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Triggering Town Tour

July 2012

Erica Wright is the author of Instructions for Killing the Jackalb (Black Lawrence Press, 2011) and the chapbook Silt (Dancing Girl Press, 2009). She is the Poetry Editor at Guernica magazine and teaches creative writing at Marymount Manhattan College. I saw a poem by her featured on the Black Lawrence Press blog. In a short interview there, she was asked about her writing process.  

"Richard Hugo’s The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writingb is my go-to craft book. Hugo talks about triggering and generating subjects, and I trust him. The trigger is merely a way to get into a poem, and I don’t worry too much about finding the perfect entry point."

Richard Hugo's The Triggering Town, originally published in 1979, remains one of the most popular books on writing poetry. In the book, Hugo discusses the imaginary and the real, and the private and the public in poetry. In the excerpt from his book below, Hugo says that the private poet uses words that have meanings that will differ for the reader. When we try to write imaginatively, we are often trapped by the many "knowns" (associations and facts) that we hold in writing about the real world and people in it.

"Your hometown often provides so many knowns  that the imagination cannot free itself to seek the unknowns...  If you have no emotional investment in the town, though you have taken immediate emotional possession of it for the duration of the poem, it may be easier to invest the feeling in the words.

Try this for an exercise: take someone you emotionally trust, a friend or a lover, to a town you like the locals of but know little about, and show your companion around the town in the poem.

In this case I imagined the town, but an imagined town is at least as real as an actual town. If it isn't you may be in the wrong business. Our triggering subjects, like our words, come from obsessions we must submit to, whatever the social cost. It can be hard. It can be worse forty years from now if you feel you could have done it and didn't. It is narcissistic, vain, egotistical, unrealistic, selfish, and hateful to assume emotional ownership of a town or a word. It is also essential...

Please don't take this too seriously, but for purposes of discussion we can consider two kinds of poets, public and private. Let's use as examples Auden and Hopkins. The distinction (not a valid one, I know, but good enough for us right now) doesn't lie in the subject matter. That is, a public poet doesn't necessarily write on public themes and the private poet on private or personal ones. The distinction lies in the relation of the poet to the language. With the public poet the intellectual and emotional contents of the words are the same for the reader as for the writer. With the private poet, and most good poets of the last century or so have been private poets, the words, at least certain key words, mean something to the poet they don't mean to the reader. "

So, we might be able to write more imaginatively by moving away from the real and the known and accessing some of the private. The poem "If You Have Two Lovers and One is Imaginary"  by Erica Wright (from Instructions for Killing the Jackal)b  does that.

For this month's prompt, try Richard Hugo's exercise: Take someone you emotionally trust (friend or a lover) to a town you like but know little about, and show your companion around the town in the poem. You can add into that mix, if you wish, what Wright is doing too - that person you show around the town can be imaginary. b

Erica Wright's blog is at

For more on this prompt and others, visit the Poets Online blog.


Let's take a drive up the coast
to a nice little town I know.
I'll show you around, we can
people watch. Come on, let's go!

Do you see that man? He's lived here
for years, doing that thing he does
with beer cans and wire.
Does he really think that's art?

Oh well, to each his own I suppose.
Trash or treasure? I can't tell.
But look, there's the Blue Whale:
My favorite restaurant when I'm in
the mood for good ole American food.

Or we can drift in to the Drift Inn for
a quick bite, maybe have a beer,
whatever you like.

Down that street is the Little Log
Church. Do you see it? I wonder how
many souls have wandered through it.

Over there the Antique Virgin
is open, and further on,
the girl at the Village Bean Express
has just turned on
her red closed sign.
Are you having a fun time?

See that stand of purple foxglove?
Do you see it, way down there?
It marks a trail cut through the peak
all the way down to the beach

And...oh look! Our little cottage
on the cliffs! Our Nook! I daydream
sometimes that we will grow old
together here, our eyes wax dim,
living and loving to the rhythm
of the ocean as the mist rolls in.

Maddison Ross


We went almost to the same place,
He to his job and I at school.
Father and son, going in the morning.
What could be plainer at that past time.
There was never a choice who drove
It was always I, since if he did not have to
I was the one.

