Every decent writer has some key memories that, when recalled much later, prove to be fertile ground for literature. Whether it’s a childhood recollection, a happy vacation from adolescence, or even a school-related flashback (see photo), every memory holds the potent possibility for springing to life in new writing.
In this case, I never really considered the smaller details of that New York trip from decades ago. While there, we had to ride buses to various venues. Being the small-town boy that I was, I had no familiarity with tokens and procedures related to mass public transit. As a result, I held onto my bus token instead of depositing it rightfully.
While digging through my sock drawer recently, I found that old token, and a million memories of that trip came flooding back: Broadway musicals, FAO Schwarz, the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, and so many other sights and sounds were generated by this one tiny piece of metal.
When I sat down to write about it all, however, I dismissed the tourist traps, the typical big-city experiences, and all the fluff of a trite “cultural shift” poem. Instead, I began to focus on the minutiae of that one moment, getting onto the bus without paying all those years ago:
Mr. Bus Driver, I didn’t know
where this metal disc was supposed to go
in 1990. I faked the deposit:
no token, just motion before taking
an inconspicuous seat beside classmates.
I know you don’t believe me.
Neither do I.
A bronze and silver guilt memento:
City of New York Transit System raised letters
round as a steaming manhole cover. This passage
pressed around an accusing bull’s eye – target
of my crime: petty theft by a small-town minor.
The piece in all its particulars, I believe, is far stronger than a “big picture” poem that tries to capture all the landmarks and sensations of a city too large to do justice in a single piece. Many years ago, Richard Hugo wrote a nice little guide to poetry entitled The Triggering Town. He encouraged poets to “adopt” a town they knew nothing about, approaching it as though they were someone who’d lived there for years rather than an outsider. This practice, he wrote, would allow a writer to generate new ideas and material. Indeed, it has worked for countless poets throughout history. New York was not my “triggering town.” But, its sensations, its differences, and its expectations from more than 20 years ago certainly gave rise to a piece that is unique. Only through artistic distance are we able to see some things for their truest significance. Like old farmhouse windows, the warps and waves in the lens of time give rise to pictures, that, while not totally accurate, make our human experiences more meaningful. The lesson for poets and writers everywhere? Look back to look forward.