“Mentor, Tormentor” (1 of 3)

Weinstein, Debra. Apprentice to the Flower Poet Z.. New York: Random House, 2004.

It may be a touch of writerly narcissism, a latent sadomasochistic streak, or simply the need to commiserate, but as a former creative writing student, I find few novels more appealing than those that explore the triumphs and traumas of being a creative writing student. I don’t mean books that mythologize or deify the writer, but rather, books that delve into the uniquely inspiring, undeniably stressful, occasionally petty, and often ridiculous world of university poetry workshops. The books I’m referring to indulge the paranoia that claws at the minds and intestines of any young poet cringing to the sound of her work being read aloud by her poetry prof, or the ego of any debutant writer sitting in silence while his work is berated by a much loathed and (to his mind) inferior classmate. I mean books that expose the nonsensical gnarled labyrinth of department and poetry scene politics and gossip. I mean books that wince along with you, roll their eyes along with you, but still reassure your ego that one day you’ll be a great writer. I mean Apprentice to the Flower Poet Z. by Debra Weinstein, Mean Boy by Lynn Coady, and Stripmalling by Jon Paul Fiorentino. This week, Weinstein.

There are all kinds of poetry mentors and creative writing teachers; nurturing ones who want to help you grow, tough ones determined to see you succeed, and well-meaning eccentric ones who muddle through their attempts to teach. Annabelle Goldsmith of Apprentice to the Flower Poet Z. has the terrible fortune of having none of these as her mentor. Infatuated with poetry and the idea of becoming a poet, Annabelle moves from her broken suburban family home in New Jersey to New York City on a scholarship, and is, she thinks, blessed with the opportunity to become the assistant of her favourite writer, the celebrity poet Z. Despite rumours that Z. eats her assistants alive, Annabelle diligently types letters, buys cat food, and researches random snippets of half remembered lines for the enigmatic Z., who rewards Annabelle by paying her to sketch out the groundwork of the famous poet’s next book, and by encouraging Annabelle in her own creative work. The bloom begins to fade, however, as Annabelle is pulled into the twisted, resentful, and adulterous home life of Z., her husband Lars, and their daughter Claire, as Z. slowly reveals her petty and vindictive side trying to annihilate the career of a fellow faculty member, and as it becomes clear that Z. could care less about Annabelle’s poetry. The book culminates in Z.’s spectacular betrayal of Annabelle’s trust, and Annabelle’s attempts to put her writing life back together after her first discouraging experience in the poetry world.

Weinstein’s wit is as sharp as her prose, and by page two, Annabelle already feels like an old friend. This book not only indulges the creative writing student’s fleeting fears, after a particularly discouraging workshop, that their prof must hate them, but Apprentice to the Flower Poet Z. also captures the beginning poet’s irresistible raw need to write, and the new writer’s desire to immerse him or herself in a world that understands this hunger. If you need a refresher on why you wanted to be a poet, this book is a great place to start.

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