(Un)civil Disobedience: Guest-post by Susanna Mishler

Welcome and thank you to poet Susanna Mishler, our July featured writer and a long-time volunteer for the 49 Alaska Writing Center.

One of my favorite writing exercises is called “negative inversion.” It goes like this:

1) Find a one-page poem or a paragraph of writing that you want to take apart in some way. You might want to tinker with it because you love it. You might want to dismantle it because you hate it. It could even be a piece of your own writing.

2) Rewrite the piece by replacing each word with its opposite. Do it quickly. Don’t agonize. Your inversion will not make sense and isn’t supposed to. Leave conjunctions alone (and pronouns and prepositions, if you wish).

3) On a good day your inversion will suggest something compelling to you – a scene or story or feeling that surfaces in the gibberish. You might be so lucky as to have what feels like the first draft of a poem. On an average day you’ll have combinations of words that you’d never have come up with on your own. You may have a fresh phrase that serves as your next prompt or that you can pull out of your back pocket for a later piece.

What I like about this exercise is that it is reactionary and disobedient. It lets me start with something other than a blank page – I get to write by simply reacting to what someone else wrote, I use the other piece as training wheels to get some words on the page. But the real magnetism of negative inversion is in its misbehavior. It is contrary, it undermines, it resists. When you’re done you’ve turned something refined inside out and it’s ugly.

Or is it? Good writing should surprise and writers don’t often surprise readers unless we surprise ourselves. And surprising ourselves takes some disobedience, some dismantling of our own expectations. Unconscious use of cliches and received language is everybody’s privilege but the writer’s. And entrenchment in a set of expectations as to what a story or poem is, what it should look or sound like, can work against good surprises and good writing.

Writers work against habit and convention; this is true on a cultural level but also on an individual level in prying apart our personal habits and conventions. Poet and critic Dean Young begins Recklessness (Graywolf, 2010), his book-length essay on poetic craft, with a passage that includes this:

No one knows how to write a poem. [P]rescription and intention are traps. [A]ny intention in the writing of poetry beyond the most basic aim to make a poem, of engaging the materials, SHOULD be disappointed. If the poet does not have the chutzpah to jeopardize habituated assumptions and practices what will be produced will be sleep without dream, a copy of a copy of a copy. The poem always intends otherwise.

Poets do not get to be comfortable with our own cherished outlooks, not if we hope to write worthwhile poems. Nor can we receive cultural norms without pulling at least some of them inside-out. Poets and writers are the people who watch from the edge of the party, noticing things that can’t be seen from the dance floor.

It helps a contrary nature like mine to have something to push against, and writing a negative inversion creates the needed resistance out of any short piece. When I was stumbling through the construction of a book manuscript, I took a workshop with poet and critic Linda Gregerson. She suggested I try using epigraphs for each section of the book and to try writing “against” the epigraphs. While I didn’t ultimately choose this structure for the book, the exercise taught me a productive strategy: take something received and push back on it, kick it over, vandalize it.

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.

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