Monday, June 22, 2015

My First Time: Tawnysha Greene

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today’s guest is Tawnysha Greene, author of the Young Adult novel A House Made of Stars. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Tennessee where she currently teaches fiction and poetry writing. She also serves as an assistant fiction editor for Cutthroat: A Journal of the Arts and is a regular reader for the Wigleaf Top 50 series. Her work has appeared in PANK Magazine, Bellingham Review, and Necessary Fiction among others.

My First Mentor

Her class was one of the last I took as a graduate student. An upper-level course in poetry writing, it was a course that began in her home. We all huddled in a small group around a table in the den, each clasping a new poem she had told us to bring. Happy, her wolf-dog, a huge white creature, lay passively at our feet as she scratched his large, pointy ears. She nodded as we read each of our poems, then looked to the next person to read aloud. When everyone finished, she welcomed us with open arms. Her name was Pamela Uschuk, and she was my first writing mentor in graduate school.

My other writing professors were all inspirational and wonderful, but Pam conducted her class in a way I had never seen someone do—she went beyond the role of a teacher, earning our trust individually, then guiding us all with a gentle hand. She often brought our classes outside, and we sat in a circle as we had before, except now, we rested beneath the trees and breathed in the fresh air. Speaking loudly to be heard over the sounds of campus construction and the noise of cars passing by, we shared our poems again, new ones, bolder ones, and these classes were invigorating, because of the way we had to raise our voices, to bring every word out so that each was alive.

Pam sustained this energy in our poems in the prompts she gave us. We went to a wildlife and nature reserve south of the city where we walked the trails and pointed to the birds and snakes we saw, then following her example, we all sat down on the earth where we wrote these things down. Some of us rested near the trees, others on the path, and she sat with us, wrote as we did, made poems, too. Soon, night began to approach, and we began hiking the last trail that would lead us home, and we saw a barred owl perched in the trees. It was feeding on a snake, and we watched open-mouthed as it casually held the snake’s body with one claw and then swallowed it down whole, undisturbed by the group below. By then, we knew when to speak loudly and when to be quiet, when to listen to the world and ourselves. Pam didn’t even have to tell us to write a poem about that moment.

When she read my poetry, she guided me with quiet corrections, her marks brief but always ending with an encouraging note, pointing me in the direction I should go. During conferences, I watched as she wordlessly crossed out lines from my poems, her pen gliding over the page before she turned the poem back toward me and showed me what was left. “Here,” she said. “This is where your poem is.” She had a way of revealing things to us—in our own poetry, the poetry we studied, and in the world around us.

By the end of the semester, we all wrote a little bit differently. Our poems had become more honest, and we shared that openness in the last class we had together at her home. She made dinner for us, and we ate in the backyard. It started to rain, then as the storm worsened, we all crowded back inside. As thunder cracked and rolled outside, we all sat where the semester began. We spoke of our time together, of what we would write that summer, and how much we would miss her when she went back to Colorado. It grew late, and we all turned in our end-of-the year portfolios. We said our goodbyes. We lingered. No one wanted to leave.

When I wrote the acknowledgements page of my first book, A House Made of Stars, I included all of my writing teachers, but her name was more than that—her name was that of a mentor, a good friend. My poems from her class eventually became the novel, but her tender hand was always there in the pages, her voice telling me, “Here, this is where your story is.”

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