Thanks to our featured July writer, Susanna, for this great post– and just by chance, we have another post about the Kenyon experience coming tomorrow, from Lucian Childs. May those Alaska-Kenyon connections keep flourishing!
A month ago I attended the Kenyon Review Writer’s Workshop at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. There are many summer workshops that provide writers with networking opportunities, lectures, and feedback, but Kenyon distinguishes itself as a production-oriented workshop. It is geared toward the production of new writing by participants and the discussion of that raw writing. This year at Kenyon I learned to recognize a snare in my own writing process which I think I share with many writers: the sucker hold.
Kenyon workshops meet every morning for six days. At the end of each morning workshop leaders give participants an assignment or prompt due the following day. The next morning we spend reading and discussing our work on that prompt. My workshop leader this year was the poet Stanley Plumly who, though new to the Kenyon workshop, is an old hand at teaching poetry.
It wasn’t long before Stanley’s prompts were the running joke in my dorm. My roommates and friends would return from workshop with very specific, labored assignments – “Write a story in nine parts in which there are four main characters (A, B, C, and D) who move the plot forward in each scene in the following ways . . .” or “Write a poem in tercets that includes the words ‘dishrag’, ‘tundra’, and ‘stallion’ and that contains an oxymoron.”
Whereas my prompt for the night was, “Landscape with ________.” Another night my assignment was, “Weather report.” A third night it was, “A parent”.
About mid-week, Stanley explained that he holds a deep mistrust of assignments and writing prompts. He almost never gives them, but they seemed to be a requirement at Kenyon. “They detract from the principal impulse that brings the poem to the page,” he said.
What did he mean? What could be so bad about something as innocuous as a writing prompt? It was as if Stanley were protecting a difficulty that everyone else is constantly trying to escape: the empty-handed poet facing the blank page.
One night I flipped through my notebooks looking for an idea and re-discovered “truth table,” a term for the diagram printed on an electrical relay that shows how to connect wires to it for the desired function. What a great title, I thought, and jotted it down at the top of a blank page. I didn’t know anything else about the poem but that it should be titled “Truth Table” because it seemed too good to pass up.
The more I worked on “Truth Table,” the more I felt stuck. The poem just wasn’t going anywhere interesting. There’s a term used in rock climbing – “sucker hold” – for an obvious, easy hold that lures climbers in and makes them reluctant to leave it. Nothing else on the climb is as appealing as the sucker hold. A climber unwittingly organizes her whole climb around the sucker hold even though there’s an entire wall to work over with far more interesting routes on it to test her capabilities. A sucker hold is an easy grab, it’s a comfortable place on an otherwise uncomfortable plane.
Sure enough, the first thing Stanley said about “Truth Table” in workshop the next day is that the title of the poem I’d attempted was definitely not “Truth Table.” That title was my sucker hold. I was fixated on it. It obscured the principal impulse that brought the poem to the page. The poem was being cramped around that stupid title when there was a whole playground of electrical concepts waiting to be reckoned.
Assignments, too, can be sucker holds. Workshop participants strive to be good students. Good students, we are taught from grade school, follow the teacher’s assignments. But an assignment to write a poem should only lead the poet to that impulse that brings a poem to the page. The poet’s fidelity ought to belong to the impulse, the emotional core of the poem, not the assignment. The assignment, when it derails that impulse, is a sucker hold.
Stanley’s broad assignments were almost impossible not to follow. “Landscape with __________” only needs a landscape (a term broad enough to include cityscapes) and something else (anything) and the assignment is satisfied. What seemed absurdly general about his prompts was really a generosity – a trust that the poem that needs to be written that night will be written. And that poem has little to do with whatever prompt he might choose. He was trying to remove, as much as he could, the sucker hold effect of assignments. Assignments, prompts and other fixations can provide a way onto the wall, but my job as a poet is to attend to the poem, and to let go of the sucker.
Susanna Mishler’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, Hotel Amerika, The Iowa Review, Kenyon Review Online, Michigan Quarterly Review, RATTLE, and elsewhere. To read some of her work online, visit the current issue of Cirque, see Michigan Quarterly Review’s archives, RATTLE’s archives, or poet Jeff Oliver’s website. She lives in Anchorage and earns her bread as an electrician.