One way was down Flatbush Avenue
And then the rough and tumble Victoriana
Of Bed Stuy, 'Do or die,' is what one said.
The other had a narrow one lane ramp
That fed on the Gowanus Highway
That rose above a fiery polluted canal
For industrial chemicals transport.

But what a view
A magnificent harbor and in the distance
The Statue of Liberty, slightly to the left,
No bigger than a child's tin solider
The morning sun making it so golden
The harbor filled with liners, barges, tugs.
When one reached the top of the highway bridge
There was the Battery and the classic view
Of Manhattan rising from the tidal rivers
Yet one moved dodging traffic, looking to cut
Into a faster lane for time's advantage.

After he died I often thought of this poem
The details of the buildings, and the changes
An d what our talk should have been about
The things that were part of me and died with him.
There are many books to tell me of his time
What immigrants went through and thought.

He told of working at a subway newsstand
When the midnight edition of a fight
Was sold for fifty times the ordinary price
So rent and food and everything of a month
Came out of one exciting night.

Under the faster Brooklyn promenade
One counts pyramidal roofs of banks,
Beaux art imitation of the grand
Each architectural fragment to impress
Only later is it engineering flat top
The straight lines that say, 'that is all folks.'

What now strikes me is the distance,
How it was work and home, home and work
Without a venture into the roots.
Ones back strains to see a building touch the sky.
And hesitating for a long moment
We poked each other and said,
Yes I do not have to be afraid
Or feel that I am out of place where I
Stand with the rest of the wondering world.

Edward N. Halperin


Today, you will be an orphan, an only child,
a one-hit wonder. Today said this to herself

while putting on make-up, wearing that dress,
forgetting her panties, letting the past forget.

She left the door open and caught a bus past
midnight. Midnight was standing

on the corner drinking moonshine.
He waved as she went by. Time sat in a diner

under the town's only streetlight. His coffee was cold
and his hands twitched. He caught a glimpse

of Today’s smile as she passed, then she
was history: just another blues riff, a tattoo

on his forearm he would sometimes stroke longingly.
Outside a street cleaner

swept up all the hours people had tossed.
At dawn he found Today sitting at the bus stop.

She was putting on lipstick and then she kissed
him. He grinned as she whispered, you can

never wash this away.

D.E. Oprava


I want to tell you something, but first walk with me
through this town to the rocky Maine coast and let me tell you
why it is not quite the town on your tourist map.
The streets are not as straight and the curves are not as pure as on paper.
Some like their towns to fit the page, to lie within the grid of lines.
They want the coffee cafe to be there in the middle of C4 when you slide your finger to the coordinates.
The oldest parts of the town were not planned and so the squares are not squares
and some streets unexpectedly dead end or continue misaligned across the avenue.
I want to tell you why I am leaving.
I am as unplanned as this town
and i know you want a neatly drawn map with all the streets straight and parallel.
I know that when I write this poem in my unlined journal
that the words will stretch and wave,
that the letters will rise and fall
and that you would prefer them fixed-width,
standard-sized, snapped to the grid and justified.
See how this avenue ends at the edge of the sea.
Look at the rocks pushed here and there by the waves
that are each their own design.
It will be high tide soon
and the waves will come up to the concrete sea wall
and push at its straight lines
and then retreat to a place
where no lines follow the rule.

Charles Michaels


I considered not showing you this part of town,
but that pock-marked, boarded-up building over there
is the site of our own Nine Eleven.
It can't be ignored.

9/11/2011 Tragedy Hits Popular Nightclub.
Two dead, twenty-two wounded in shooting.
Automatic weapons involved. No suspects in custody.

Unresolved grief grows larger with time.
Not so with newspaper articles.
They grow smaller, and smaller still
until they disappear from sight
and float through the air like a deadly virus.

Tragedy does not define us! It is not who we are.

We are a small town that grew up around tomatoes.
Those empty-looking buildings over there
belong to one of our five local packing houses.

You should've been here a month ago!
Tomatoes ran darn near twenty-four hours a day.

Before conveyor belts and fork lifts,
every able-bodied man, woman, and child
turned out to help with the harvest.

If we walk down Sixth Street just a little ways,
we'll run into Fourteenth Avenue.

The Yellow Fever Cemetery will be on our right.
Union and Confederate soldiers rest side by side
beneath those mossy Live Oaks.

There was a time when you could walk through the cemetery,
read the names of all the mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers,
who were lost to that dreadful disease.

