Those Dummies books can be really useful when you just need to know enough to keep
a conversation going, have questions you’re embarrassed to ask, or when a
rudimentary level of knowledge is adequate. Building a Website for Dummies, Home
Maintenance for Dummies, Wine for Dummies -- I get those. I had a hoot of a time at a
conference I spoke at once in Reno, betting craps with a woman who’d studied Craps
for Dummies on her plane ride from Colorado Springs. We kept our strategy to the
chapters she’d read, and our money lasted the evening!
A number of years back, I was invited to contribute a favorite exercise I used with
students to a version of Poetry for Dummies. The lure was that all the cool poets were
participating. If I added an exercise –– ta da! –– I’d be cool, too.
Since usually I don’t feel half-smart enough to be a poet (and since the magic wand
path to coolness was tempting, but suspect), I declined the request. It did get me to
thinking, though, about the difference between reading a How To book and having a
teacher. Or, being really lucky, and having a mentor: someone who feels a commitment
to your success and hangs in with you beyond obligation, sharing the nuances, the
contradictions, the life surrounding the skills. I had the good fortune both in learning
poetry and as an apprentice electrician, to be taken on by brilliant mentors. Denise
Levertov and Stanley Plathe had a lot in common. I’m not sure I’d have become a poet
or electrician without them.
I was an audit student of Denise’s when she taught at Tufts University in the mid-1970s.
But before she allowed me to join the class, she interviewed me in her living room about
three poems I’d submitted to her. Why had I broken the line here, not there? Why had I
used a period rather than a semi-colon? Why had I chosen the verb “to hump” that
connoted a particular image-system rather than other more fitting choices? With a
growing sense of panic, my answer to each question was the same: blank, a shrug. It
wasn’t that I hadn’t revised the poems, but that the choices were all from instinct and my
training in logical prose. I was certain I had failed the interview. Fortunately, as it turned
out, Denise’s questions were not for entry but more the Course Description, or first
lesson, that every word, punctuation mark, white space had to be a thoughtful and
I have a similar memory of Stanley handing me a motor switch and asking me to figure
out how to wire it. I was only a second year apprentice, and hadn’t learned that yet. But
it helped me see where I was reaching, and that he expected me to get there. Later that
year, Stanley was out sick for a few days, and left me in charge of the job. The owner of
the shop nearly had a heart attack when he stopped by, and saw the girl apprentice
talking over blueprints with the general contractor. Stanley was unfazed.
With Denise, the classroom time where we workshopped poems and discussed the
poetics of writing in open form, was just the baseline. She taught what it meant to be a
poet in the world by bringing me to hear writers, Grace Paley and the Iranian poet, Reza
Baraheni; by being blunt when she thought my writing was not progressing; and by
challenging my life choices that she found mistaken. It wasn’t an easy relationship.
At the start of my electrical apprenticeship, my first foreman was a vicious man who
tried to frighten me out of the trades, and boasted that he’d done that with a Chinese-
American apprentice. When that shop laid me off, I was relieved, but another bad
experience would have ended my career, I’m sure. But I landed with Stanley, who’d also
had a run-in with that first foreman, and we bonded immediately. He’d grown up on a
farm in Minnesota, and saw no limitations to the work women could do capably. I
became “Stanley’s girl”. He showed me how to lay out the work of a big project so that
the job made money without too much stress, hanging fixture chain months in advance
when access was easy or laying pipes in the floor for the inevitable ‘extra’ required
when the architect’s error was discovered. When there was a particularly hard or dirty
job to be done, and the owner offered to “get a guy from the hall” to do it, Stanley would
respond, “I’m a guy from the hall” and he and I would do it.
Both Denise and Stanley taught me to calibrate. To select a word not just for meaning,
but connotation and musicality. To set a screw with the right torque: not over, not under.
Really learning to be a capable artist or skilled tradesperson takes dedication,
perseverance, curiosity, and willingness to reinvent. To find the courage and selfconfidence
required for that long journey filled with setbacks and dead ends, it’s a
tremendous help to have someone who’s far ahead reach back: not only to assist and
guide you, but to believe in you until you are able to believe in yourself.