Susanna Mishler: Sucker Hold

Editor’s note from Andromeda: At this moment I’m preparing to depart for my MFA residency at Antioch U. in L.A., and many of you are returning and recovering from conferences or preparing for conferences or residencies to come. In honor of these summer opportunities, I’m re-running one of my favorite posts from last summer, by Anchorage poet Susanna Mishler.
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.

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