Micro Lesson: “Keeping Your Sh*t Detectors On” by Carolyne Wright

Posted Tue, 2/19/2019 - 10:45am by  |  Category:

Richard Hugo is In the House! This poet, after whom Hugo House is named, was beloved by students and fellow poets.

I met him at a few different readings and studied with him twice—at a ten-day writer’s conference in Boulder in 1976, and then in a workshop at the Port Townsend Writers Conference in summer 1981, the year before he died.

Hugo was big and blustery and jovial and outspoken . . . and vulnerable. He didn’t hide his feelings, he walked with a big rolling limp (from a war wound), he must have weighed close to 300 pounds, and he smoked heavily. He could be emotionally needy, though when I knew him, he had fallen in love and married another poet and teacher, and he was happy for the first time in a long time.

He was a legendary teacher, and some of his sayings are pithy and unforgettable.

“Keep your shit detectors on.”

The poet Jack Myers wrote that the real work that Hugo was doing was “difficult, honest, and daring.” There is no phoniness or pretension in his voice—child of a single mother raised by his mother’s parents in grim, Depression-era White Center, Hugo had no illusions about social status or keeping up appearances.

He interrogated himself, examining the ways he had failed others and himself, and how others had failed him, and failed themselves and others. He cried out against injustice and cruelty by the strong against the weak, human indifference to other people and creatures.

He thought of himself, at least the version of himself who spoke the poems, as weak, so he was always on the side of the weak. And there is a lot of humor in his voice—he’s one of the few poets I know who can tell jokes in his poems!

“Hit it once and get the hell out.”

With Hugo, it’s all Don’t Belabor, Don’t Explain—let the images stand on their own and embody the story. Universal truths are borne in the particulars: the details, the stories, the personal connections to lives and landscapes, in his poetry.

There is a consistent, exhilarating power in this poetry’s driving, blank-verse rhythms. There was a period when I read all his books in sequence, as they appeared. In book after book, all the poems seemed to be of an equal level of finish and accomplishment in their energy, storytelling, and vivid, high-colloquial diction.

Hugo’s poetic voice and rhythms echoed in my head, particularly during graduate school, when I was writing many of the poems in my first book. I read him on long-haul Greyhound trips between Seattle and Syracuse, through Eastern Washington and Idaho and Montana and the Dakotas and on east, all that big sky country.

I read through his books, poem by poem, straight through—no jumping around, because each poem created a complete dramatic situation and narrative arc, based in the landscape and in the natural and human structures Hugo saw and upon which he projected his own dramas.

“In poetry, there’s truth, and there’s music. Always follow the music, and if the truth doesn’t fit the music, LIE!”

Hugo always got a laugh when he made this quip—he aimed for emotional truth, even if the facts had to bend a bit so the music was true.

I learned a lot from reading Hugo’s poems, then looking out the window and seeing the same landscape. I would enter each poem, absorb the dramatic situation and the landscape or “Triggering Town” from which it emerged, then look out and there it was: Richard Hugo’s world! Bleak towns! Dirt-poor farms! Run-down ranches!

I would read “opportunistically” to get a rhythm going in my own head. After a few poems, lines would come to me, and I would put the book down and start writing my own poem.

A few ways to write with Richard Hugo

    1. What is the strongest poem or piece of writing that you have created recently? What qualities make it strong? Vivid imagery, powerful rhythms, an unexpected insight or awareness that emerges from the language in the process of writing? Look through it, then look at other recent pieces and try to bring the quality of language in the other poems up to the level of the strongest.


    1. Think of a place you have visited—far away or nearby, recently or long ago—a place you know fairly well, that has fascinated you and remained in your memory. Write two descriptions of it using specific language and creating vivid characters: the first description very positive, full of praise; the second description finding fault with the place and its people. Then create a piece that blends the two views of this place.


    1. Now think of a place that you have never visited, but which fascinates you. Write two descriptions of it—one finding the positive, one finding fault—going into as much detail as you can imagine. Tell details of the lives of people in this place—they can be imaginary or derived from real life.


  1. Next, compare the two descriptions: Which is more vivid—the place you know, or the place you have never visited? Which piece of writing gets deeper into the essence of it, of yourself in relation to it? Which town is more of a trigger for your sympathetic imagination?

Come visit the Triggering Towns of Richard Hugo’s poetry, and map your own imagination’s towns in Writing with Richard HugoClass begins March 2 and runs for four Saturday afternoons.

Carolyne Wright’s latest book is This Dream the World: New & Selected Poems (Lost Horse Press, 2017), whose title poem received a Pushcart Prize and was included in The Best American Poetry 2009. Her co-edited anthology, Raising Lilly Ledbetter: Women Poets Occupy the Workspace (Lost Horse, 2015), received ten Pushcart Prize nominations and was a finalist in the Foreword Review’s Book of the Year Awards. A Seattle native who studied with Elizabeth Bishop, Richard Hugo, and William Stafford, she is author of nine previous books and chapbooks of poetry, a book of essays, and five volumes of poetry in translation from Spanish and Bengali—the latest of which is Map Traces, Blood Traces / Trazas de mapa, trazas de sangre (Mayapple Press, 2017), a bilingual sequence of poems by Seattle-based Chilean poet, Eugenia Toledo (Finalist for the 2018 Washington State Book Award in Poetry, and for the 2018 PEN Los Angeles Award in Translation). Wright teaches for Richard Hugo House and for national and international literary conferences and festivals. A Contributing Editor for the Pushcart Prizes, Wright lived in Chile and traveled in Brazil on a Fulbright Grant during the presidency of Salvador Allende. She has received grants from the NEA, 4Culture, and Seattle’s Office of Arts & Culture, among others; and she returned to Brazil in mid-2018 on an Instituto Sacatar residency fellowship in Bahia.