Poetry: Revisiting Richard Hugo's Triggering-Town Technique by Petra Whitaker
In his essay, The Triggering Town, Richard Hugo discusses a number of ways poets can trigger the imagination. He introduces a technique, instructing his students to imagine scenes where a poem’s subject or setting is a town. He calls this town the triggering town.
“Try this for an exercise,” he suggests. “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.” The important thing about this exercise, Hugo explains, is to imagine a place you're not familiar with.
Psychologists call this technique psychological distancing. According to a study by Lile Jia and colleagues, summarized in Scientific American, imagining a problem or a situation as happening in an unfamiliar location increases abstract thinking and results in a greater number of creative ideas. In this particular study at Indiana University at Bloomington, researchers gave two groups a list of problems to solve. One group imagined the problems taking place at a distance; the other group imagined the same problems occurring nearby. The first group, which employed psychological distancing, not only solved more problems than the second group and a control group, it generated a greater number of ideas in solving the problems.
Hugo’s triggering-town technique and his advice to novice poets to imagine an unfamiliar town (or to depart from a familiar subject) when writing poetry is supported by research on psychological distancing. Imagining the subject of a poem in a distant, or unfamiliar location, triggers abstract thought and leads to a greater number of novel ideas. This doesn’t mean you should never write about a familiar subject, it simply means you have a better chance of generating a greater number of unique ideas if you depart from the initial subject, or if you imagine that subject in an unfamiliar locale. According to Hugo, “The poem is always in your hometown, but you have a better chance of finding it in another.”