On Projection: A Visit to the Triggering Town
The last time I piped up on the blog, I gave a little background on who Richard Hugo was and why he might be fitting (or ironic) as a namesake for Seattle’s lit center. I boiled his famous “Triggering Towns” methodology down to the following:
1) romp into unfamiliar town;
2) describe said town - don’t worry too much about accuracy;
3) let own feelings bubble up as real focus of poem;
4) publish feelings with town name still in title and poem.
The summary was a little skewed in the interest of pointing out how many townsfolk Hugo pissed off. Still, the principle stands. And it bears a little more discussion.
The thing is, that funny, maybe irresponsible but definitely fertile take on the “accuracy” of depicting the town was the whole point of the method. Hugo begins his essay “The Triggering Town” discussing how the relationship between writer, content, and language shifts when you step into poetry. He points out that we’re used to reading, say, newspaper articles where the writer and language take a backseat to the content. The language often gets tweaked by several writers and editors in service of the content before readers ever get a chance to see it. And not that poets don’t have editors, but when you’re talking poetry the whole equation changes.
What the triggering town lets you do is worry less about content or fact. Stepping into a new town, you have a trove of new information. Very little of it will be filed into the networked pigeonholes of your mind. The ideal triggering town is a small place, one rich with texture and idiosyncrasy. (Once you get into cities, the chain stores, apartment building trends, and metro templates tend to bleed one metropolis into the next.) A triggering town is a place where you can imagine made-up rules and local infighting. Ever sit on a street and watch strangers pass by, imagining what they do all day and who they’ll talk to when they get home? Richard Hugo just decided to scale up the game.
The thing is when you’re making up all this background, the content has to come from somewhere. And whether it’s the “facts” you supply or the emotional tinge they carry, that content comes mosty from the writer—or the speaker, as the case may be. The locals might object, but by the time poem meets page, it's not really their town anymore. This place has a population of roughly one: poet. So all the isolation, the rage, the wonderment and wry observation ends up being—more than anything—a tour of Richard Hugo’s internal landscape.
Projection’s nothing new. Wordsworth and Coleridge, people you were probably supposed to read in school, liked to go out into the English hillsides and find thin pretexts for launching into their own anecdotes. Frank O’Hara, closer to Hugo’s time, was not only better-looking but also argued for the much more charming poetic technique of “Personism:” just write a poem like you’re chatting up someone you like. So you could call Hugo a new Romantic, but this last alternative throws him into a strange sort of relief. What does it say that he’d write about a place rather than to a person? Even the letter poems he wrote to his friends leaned more towards sketching a triggering town than using his pen pal as a siphon for excitement. In some ways, Hugo’s focus on place drives heartbreakingly home his signature isolation. Richard Hugo's speaker, unlike Frank O’Hara, doesn’t necessarily have someone he’d like to call and spill his excitement to. Instead you have a voice wandering lonely through the American West. You have someone making up the stories, rules, and histories of town as he himself shambles from place to place.
Projection is a powerful tool, but it’s also a tragic one. Richard Hugo's speaker could only ever project onto places that he didn’t let himself get too close to. Even with Personism, you can only ever write that poem if you opt to spend time with your pen rather than your friend. Which begs the question: What kind of work does a literary center do when it projects a community onto a place named after Richard Hugo? Does it become a place for the placeless? A sheet store for rampant projectionists? Or, when you bring folks together face-to-face and give them the chance to get to know each other, and to know and shape the community, does it become something else entirely?
P.S. If you want to support us in documenting the Hugo House/Capitol Hill projections, donate/share our Indiegogo! Only six days left!