Headshots of Benjamin Frandsen and Noella Cerna side by side; red quotation marks on upper left and bottom right corners

These dual essays were written by Benjamin Frandsen and Noelia Cerna, 2020 honorees for the PEN America/L’Engle-Rahman Prize for Mentorship.

Benjamin Frandsen

The Chinese have a proverb: “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.” For me, this saying fell short, for although I was ready and eager to begin this literary discipleship, nothing could have prepared me for my PEN America mentor, Noelia. Despite the fact that my prize category was for drama (a screenplay), she happily indulged my request to focus on improving my poetry. An extremely talented and inspiring poet herself, the pieces she shared with me planted seeds in my fledgling poet’s heart that have taken root and continue to grow today.

She taught me the value of line
how to separate thought— to bring
them together.

While working multiple jobs, she somehow found the time to read my stacks and stacks of poetry, short stories, memoirs, and screenplays. At an early juncture in our mentor-mentee relationship, I worried aloud that my many words would overwhelm her. “More, please,” she replied. “Don’t apologize for being a windbag; I’m one, too. Windbags unite!” Hopefully, she never came to regret coining this battle cry, because I replied with a poetic avalanche for her feedback.

Her comments and critiques were insightful and probing and brought out the best from my pen. Not once did she ever make me feel like a convict, an inmate, a prisoner. To her, I was simply a writer with whom she exchanged creative flow, a fellow imbiber of the literati latte. After she encouraged me to start submitting more of my work—incorporating her suggestions, of course—my poetry appeared in Iconoclast Magazine, and my flash fiction piece made its way into Columbia University’s exCHANGE magazine. Never one to be outdone, Noelia put her delightfully righteous poem “Taco Tuesdays” online, and it promptly racked up thousands of hits, all well deserved. She graced me with the privilege of sharing in her successes and honored me by sharing in mine.

When PEN America contacted me to write a poem for their 2019 PEN America World Voices Festival, the words came easily. What I’ve never told Noelia, or anyone else for that matter, is that she was the inspiration for that poem. The fearlessly compassionate way she reached across the miles and through the bars to the voiceless, fearful boy inside me—it changed me. In part, the poem says:

Out of sight, out of mymymy mind
with this longing
to be heard
And you have it in your power, you see
to give the greatest gift to me
greater than gold or sympathy
In fact, you’re
giving it now
What strange and beautiful irony
how by drinking these words with your eyes
you are quenching my thirst to be realized

It’s difficult to express how life-affirming it has been for me to have a skilled scribe interrupt her busy life and volunteer her time to improve my writing. I realize that this is the mission of the PEN America Prison Writing Mentorship Program, but I would be remiss if I didn’t shout from the rooftops how exquisitely Noelia Cerna embodies that mission. Wherever she is now, I hope that she continues on her bard’s journey, secure in the knowledge that she is worthy of all the praise and recognition her generous heart and clever pen will bring her.

Noelia Cerna

The day that Benjamin Frandsen’s initial letter was forwarded to me, along with an email sharing that I had been assigned my mentee, I knew this would not be a mentor-mentee dynamic. Benjamin’s writing showed the highest level of skill and development. His correspondence was warm and inquisitive from the very beginning. I was delighted by his many questions about writing techniques, publication opportunities, and his constant dedication to craft.

Benjamin’s letters grew longer with every exchange. Ready and eager to work on edits, he was constantly working on new ideas, took constructive criticism happily, and even looked for it—a process that is not comfortable for many writers that I know. I was always impressed by Benjamin’s level of skill, and with every single publication he earned, I knew that higher levels of success were in his grasp.

I met Benjamin during one of the most trying times of my own personal life, and his strength taught me that although people and situations can sometimes make us feel like we are cornered, the one thing we have control over is our thoughts and our perspectives. I learned that Benjamin was a dedicated student and worked hard on his studies. He had his mind set on higher education and on bettering himself and his situation upon release. He was strongly committed to his friendships and his family, and I admired the relentless ways that he showed compassion and kindness to those around him. Despite everything, Benjamin was constantly positive, and even joyous during our communication. He rarely complained—although he would have been well within his right to do so—and always held himself to the highest standards.

During the length of our mentorship correspondence, Benjamin taught me more about writing and about resilience than I think he will ever know. He was the first to encourage me in my writing pursuits and to celebrate my victories. It was a partnership of writers from the very beginning.

I am convinced that Benjamin has the most promising future in his writing endeavors. This is not only because he is a gifted writer. As someone who has spent most of her adult life reading and writing feedback for multiple literary magazines and editing manuscripts for several publishers, the caliber of Benjamin’s writing was rare—even to me. His commitment to excellence is a driven mentality that I have not seen in many.

I know that wherever Benjamin is now, and whatever he is accomplishing at present, he will do it excellently. I was honored to share in all of his incredible achievements and know there will be many more. I cannot wait to see what the future holds. I have my doubts that the world is ready for such a powerfully gifted writer and the compassionate and kind soul that he is, but I look forward to seeing the ways he changes the culture, as I know he will. I will be forever grateful for the opportunity that PEN America gave me. While I was supposed to be a mentor, I found in many ways that Benjamin taught me more than I could ever teach him. Having had this experience was a gift that I will carry with me always.