04 September 2008

Pulling the trigger.

Today in my intro to poetry writing class we discussed sensory triggers, and how we hope that our poems will succeed in recreating experience for our readers. As an exercise, the students (and instructor) went outside and found six concrete images on campus. From there, they will use those images in a poem that is not about campus.

Before we went outside and described angry squirrels and the delightful aroma of fresh mulch, we spent some time discussing our own sensory triggers, and what they make us feel.

I often think that my entire life is one big sensory trigger. I've been blessed (and cursed) with a really good sense of smell, and a sense of hearing that allows me to note a paper clip being dropped in a neighboring office. Dropped on carpet, that is. It's impossible to concentrate sometimes if there's noise.

Two triggers that I enjoy thinking about:

** Burning leaves on a fall day makes me think of a particular green sweater I owned in the 1980's, and of watching the Detroit Lions.

** Looking into a box of sugar reminds me of when my dad made me sugar and butter sandwiches (rarely) as a kid. Biting into them was the most lusciously gritty experience ever. My students tell me that such sandwiches should be toasted, and consumed with hot cocoa.

What are some triggers that you can remember, or sensory jolts that bring you to a certain place and time? Have you ever used one of your own triggers in a poem (such as wearing a green sweater and eating sugar and butter sandwiches while watching the Detroit Lions)?

I love this poem by Gary Soto, especially the final image. (Blogger won't let me put space in right now, hence the brackets.)


The first time I walked
With a girl, I was twelve,
Cold, and weighted down
With two oranges in my jacket.
December. Frost cracking
Beneath my steps, my breath
Before me, then gone,
As I walked toward
Her house, the one whose
Porch light burned yellow
Night and day, in any weather.
A dog barked at me, until
She came out pulling
At her gloves, face bright
With rouge. I smiled,
Touched her shoulder, and led
Her down the street, across
A used car lot and a line
Of newly planted trees,
Until we were breathing
Before a drugstore. We
Entered, the tiny bell
Bringing a saleslady
Down a narrow aisle of goods.
I turned to the candies
Tiered like bleachers,
And asked what she wanted—
Light in her eyes, a smile
Starting at the corners
Of her mouth. I fingered
A nickel in my pocket,
And when she lifted a chocolate
That cost a dime,
I didn't say anything.
I took the nickel from
My pocket, then an orange,
And set them quietly on
The counter. When I looked up,
The lady's eyes met mine,
And held them, knowing
Very well what it was all
[--> ]Outside,
A few cars hissing past,
Fog hanging like old
Coats between the trees.
I took my girl's hand
In mine for two blocks,
Then released it to let
Her unwrap the chocolate.
I peeled my orange
That was so bright against
The gray of December
That, from some distance,
Someone might have thought
I was making a fire in my hands.

Gary Soto,
New and Selected Poems, 1995


Justin Evans said...

When thinking about this subject, I always return to these lines by Gary Short:

"The way dust smells like rain
before it rains."

I will be driving down the freeway and a particular stretch of road will remind me of a road in Germany.

When I hear "Combat Rock" by The Clash, I am suddenly riding my bike from my house to my friend's. I am 14 years old and always passing the town library.

Whenever I try to picture myself as a child, the first image I get is a picture of me sitting on top of my step-mother's shoulders when I was 4 years old. The next thing I experience is a car crash when I was somewhat younger. I see weeds poking up through the floor mats in the car. After that i can get more focused and directed in searching for an image or memory.

Pamela said...

I taught this poem Tuesday, along with "The Day Lady Died." Students "get" the images from Soto and immediacy from O'Hara. I've taught these 2 poems for the last 9 quarters without tiring of them. They're my mainstays.

The scent of Clorox always takes me back to falling in a pool and nearly drowning. If I detect any whiff of chlorine, my lungs tighten, my heart races, and my legs cramp, anticipating that push off the bottom of the pool with as much force as possible. I'm not scared of water, but the scent of bleach is stupefyingly scary. No poem yet--but I think I'm inspired.

Tobin F. Terry said...

I've been thinking about sensory stuff a lot lately and I think I'm an auditory kind of person. Besides smell, which always has a way of surprising me with memories, sound does too. And it's not always a memory of a noun (person, place, or thing) but sometimes a feeling. Here are my recent triggers: 1)Cicadas always remind me of the biggest clearing on the Minister's Creek trail in PA. Not so much the place, but the feeling of opressive heat and moisture when coming into the clearing. 2)The sound a rubber kickball makes when you kick it reminds me of being picked last. 3)Wind chimes trigger the memory of my neighbors in the projects. 4)This is a visual one. That sign on your blog reminds me of a dream I had when I was a fat kid, where a fountain of chicken McNuggets flowed abundantly into a river of french fries.

greg rappleye said...

The Detroit Lions?!?

No wonder the despair and melancholy in your poems!

Justin Evans said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Justin Evans said...

Did I miss that memory about the Detroit Lions?

As it turns out, I played little league baseball with Scott Mitchell when I was a kid. I offer this poem lifted from Billy Collins to express my feelings about Mr. Mitchell, who is now head football coach of my high school. And yes, the story is true. I think of this story every time I hear the words Detroit Lions or Scott Mitchell.

Another Reason Why I Don't Keep Scott Mitchell In The House

Scott Mitchell will not stop throwing the ball at me.
He is laughing the same high, rhythmic laugh
that he laughs every time he acts like a bully.
It must be a turn-on to torment the weak kids.

Scott Mitchell will not stop pitching.
I ride my bike all the way home before the game
and put on some Pink Floyd Music
but I can still hear him laughing under the music,
laughing, laughing, laughing,

and my grandmother makes me go back and play,
go back and confirm his status as the alpha-male,
the top dog as a natural athlete and leader.

When the ballgame finally ends he is still laughing,
sitting there in the bullpen quietly laughing,
his eyes fixed on the coach who is
praising him with his wild arms

while the other players listen in respectful
silence to the future pro-athlete’s theme song,
that endless coda that first established
Scott Mitchell as an evil athlete celebrity.

but I'm not bitter or anything

Bob said...

Nice thinking for making a poem, Mary. I have a similar kind of assignment for fiction writing.

Except we don't go wandering since if I wander I get distracted by everything and run into something really concrete.

I once knew woman with no sense of smell. I always thought she'd make some smelly man very happy someday.


John Gallaher said...

What in the world is a Food Fountain? I won't be able to sleep until I find out.


Brian Campbell said...

Good poem. Thanks for sharing it.

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