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Triggering Titles

July 2016

Poet Richard Hugo believed that we’ve written every poem we ever loved. He said that he was particularly proud of having written Yeats’ poem Yeats’ “Easter, 1916.”

The Dodge Poetry Festival blog has asked several poets "What great poem are you proud of having written?" One of my first professors of poetry, Alicia Ostriker, said she was "I’m pretty proud of having written Antony and Cleopatra and King Lear. Maria Mazziotti Gillan answered, "I am proud to have written 'somewhere i have never traveled, gladly beyond' by E.E. Cummings. I often recite it to myself when I’m driving or walking and I find it very comforting. I think it is one of the most beautiful love poems I have ever read."

In his book of poetics, The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing, Richard Hugo offers a series of essays about what triggers poems. He argues against the often heard idea that a writer should “write what you know.” Instead, he suggests an approach to poetry based on triggering subjects and words.

In one essay, he explains triggering subjects, using the example of towns, as points of entry into the realm of the imagination. Again, opposing the write-what-you-know, he suggests that new poets might try to own an imagined, or barely-known, town, rather than trying to convey their actual hometown. That hometown, he feels, may be one in which “the imagination cannot free itself to seek the unknowns.” Then, the poet can focus on the play and music of the language. At this point, the poet's private language, personal connections and certain words that have rich associations for the poet can move the poem forward.

“Your triggering subjects are those that ignite your need for words. When you are honest to your feelings, that triggering town chooses you. Your words used your way will generate your meanings. Your obsessions lead you to your vocabulary. Your way of writing locates, even creates, your inner life. The relation of you to your language gains power. The relation of you to the triggering subject weakens.”

Hugo's book is not about writing prompts, but it does offer a lot of advice. Here are some examples:
1. “Don’t write with a pen. Ink tends to give the impression the words shouldn’t be changed.
2. Write in a hard-covered notebook with green lined pages. Green is easy on the eyes. Blank white pages seems to challenge you to create the world before you start writing. It may be true that you, the modern poet, must make the world as you go, but why be reminded of it before you even have one word on the page?
3. Don’t erase. Cross out rapidly and violently, never with slow consideration if you can help it.
4. Read your poem aloud many times. If you don’t enjoy it every time, something may be wrong.
5. Never write a poem about anything that ought to have a poem written about it.
6. Maximum sentence length: seventeen words. Minimum: One.
7. Start, as some smarty once said, in the middle of things.

You might choose one of Hugo's more obvious "town" poems such as "Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg" or "Glen Uig" as examples of his "triggering town" approach. But I chose his poem "The Church On Comiaken Hill."

As with this month's writing prompt, the title is the trigger. In this case, the trigger is a place. In the poem, we explore the place, both by seeing what the poet saw, and what no one can see with their eyes - such as the Indians who were once there.

I did a simple search and found that real church. You don't need the history to understand the poem, but the history does help you see why it triggered the poem.

The prompt this month was to tell us up front in your title what it was that triggered the poem. Second, your poem needs to begin rather literally with that triggering person, place or thing, but then it needs to move beyond that to things we would not know even if we encountered that trigger. It should be two stanzas.

Of course, that second stanza is what makes it your poem. It contains what it triggered in you that might not be triggered in any other poet.
For more on all our prompts and other things poetic, check out the Poets Online blog.


winter cherries
dark twigs starred with blossom
          the view across the valley
          the names and dates in the book of remembrance

each anniversary
one of us or the other met her at Haycombe
          those conversations
          we steered between submerged rocks

Ama Bolton


A mid-afternoon craving, the desire to escape the work at hand if even for a few minutes, sent me searching until at the very bottom of the third pocketbook I found you in your slim, mod-designed, cellophaned pack. New and unopened, soft and pink yet still in fine rectangular form despite the hot, humid weather of the season and the leather pouch in which you were hiding. So fragrant and yes, both bubble-gummy and minty. I closed my eyes savoring the sweetly refreshing combination I would not have enjoyed as a child.

On one of many summer nights long past, we walked to the ice cream shop. I remember your favorite - chocolate chip mint with its saturated pistachio green color and dark milky morsels. How odd, no repulsive- though back then I would have said “gross” – that marriage of sugary and medicinal. We never did agree on much did we? And now as time has become more solid, more finite with its crumbling layers of seasons and years, of unending beginnings and endings – we are closer. Our differences far less important than our love for one another and the bittersweet memories of our delicious youth.

Terri J. Guttilla

(circa 1963)

For years, the little house on the corner of
Howland Avenue and Century Road was the
only library I knew. The faint smell of mildew,
the glossy, wooden floor creaking under
my feet, tiny drawers that housed the
Dewey Decimal System cards.

After they built the new library,
the abandoned building remained empty.
Overgrown with weeds, teenage boys
would hide behind it, drink Colt 45, then
crash the sophomore sock hop at the high
school around the corner.

