              toward the earth’s core.

              And with that your heart on a beam burns

              through the ionosphere.

              And with that you go to work.

 

This “heart” burning “through the ionosphere” has everything to do with mentorship. It is how we are made, how we measure ourselves, what we take with us. This is the eternal life art promises—someone loves a thing “enough to make you love it,” and you love it enough to make another love it, and so on. It doesn’t come from heaven, it’s not a bolt from the blue, it comes from our mentors; either on the page or in the flesh. Taking the mystery out of the process doesn’t diminish it: we still get the “core,” the center of the earth and the heart, and the “ionosphere,” as our words travel outwards, above the earth’s surfaces and our own.

Tom died just before my first book, The Unstill Ones came out, and the fact that he read it and wrote about it means a great deal to me. As I did when I was young, I nervously printed the poems and mailed them to him, hoping that when he read it, he would see some of his teaching in my poems in a way that might make him proud. I know that the poems in the book where I see his influence are some of my own favorites. I hear Tom’s voice in my poem “Lies After the War,” because it’s dark and funny at the same time, one of the only poems in the book that attempts humor. And of course, in my poem “Voyages,” which begins with a quote from Hart Crane: “and could they hear me, I would tell them.”

Miller Oberman has received a number of awards for his poetry, including a Ruth Lilly Fellowship, a 92Y Discovery Prize, and Poetrymagazine’s John Frederick Nims Memorial Prize for Translation. His work has appeared in PoetryLondon Review of Books, the NationBoston ReviewTin House, and Harvard Review. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Anna Frebel on women in science who paved the way

As a young girl growing up in Germany, I always felt drawn to the idea of discovery. Noticing my expanding interest in science, my mother cultivated my curiosity about the world and our place in the universe. She repeatedly gifted me biographies of women scientists who defied the odds to pioneer discoveries in their respective fields. Indeed, these stories of accomplishment and determination greatly fueled my desire to become an astronomer.

As I spent countless hours reading and exploring on my own, I would find myself alone but never lonely in my educational pursuits. Little did I know, this form of self-reliance would serve me well as I completed my advanced degrees and research into finding ancient stars to learn about the cosmic origin of the chemical elements — published in my book Searching for the Oldest Stars: Ancient Relics from the Early Universe.

These days, I fly to Chile to use large telescopes once or twice per year. This work means long hours spent in solitude carrying out our observations. It is usually then that I most strongly feel it again: a sense of fulfillment and pride in this discovery work which I was lucky to gain a long time ago by reading the life stories of women in science.

I fondly remember learning about the thrill of traveling across continents with inspiring naturalist and scientific illustrator Maria Sybilla Merian (1647-1717) as she was researching and illustrating caterpillars and insects and their various life stages in the most detailed of ways. I met fierce and gifted mathematician Sofia Kovalevskaya (1850-1891) who was the first woman in math to obtain a PhD (coincidentally from the university in my hometown) and who later became the first woman math professor in Sweden. One of the most profound role models remains two time Nobel prize winner Marie Curie (1867-1934), a remarkably persistent physicist and chemist who discovered radioactivity and new chemical elements. Reading about her years of long work in the lab to eventually isolate 1/10th of a gram of radium, I too could imagine becoming a scientists. Curie’s immense dedication to science and humanity encapsulated everything I wanted to do with my life. Finally, atomic physicist Lise Meitner (1878-1968) showed me how groundbreaking discoveries can be made when daring to invoke unconventional ideas to explain experimental results. She realized that atoms cannot be arbitrarily large. If too heavy, they fission, break apart, and thus produce various heavy elements from the bottom half of the periodic table.

Throughout the years, these stories have stayed with me. Their impact and insight gave me comfort and guidance during the many phases of my academic and professional life. It was more than a question of gender. It was the confidence in knowing the women who came before me had created a path for the next generation to travel, myself included.

Some of these books have traveled with me as I moved from Germany to Australia to the US for my career and my path to professorship. In many ways, I’ve incorporated central aspects from the lives and research of these giants in science into my own work. Hence, these women remain in my heart and soul – and by knowing their stories, I never feel alone. From my perspective, reading biographies thus remains one of the most important forms of personal and professional mentorship and growth.

Recently, through a collaboration with STEM on Stage, I became a science adviser to the living history film “Humanity Needs Dreamers: A Visit With Marie Curie”. I also rekindled my love for these ladies and their stories by crafting a short play in which I portray Lise Meitner as she recalls her discovery of nuclear fission in 1938/39. The play “Pursuit of Discovery” is followed by a slide presentation about my research and how Meitner’s work provided the theoretical framework for my current studies into the formation of the heaviest elements in the periodic table.

I’m often asked about the challenges facing women in science. Although we have made significant progress, one of the main challenges is providing mentorship and role models. In astronomy, the number of senior level women remains small compared to our male counterparts. To help change this ratio, I’ve devoted time to help mentor undergraduate and graduate women in physics and astronomy.

Whether reading biographies of women in science, mentoring, or becoming Meitner on stage, it is important to give credit to those who paved the way for the next generation, and to highlight the amazing and inspiring accomplishments of women in science. As I write in my book, “we stand on the shoulders of giants.” And by knowing their stories, we can better know ourselves.

Anna Frebel is an Associate Professor in the Department of Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She has received numerous international honors and awards for her discoveries and analyses of the oldest stars. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.