At 17 years old, I kept what I imagined was a riveting journal of high school life. It was rife with rowdy, drunken kisses tasting of menthol cigarettes and Coors Lite, tales of breaking into the city pool where I worked as a lifeguard to get high while wading weightless through the chlorine haze. I wrote about wanting desperately to leave Bardstown, about my identity, and about how my massive Arab nose didn’t fit the confines of my face. I wrote about the way the wind felt on my skin driving to New Haven, Kentucky to look at goats while taking shots of bourbon. I bemoaned my fate, colored the word DEAD into a journal that had the Monet water lilies as its front design. I was intense and deep, a repulsive combination of way too mature and completely immature. I was cocky and insecure.
That summer —the summer of 1996, the summer of “Exhale (Shoop Shoop)” and “No Diggity,” the summer before my senior year of high school — was the same summer that I met Kelly Norman Ellis at the Kentucky Governor’s School for the Arts. It was an audition-based, fully funded arts intensive program; I applied in creative writing, using some of those very same stories and poems from my journals. I still remember the audition and talking with Kelly about Alice Walker and reading Possessing the Secret of Joy when I was grounded for sneaking out. We immediately clicked on The Color Purple and what it felt like to read books that totally engrossed us – made us feel lost. I showed up on the first day, pencil and journal in hand ready to go. What I knew was that I would have 21 glorious days to write, to fellowship with other young writers, and to try and meet as many boys as possible. My goals were not super high. What I didn’t know is that I would meet a mentor that would change the shape of everything for me.
Kelly Norman Ellis was cool, and not in a fake way. She embodied cool, embodied intellectual, driven, fun, brilliant womanhood to me. She was the kind of confident, laid back and culturally ‘with it,’ I longed to be. During those first few days she shared her poetry with us: rich, image filled language about the South, juke joints, grits, gizzards, the general store owned by her grandparents Mama Olivia and Daddy Pie. Kelly wasn’t afraid to write about her identity, and what it means to be a black woman raised in Jackson, Mississippi, making her way to Lexington, Kentucky. She also wasn’t afraid of being political, writing about the women who raised her, her sexuality and race. Her poems felt like seductions, ripe with longing and a kind of womanhood I wanted to live in. They were sultry and smart, unafraid of being a woman who wants, who desires. We all loved Kelly. There were about three of us (fellow young women writers) who hung on everything Kelly said. We took notes in class, we wrote down all the writers she told us to read: Jayne Cortez, Gloria Naylor, June Jordan, Naomi Shihab Nye. We took all her advice: Don’t be afraid to write about where you come from. Write from your experiences. Write about your traditions, your culture, the cornbread your mamaw makes. She asked us what we called our grandparents. She told us to write in our country dialects, to own who we were/are, to tell the truth even if the truth made us uncomfortable or ugly. Tell it anyway. We wrote it down. We stayed long after class to ask her questions about Mississippi, about teaching at the University of Kentucky, about getting her doctorate, about her love life. We all wanted to know who she was dating, what her plans were for the rest of her life, and most specifically, how she got to be the woman we all wanted to be. At the end of the three weeks, I was distraught. It was not only one of the best writing retreats of my life, it was the place I met my first mentor. We exchanged information. Kelly gave us her address and told us to write and stay in touch. I did. Religiously.
I sent Kelly postcards and letters. I thanked her for everything she did for us. I printed a photo from our summer with the whole group. I sent updates when I had them. I was making a point of staying in touch, and although I knew Kelly was busy, and wouldn’t be able to respond, I still have the one postcard she sent, with a young Alice Walker on the front. When I was a freshman at the University of Kentucky the following year, I signed up for her Major Black Writers course. It was another semester of extreme knowledge, reading Song of Solomon and Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. I would visit her office hours and we would talk about the writing life, how to sustain a career and what pushed us to write. I wasn’t grown yet, so didn’t get invited to her parties, but I heard stories of them, and looked forward to the future. At the end of that year, Kelly moved to Chicago for a teaching position at Chicago State University. I stayed in touch.
On August 26th 2001, I moved to New York City to get my MFA at The New School. Two weeks later September 11th happened. I lived in student housing on William Street in lower Manhattan. My whole world felt rocked and I took the train to my grandma’s house in Park Ridge, New Jersey. Kelly called me on the house phone days later. We cried and told stories. I told her my grandma kept trying to lend me her clothes, her bra specifically, which is a double D (I am an A cup). We laughed and I promised to keep her posted. We stayed in touch like friends this time, and in 2002 Kelly invited me to AWP in New Orleans with two of her fellow students from Chicago State. This was the trip that changed it all. I was 23, and old enough to get a drink (or many drinks) in the bar. I was fully grown and we could talk politics and art. We drank and partied our way down Bourbon Street. We listed our current favorite writers, we gossiped, we told stories. All of a sudden, my mentor had become my friend. That trip marked the beginning of yearly trips to New Orleans as part of the ConjWoman collective, and in 2004 I joined the faculty at GSA to teach with Kelly, which we did for a decade. In my cherished copy of Tougaloo Blues, Kelly’s first collection of poems from Third World Press, Kelly writes: To Ellen, My daughter, my friend, one of my soul mates. I love you, I love you, I love you.
