Monday, September 5, 2011

On Triggering Town and Richard Hugo

If you turn left out of my housing development and head down the hill in the direction of the Puget Sound, drive under the freeway where the trucks and cars whiz toward Seattle to the north or the commercial airport to the south, in less than two miles, you will come to the famous Boeing Plant. It is so close that you don’t need a car. You could walk. You could stand by the tall chain link fence that guards the runways where strange spy planes land for repairs. You could see the enormous hangers where aircraft from around the globe are repainted, refurbished, and sent flying away. If you were the president, you could land there. If you were Richard Hugo, this is where you would have worked.
This is also where Hugo’s character, the Admiral, lived, in a makeshift home adjacent to the Boeing Plant, in what is now a field littered with plastic bags. For Hugo, the Admiral was a trigger, a muse for his imagination. When the Admiral screamed against the Boeing Corporation, Richard Hugo retold the story as poetry and raged in his poem against the injustices borne by society’s weakest. The poets and writers, who crouch over their computers, tap away on keys in an attempt to bear into life their thoughts. Triggered by something as simple as a derelict that lived within walking distance, the writer preserves the stories that others cannot tell.
Hugo was specific about the tools of his craft. He used a pencil, a sexy number two pencil, and a notebook lined in green to soothe his eyes. As teacher, he dissected poems for us, and demonstrated the need to eliminate words like like, the, and and. As storyteller, he shared his important triggers, such as the field in Italy, where as a young soldier he longed to be done with war.
This is all well and good, but what of the magic, Mr. Hugo? How did you get those words, those specifically chosen, beautiful words with their musical rhythms to appear on that green lined page? How does that birth process happen? Once the trigger begins to push its way out and onto the paper, what guarantees that it lives as a thing of beauty?  Can anyone learn this craft of creation? Is it a matter of DNA? Do you have to be born a mother of imagination; with one side of your brain more dominate than the other?  What makes us the ones who need to write it all down, to be the ones who “scream back at the fates”? You say that “we are all going into the dark” like the Admiral. Why then don’t we go there quietly?
Did you know, Mr. Hugo, that I made a stop on a journey, just to raise a beer to you? Traveling through the west, I detoured onto Montana Highway 200, in order to spend the afternoon at the Dixon Bar. You made that bar famous with your poem. It is the “Only Bar in Dixon,”[1] and I wanted to drink with you there. I became friends with Joanne, the bartender, and gave her my glasses so that something of me would be left behind. I listened to her boyfriend, Bud, the owner, tell the stories of his family, his horse, life in that dying town, and of course, you. This was your trigger, Mr. Hugo. As I drank a cold beer in that dark empty bar by the road, I laughed with your two friends at how you put this place on the map for people like me. We lifted our cans to you before swigging down our toasts. Poets and Hells Angels now seek out this place where magic occurred in your life, where the trigger landed in your brain, and you were pulled to create and give form to thoughts that were missed by others. And I was there with you, Mr. Hugo.
You couldn’t exactly explain to me how it happened. You couldn’t specifically tell me how to take that trigger and let it work its magic. But it did. Somehow, it seized hold of a portion of my brain and cried to be born at the very counter where, long before I arrived, you sat and mused about life in a forgotten town. It crept into my body without my knowing, while I was drinking to you.
I wrote a play about your bar. Mine was a parody, a laugh at a would-be-poet who was looking for inspiration in one of the most famous triggering towns. One day my play will be a musical romp with dancing Hells Angels and singing poets. I will move the Rock Creek Testicle Festival to Dixon, and could you think of a better trigger for a musical comedy? How odd that you, who cared about the fates and how they brutalize the poorest among us, inspired me to write a silly play about Hells Angels, testicles, and poets. But this was how the trigger laid hostage to my brain, took control, and without my ability to say no, formed itself into its own creation.
Thank you, Mr. Hugo. Thank you for drinking in Dixon and taking me along for the ride. Here are my toasts to you- May we all scream against the fates, in whatever form our triggers take, and May we raise our glass to you, and to the Admiral, before we leave to disappear into the dark.

[1] Hugo, Richard. “The Only Bar in Dixon.” 4 September 2011.

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