Choosing an Image Pot, Letting It Simmer, and Other Lessons from a Poetry Mentorship by Rebekah Wolman (Poetry)

Rebekah Wolman

Looking back at my application for a W2W poetry mentorship, I'm almost embarrassed by the broad scope of my hopes and dreams. I imagined a sounding board, a source of wisdom and advice, for everything from completing a chapbook manuscript to developing a more regular and confident submission practice, and from cultivating community to focusing my writing practice more effectively and "stretching my practice and my work at their various edges." Quite simply, I think I was hoping for an antidote to the isolation of the poetry practice I had been working to revive since retiring in June 2020. I had participated in multiple Zoom workshops and an in-person, multi-week local workshop, but I hadn't yet found or built a satisfying ongoing community. I was craving companionship and guidance for my poetry.

Along with congeniality, my Zoom sessions with my mentor, Jehanne Dubrow, yielded plenty of wisdom and advice on submitting work, building community, and developing my practice. And the poetry cohort of W2W Season 18 is a potentially evolving source of community. But it's the last item on my list—stretching my work at its edges—that was the biggest takeaway, and I couldn't have envisioned how it would unfold over the course of eleven Zoom meetings and close work on eight poems.

Here's where the cooking metaphor comes in. To be honest, Jehanne and I never talked about food or cooking, other than acknowledging our mutual love of dark chocolate. But as someone who loves food and takes cooking seriously as both a creative activity and a nourishing one, I couldn't help seeing the parallels emerge as I reflected on the lasting impact of Jehanne's feedback. And I'm confident from reading her book Taste: A Book of Small Bites, and from the language she used in talking about poems ("it starts to feel like it's cooking here" stands out) that had I developed this idea during our time together, it would have resonated with her.

Early on, Jehanne introduced the phrase "image pot" to refer to a poem's particular world of imagery. Poem by poem, she pushed me both to make sure that I stuck to one consistent image world or pot and to scrape that pot clean, digging deep for the most apt and richest vocabulary to build and strengthen the poem's metaphorical world. I've always disliked restaurants that serve a variety of different cuisines—the something for everyone places—and now I have a poetic frame of reference for that antipathy!

I learned to make my poems richer by making sure there were no empty calories (my phrase), no details that weren't crucial to the point. That required making sure that I was sure about the point and avoided wasting words on ideas that could be more powerfully conveyed through images.

Increased allegiance to a particular image pot helped concentrate the "flavors" of my poems, as did following advice from Jehanne that helped me compress lengthier poems. One such suggestion—to "try it as a sonnet"—helped me reduce a twenty-six-line poem to fourteen lines for more pointed and poignant impact.

Finally, the respect and encouragement implicit in Jehanne's honest feedback on my poems helped me face perhaps my toughest challenge—my tendency to rush to finish a poem without giving myself or the poem time to come to an ending that really says what needs to be said. I am slowly learning to let poems sit, and to sit with them, for longer—letting them simmer before taking them off the stove. Not only in writing and revising my own poems, but in reading others' poems closely in order to learn from them, I have had to recognize my natural impatience and then work to overcome it.

With Jehanne as a close reader of my poems for twelve weeks, I learned to ask myself and my poems the kinds of questions she asked. The mentorship launched me on the path of becoming a better poet—and maybe even a better cook! Most important, it was a deeply nourishing experience.

Rebekah Wolman

Rebekah Wolman is an erstwhile middle school principal based in San Francisco, California, on unceded Ramaytush Ohlone land. Her poems have appeared in Essential Love, an anthology of poems about parents and children published in 2000, and more recently in The New Verse News, Limp Wrist, MacQueen’s Quinterly, Orotone, Sixfold, The Hopper, and Atticus Review. She is a 2021 winner of Cultural Daily's Jack Grapes Poetry Prize and the 2022 winner of the Small Orange Emerging Woman Poet Honor.