It was during that first year of teaching at GSA with Kelly that I met one of my first (and one of my favorite) mentees. Danni Quintos came to class ready to be a writer, and Danni could write her ass off. I would marvel at the work she did as a 17 year old. She was bright and feisty. Her work held her Kentucky roots, mixed in with the Philippines and Japan. She wrote about her Mima and about what it meant to be a brown girl in the Bluegrass. Danni was already writing about identity and place in ways that impressed the hell out of me. She took notes in class. I pushed her to be more specific, to tell the stories she was afraid to tell. She took more notes. She stayed late and asked question after question. She wanted to know about New York City, about life as a writer. She was hungry to know how to craft the life she wanted. After the intensive ended, Danni stayed in touch. She wrote me emails and sent the most beautiful and delicate chapbooks my way. She kept the poems coming, and we stayed in touch in the same way. I knew the ropes, knew how to offer advice and stay connected. I’ve known Danni for twelve years now, and count her among one of my close friends and one of my favorite people on the planet. She recently finished her MFA at Indiana University and sent me her thesis a few weeks ago. I can’t wait to delve in.
I feel grateful for these mentor / mentee relationships, and the fact that these two in particular have sustained me as a writer since I was 17 years old. These relationships have staying power because we all care deeply for them, and about them. We don’t neglect each other – we bolster and build up – always. I want to add another writer here who is not only my editor at Northwestern University Press, but one of my closest and most valued friends in the publishing industry and in life. Because we are roughly the same age, we have truly come up together. I view this friendship as a mentor partnership, as someone I look to for advice, suggestions, edits and ideas, and because we are so close, I know she looks to me for those same things. Parneshia Jones and I have been trading mentor / mentee for over a decade, and I value these relationships just as much. These are the relationships I turn to always.
Friendships with fellow women writers are essential. They are balm and salve, they mend and protect, they channel and calm. The friendships and mentorships I have are what buoy me through the lonely and desperate times of being a writer. This artist life is not always easy, and it takes time and patience to build your community. It takes letters and emails. Sometimes, it takes years for a mentee to grow up and become a friend. It takes sending work in, and welcoming feedback – critique or praise. It takes supporting each other at readings, workshops, classes and events. It means showing up, buying the books, reading the essays and poems. It means being curious about the writing life, asking questions, and most importantly being open when they’re asked of you. It means picking up the phone and calling. It means answering. It means taking trips with your writer friends, dancing at 3 a.m. in the French Quarter. It means understanding how to guffaw and weep alongside. It’s true these are the same things that make all friendships and partnerships so sweet and so full, but sometimes as artists we have to be reminded. We have to nurture and hold these relationships close. So go ahead, pick up the phone, craft the letter, make the connection, and keep it going, keep sustaining the kinds of communities of brilliant women we all want to be a part of.
ELLEN HAGAN is a writer, performer, and educator. Her latest collection of poetry, Hemisphere, was published by Northwestern University Press, Spring 2015. Ellen’s poems and essays can be found in the pages of Creative Nonfiction, Underwired Magazine, She Walks in Beauty (edited by Caroline Kennedy), Huizache, Small Batch, and Southern Sin. Her first collection of poetry, Crowned was published by Sawyer House Press in 2010. Ellen’s performance work has been showcased at The New York International Fringe and Los Angeles Women’s Theater Festivals. She is the recipient of the 2013 Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance Creative Arts Grant and has received grants from the Kentucky Foundation for Women and the Kentucky Governor’s School for the Arts. National arts residencies include The Hopscotch House and Louisiana ArtWorks. Ellen recently joined the poetry faculty at West Virginia Wesleyan in their low-residency MFA program and co-leads the Alice Hoffman Young Writer’s Retreat at Adelphi University. She is the Director of Poetry and Theatre Programs at the DreamYard Project in the Bronx and directs their International Poetry Exchange with school partners in Japan and South Korea. A proud Kentucky writer, Ellen is a member of the Affrilachian Poets, Conjure Women, and is co-founder of the girlstory collective. She lives with her husband and daughters in New York City. Visit her website, and find her on Facebook and Twitter.