Marie A. Mennuto-Rovello


I stand before it as if I am part of the display
Birds, beasts, butterflies, shells,
a sacred root found in a Roman temple,
sun and moon carved on a reindeer bone,
a white egg sitting on a white cotton nest.

Still, time moves, but imperceptibly,
the way we slow down the reader,
line break, stanza break, page turn.
My own natural curiosity ambered in words.
This poem pressed between pages like a fern.

Pamela Milne


It was the last place on my road home
without a traffic signal – my ride to freedom.
A town named Rescue by some miner
saved from poverty by paydirt. The whole
place pays him back by dressing in colors
of leaf-fall and soil, houses and sheds fading
into field or hiding deep in oak woods.
You wouldn’t know it was a town but for
the old once-barn post office (est. 1895)
with its stars and stripes waving on a pole,
and the firehouse, red engine and
ambulance parked out front at the ready.

So I drove to Rescue for old history
galloping through – Pony Express that used
to stop here, in 2016 guise of girl on a sorrel
trotting up Green Valley. Postmistress
and I lined up to watch this re-enactment:
riders switching mochila mailbags from one
saddle to the other – sorrel resuming
his horse trailer life, a little pinto rarin’ for
his run through the past, disappearing
up Green Valley Road. And I drove home –
stopped by a traffic light newly installed,
changing Rescue from my refuge out of time.

Taylor Graham


In the swelter of Central Florida, a homeless man crumples on a park bench.
Propped against his right leg, is a baseball bat.
One might imagine he’s a crippled vet, using the bat as a cane,
Since the woman who smiled at him at the shelter,
Took off with his walker;
Or assume he uses it to brandish against other homeless guys
Who might be tempted to steal his shoes
The moment he dozes off;
Or, more troubling, consider it his defense against sick teenagers
Who might harass and harm him
For having the nerve to forecast their future.

Though here in Disney’s Florida,
A land built on professional dreaming,
We are encouraged to imagine he’s ready for a homeless softball game,
To be played on the nearby city fields,
As soon as the rest of the guys finish breakfast
And come whistling from the soup kitchen.

Ron Yazinski


One stands between an ice age remnant
A boulder moved in its current place
To be in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden
While across Eastern Parkway is a tall
Fancy residence called Turner Towers
(And for its day and place a tall residence)
Turner Towers on East Parkway
This is a currently hot neighborhood
Where I grew up, Crown Heights in Brooklyn.
When younger, the boulder had a sign
Saying keep off, so of course we wanted
To climb to its irregular top.
There was in the granite a slight slippery
Ledge not even wide enough for a child's foot
And in those days, shoes had slippery leather
Souls whose style was to make one slide.
There were no places for fingers and if
Lucky you had a brother to push one by the butt
And on the top sat a friend with a hand
Just like in the Saturday matinees.
From the top of the Turner Towers
There was this great panorama south
Over the roofs of the borough
First the Museum and then the museum hill
A grand library worthy of a great city
And endless trees in the Botanic Gardens
Till the dark line of the Atlantic Ocean
And the slow Ferris wheel in Coney Island.
Everyone was a poet with distant vision.

I brought my son back on Labor Day
When there were hundreds of people
In costumes and floats as a Carnival
In Rio or the Antilles or Caribe
They sealed off the botanic gardens
Because of the thousands who were there
Might tread up the Cosmos flower beds.
Though I wanted to run my hands
Over the boulder it was an impossible.
And as for the view from the apartment house
It was as private now as it was then
So we watched the stalled parade
And I rambled on about growing up
Working the plot in the children's garden
Caught butterflies, monarch and swallow tail
In the large grassy oval on the museum hill
And saw the stretching out to the ocean.
But sadly he was more interested in the present
Than my past.

Edward Halperin


It meanders, dark gray or
newly white blocks twisting
and turning through woods, past
parks, houses, fenced yards,
village centers, drainage ditches,
ponds, lakes, fairways,
churches, behind stores, along
streets and roads and ditches
(with water sluggish and black),
strewn with trumpet vines,
yellow-and-brown leaves,
needles (orange in puddles),
cracks and raised blocks,
fetid pools of shimmer;
arched by pine, gum, elm,
pin oak, bamboo, tallow,
mulberry, myrtle; alive with
cardinals, jays, finches,
wrens, herons, egrets, mallards
(shimmering green), joggers
(old and young), strollers,
children, babies in prams,
bikers (in chic gear),
the courteous, the phone-
entranced and the deaf
(headphones blaring).

Never straight, never easy,
it turns and turns again
past golden summers, family
suppers, Sunday mass,
dogs-and-cats, nights under
endless stars, fireflies, games of
tag and swinging statue, nuns
in black, awkward kisses,
gropings in the dark, stories,
equations, books (old and new),
vistas newly seen, yearnings,
twistings forward (and back),
classes, cities, marriages
(come-and-gone), children
(come-and-gone), friends,
(come-and-gone), all in
winding turns forever moving,
(but forever staying). Is there
an end? Does the egret stand
silent, forever, on the shore, the
sun melting behind the trees?

Robert Miller