15 November 2013
We hear a lot these days about ‘mentoring’. But what does a mentor actually do? How do you become one? How do people find the right mentor for them? And – the $64,000 question – are mentors worth it? Here John O’Donoghue recalls mentoring Clare Best.
I’d known Clare for several years when I became her mentor. Before we worked on her book, Excisions, Clare had published a pamphlet collection, Treasure Ground, and held a couple of residencies. This gave Clare a certain respectability with the Arts Council, who awarded her a small grant to work on her collection which included money for me to be her mentor.
We would meet at her house in Lewes to discuss the book. Initially Clare had a lot of material – well over a hundred pages’ worth of poems. The task as I saw it was to get to the essence of all of this work, to the kernel, the nub. My reading of contemporary poetry led me to the belief that it is books that focus on a single theme that often do well, commercially as well as artistically, the concept album as opposed to the songbook.
So Ariel by Sylvia Plath, Crow and Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes, Summer with Monika by Roger McGough, North by Seamus Heaney – these were the kind of books that informed my thinking. So many slim volumes are published – how is a poet writing their first book even going to have a chance of getting noticed?
But I knew that Clare had a strong collection lying amongst the printouts gathered on her table. Clare comes from a family where most of her female relatives have had breast cancer. Mother, aunt, cousin – all contracted the disease. She was told that she herself had an 85% chance of contracting breast cancer. So she elected to have a preventive double mastectomy.
And in a powerful sequence – Self-Portrait Without Breasts – she documented this process in poems by turns funny, sad, and moving. Here was the centre of the book.
Once we had assembled these poems and sequenced them I gave Clare one prompt – the single word ‘Amazon’. It’s testimony to Clare’s powers as a poet that she didn’t scorn me and send me away red-faced as she demurred. Not Clare’s way. When we convened for our next session there was the poem. She’d added an ‘s’ and made this word of hers the title, as if in acknowledgement of all the women she’d known and felt a sisterly comradeship for:
We are warriors, women marked by a lack of breast––
bows crafted from elm, sinew and bone,
We live on our wits, we live on the move.
Tomorrow at dawn we ride –
our arrows will find their kill. But tonight
we hush our restless mares,
lie together on leopard skin, kiss each other’s scars,
stare into the fire where shadows dance.
I was quite amazed – my tentative suggestion had been taken on, given imaginative depth and tenderness, the kind of archaeological excavation Heaney brought to his work. But this is only a small example – it is the cumulative artistry and power of the sequence that stands out, and this was all in place before I came on the scene.
With the centre of the book to hand, I suggested that Clare consider giving the collection a tripartite structure, to make it a triptych. She quickly gathered poems around her ‘Self-Portrait’. The poems in the first panel explore her own family background of strong women and a complex father, and the poems for the third panel look to the future, speaking of the love between her and Philip, her husband, and Freddie, her son.
All that was needed now was a title. In an email Simon Jenner, the guiding spirit at Waterloo Press, had referred to ‘excisions’ from the book – the poems Clare had decided to cut. I suggested this as a title to Clare – and she accepted my suggestion.
Excisions was shortlisted for the Seamus Heaney Centre Prize, and Clare’s work has also recently won two more prestigious prizes, Second Light Long Poem Prize, adjudicated by Moniza Alvi; and Poetry on the Lake International Poetry Competition. And she has written a memoir, a frank, clear-eyed account of her childhood, and how her upbringing affected her.
So I’m proud of the work I did with Clare. Not because of the baubles the poetry world holds out to those who ‘attempt the pen’. But because of the work itself. In the course of this process I came to share a very deep bond with this remarkable, courageous woman. She has long outgrown needing any further advice from me. And that is just as it should be.
At the end of the day it is Clare Best’s name on the cover of her book. Here’s to all her books to come.
To order a copy of Excisions by Clare Best (price £10 plus p+p), please click on this link to go to the Waterloo Press website.