The Mentoring Experience – from K.T.
I began mentoring with Girls Write Now in September of 2013. That’s when I met Bre’Ann—the smart, talented, funny writer I am so grateful to have been paired with.
Every week we meet at a Harlem coffee shop. At first there was a lot of talking as we got to know each other. Actually, there’s still a lot of talk, about the week, our lives, and our thoughts on writing. We do the odd writing exercises and web searches—everything from Elizabeth Bishop’s “Sestina” to Solange gossip and Wiki’s article on the Book of the Dead. Essentially though, these meetings are hang-outs and editing sessions. Bre’Ann brings poems, or reads them off her phone (with power and drama on par with any professional writer I’ve seen) spicing up the cappuccinos at the next table and teaching me about fearlessness and commitment to one’s own words. We talk about possible edits, shining moments, and challenges for future pieces—then lather, rinse, repeat.
If we miss a meeting we turn to email. Lately Bre asked me to text her a word a day, alphabetically—Antique, Breakwater, Citrine, Dissent…to serve as poem titles, subjects, and vocabulary. With a recent Zenith poem, she completed the challenge she set for herself while also juggling school, homework, college prep, family, and everything else that goes with being a teenager. As any writer knows, writing every day is hard. Writing a poem a day for four weeks is a feat, and perhaps the best response to anyone bemoaning the work ethic of today’s youth—or the seriousness of young girls. Bre reminds me that intelligent people can have passionate opinions on both the death penalty and Kardashian sisters. Instagram seems omniscient, but that doesn’t mean it’s not being used, curated, and even gazed-at by discerning young girls.
“Girls Write Now” is a great moniker for this organization, in part because it is a misnomer. Bre’Ann and the other mentees are obviously remarkable young women. Is there any other kind?
Volunteering with GWN, I expected great people and a lot of writing. What has surprised and affected me the most, though, has been talking to Bre’Ann about the challenges, beauty and politics not only of writing poetry, but the realities we live in as women and writers. Real talk about the body, education, and female figures in history and pop culture seems at least as important as what gets written down.
“Have you heard of Nefertiti, Lady Lovelace, or Andrej Pejic? Why can men be seen as attractive no matter their skin tone, but for women it’s better to be lighter? Lupita Nyong’o is a darkie…what’s a darkie? You know when you’re walking, and a guy yells something at you, and you can’t tell if he’s following you but you don’t want to turn around because you’re scared something worse will happen?”
“Is it letting them win if you cross the street?”
We can’t answer every question we raise, but it feels good to ask. I wish Bre didn’t have certain stories, and I wish I couldn’t relate, but that’s part of what brought us together. I don’t know about ‘winning’ but crossing the street to avoid catcalls does feel like a form of surrender—not to a villainized them, but to a threatening paradigm of inequality that ultimately serves no one. How do we make sure that resignation is temporary? How do we process all this? Isn’t Lupita Nyong’o lovely?
Talked out, Bre and I turn to our pens, her poems. Inevitably they touch on these questions, even as they expand into their own shape and meaning. All the while we’re realizing—at least, I am, how much my voice is that of a woman, how my youthful and gendered experiences shaped the writing I do today, and how the world I grew up in compares to that which Bre’Ann inhabits. These realizations hit me especially hard because though I am proud to identify as a woman, I have tried, sometimes and for various reasons, to neutralize the femininity in and of my work. Or rather, to transcend the fear that being female instills, and the anger that fear engenders. Sometimes I want to write about ideas that seem to have nothing essential to do with gender, but I’m distracted by immediate realities. Expectations, ads, and offhand comments, dismissed emotions, overlooked achievements—seemingly infinite examples of bullshit, cluttering the surface of my psyche, getting in my way. Sometimes I can shake them off, but that itself is a huge effort. Resentment bubbles up in surprising places, and that doesn’t feel good either. What would my work—and the world—be like if there weren’t these disparities begging response and reaction? How many women have spent how much energy shaking it off, trying again, tippy-toeing around words like bossy and smile and slut? What else could we be doing with that energy, and the time it takes to drum it up? What would Bre’Ann be writing about if she didn’t get harassed on the bus?
Working with GWN stirs up these concerns, but also makes me feel better. Real change is slow. Big change manifests in millions of tiny interactions, and GWN is full of those. Senior mentors remind us of the leaps already made, as do the women, men, and diverse people who support the program. This year Chirlane McCray, New York City’s First Lady, wrote the introduction for the annual anthology of GWN writing, a book Gloria Steinem has supported and that will launch at GWN’s annual fundraising gala this week. Though I’m impatient for more, the progress between successive generations is impossible to ignore—and if these girls are the women of the future, we’re on the right path. Being in a room filled with excited teenagers is very exciting. Especially because GWN teaches girls not just to make noise, but to support each other with compassion and savvy.
That support may be the most revolutionary aspect of the organization because frankly, transcendance is hard. And draining. And I can’t escape my cultural circumstances. And actually, I don’t want to—at least not all the time. GWN has led me to an extremely useful clarification:
Sometimes I want to shake things off, sometimes I want to address and celebrate genders and bodies and the moment we live in. I imagine other people do, too. Both are easier when not in distress. As motivating as anger can be, it’s the toxicity of resentment that I want to neutralize, and GWN has helped me do that. Being part of a positive, effective phenomenon is therapeutic and empowering and I’m grateful to be involved.
The Mentee Experience – from Bre’Ann
I have been a mentee at Girls Write Now since the fall of 2011. And I must say that the duration of my three-year journey has been like painting a self-portrait. Stroking vibrant hues of blues, reds, and yellows intertwining to still only fill up the blank spaces of the background.
The first two years of my time with Girls Write Now I had a different mentor, though because of business she could not continue another year with me. So in September of 2013, I met Kara, one of the most comical, understanding, and trust worthy of persons ever.
From the beginnings of my mentor-mentee relationship with Kara until now we have developed a kind of unscripted routine. We meet on Fridays, discuss events that happened during the week (school, work, crushes etc.) get something to snack on, and then bring out the papers. The papers that we bring out include poetry I have sent throughout the week, or even samples of her and her friend’s work. It is through these moments of sharing and revision how a piece of poetry comes to completion or more likely, a better version of itself.
I thank Girls Write Now for these opportunities that Kara and I have to converse about world events, trivial high school matters, and heartfelt writing. Workshops that occur one Saturday each month are also beneficial to the learning of both the mentee and mentor because we are exposed to genres out of our comfort zone.
Girls Write Now is a program in which females are celebrated no matter the age brackets. Social borders are taken down on a regular bases as girls from different ethnic backgrounds come together to appreciate the creativity and support of their peers.
K.T. Billey moved from rural Alberta, Canada, for an MFA in Poetry at Columbia University, where she is now a Teaching Fellow. Her poetry has recently appeared in Phantom Limb, The New Orleans Review, Ghost Proposal, Prick of the Spindle, and sensation feelings journal, and translations have appeared in Palabras Errantes. At work on her first poetry collection, she also teaches Creative Writing to high school students and senior citizens.
Bre’Ann Newsome is a 17 year old junior at the Bronx Studio School for Writers and Artists, and a third year mentee with Girls Write Now. She received a Silver Key Scholastic Writing Award in 2013 and participated in both Lincoln Center’s Poet-Linc Poetry Slam Competition and Fordham University Poet’s Out Loud Program in 2013 and 2014. As a GWN Poetry Ambassador, she represented Girls Write Now by reading her original poetry at the New York Women’s Foundation 2014 Gala.