But you can't read the tombstones anymore.
Local teenagers found other uses for the cemetery,
and the fence went up.

There are only seven square miles inside our city limits,
yet we have a tree and a bug named after us --
both of them scruffy and scary looking.

Today's newspaper features an article
about a seventeen year old boy
who had the audacity
to put his arm in the way of an alligator
instead of letting the alligator get to his body.

No doubt, this young man's quick thinking
saved his life. Wish I could say
he was from around here, but he isn't.

Still, he is a Florida boy and that's close enough.
Who wouldn't want to claim him.

Bobbie Townsend

(for Mellissa)

This is Rome, converted home of the gods,
seat of the Papacy, and of the Renaissance,
place of the Leaning Tower
and the sword of Antiquity,
artifact of artifacts, house of the divine
imagination, where heroes wrestle gods,
push boulders up infinite hills.

We pray, hands clasped,
in Michelangelo's depiction
of St. Peter's Basilica, marveling
at its baroque architecture.
Then, off to the Sistine Chapel
to view the outstretched finger of God,
the magnificent Vatican Museums;
then to the Coliseum,
to witness the spectacles
of Classical Mythology:
gladiatorial contests, mock sea battles,
animal hunts, executions
and battle reenactments.

There's a sense of history here
in this partially-ruined monument
devastated by earthquakes and stone-robbers;
today used as fortress and shrine-
a symbol of the resilience of its people

and our love,
a monument shaken
but surviving the ruins of time.

Nicholas Damion Alexander


You laugh and throw your head back like someone from a play
This place is full of meth labs and cowboys and you’d best get on back to Jersey, you say
You never dress appropriately for the weather or the folks
Who stare at us from the post office steps like they’re in the same Western
This is called Hartland, the town I mean
And you have written the last line of this scene.
But that was near 30 years ago now.

You died in a car, the boy I cried over at night
The boy who wouldn’t call me back on time, or ever
The boy who shared my birthday with me
Made me cry during sex
Wrote mock operas in the air during long, stoned conversations
Both of us naked on sweaty sheets under a blanket the precise color of sand.
With you I will always know where I stand.

I conjure you up in this one horse town because you read
Louis L’Amour and idolized John Wayne who also shared
A birthday with us. I watch you laugh
And lose all fear, all joy, because you went first, so fast, too young,
Just like in the movies, my very first love:
We all fade to black.

Patty Tomsky


Walk the streets of Scranton, and admit, though the board is still out,
The dice have been put away, and you didn’t win.
You’re just the “shoe” shuffling this town drawn on a scale of one to one.

Go past the low rent housing which looks like an archeological dig,
Past the hotels, flaking into ruin,
Past the empty lots that have spread like something that needed penicillin;

Continue past the School Administration Building,
Where a plaque commemorates the School Board President
Who was assassinated for defiling a mobster’s daughter.

Now that there are no more turns to lose,
Test your memory on the businesses that once stood along your way.
Was this the candy store where your father found you when you were six,

After he lost you in the Christmas crowd?
Did this next one have the window displays of villages and model trains,
Like the real ones built in the abandoned factories along the river?

Or, if you enjoy social history, as you near the court house,
Match all the dignitaries you can with their indictments.
Name the commissioner whose sentence was commuted because he gave evidence

Against the business partners who bribed him?
Recall if the judge who went to prison for selling juveniles to the detention center,
Was the same one whose office ceiling collapsed under a ton of pigeon droppings.

But you’re old and, in your confusion, your mind wanders back to monopoly,
Because the only thing you are certain of is that they all got out of jail free,
Including the warden,

Who detailed his prisoners to transform his estate
Into the garden the whole town takes pride in.
Turn the corner to the University’s Theater,

A gift of the family that won the last game,
And bears the name of their Congressman who looked like Rich Uncle Pennybags,
And whose last publicized act was exposing himself, and not in the name of art.

Finally, with your feet bruised from the uneven pavement,
Return to “Go”.
There, you see the Hispanics milling in front of the day labor center,

Which occupies a building that bears the name “The Renaissance”
But went bankrupt before it opened.
One of the men comes over to you, mumbles something,

And holds out his hand;
So give him your last buck,
The one you both owe for the Luxury tax.

Ron Yazinski