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.