issue 27 > nonfiction > hoffman > nelson
A Fairy-God-Father Mentorshipby Marilyn Nelson
I first met Daniel Hoffman at the University of Pennsylvania at the beginning of the spring semester of 1969. Professor Hoffman was the professor of my Modern and Contemporary American Poetry course. I was 23, a second semester graduate student, one of two African Americans in the department's graduate program, 3,000 miles away from home, and pretty much at the nadir of my thus-far existence. I can't say I remember anything about the course except that I enjoyed it. Nor can I recall a single conversation between us. I am shy, and was so intimidated by grad school that I never spoke in class. But apparently Dan had discovered that I was a poet (I had graduated with honors specifically because of my poetry), and he invited me to submit some poems for a little publication he was editing, of Penn poets, past and present. I was wrestling with Gwendolyn Brooks at that time, and submitted some poems with the heavy stamp of imitation. But Dan accepted one, or possibly two. It was one of my first publications. He suggested some possible revisions to one of the poems I was struggling with. I thanked him.
But I dropped out of Penn at the end of that semester. The man, the life, I chose pushed me away from poetry for several years. When, almost ten years later, I started writing again, the first poem I felt I "finished" as I "found my voice" was the poem Dan had commented on. So I wrote him another thank you note, and sent him the finished poem.
There began a mentoring correspondence which lasted for about a year: Dan wrote, saying he liked the poem I sent, and asked me to send more. I sent another, and he commented and asked to see more. Finally, he said he thought I had a unique voice, that he would be able to pick one of my poems out of a batch of poems by my contemporaries, and that I was ready to have a book. He said I should put together a manuscript and let him send it out to publishers for me. Dan wrote the first blurb of my first book, which was published in 1978, and he arranged a big reading for me at the University of Pennsylvania, so he would be able to host my first big literary event. I began then to think of him as a fairy god-father whose magic wand had transformed my life.
Somewhere in there was the beginning of a beautiful friendship and a mentorship which, although almost exclusively on the page via Dan's own poems and the direction they suggested — perhaps it was Dan's poems which encouraged my interest in received and invented poetic form — nourished my growth as a poet.