High School Never Ends or Why Poets Hate the Question “Did that really happen?”

Before I talk about my poem, “Dormant Trigger,” I’ll tell you why poets usually don’t like to be asked if the poem they wrote “really happened.” Imagine the following scene on any typical talk show of the 80s or 90s: A guest discusses her drug problem and reveals that she’s pregnant for the third time, with yet another man’s child—but wait—she isn’t sure which gentleman is the father, and she has also gambled away her grandmother’s retirement fund. “Boo!” yells the audience. “This lady’s got problems!” Then, one audience member gets the attention of the host who bounces up the stairs and pops the microphone in front of the guest’s face. “Do you have something to say to our guest?” “Yes, I do [insert host’s name].” She turns her judgmental gaze to the troubled guest and blurts out “You have low self-esteem!” She wags her finger and the audience cheers.

Why do I bring up this talk show / timeless example of public shaming? Of course, the woman has low self esteem. Good grief. She also probably suffers from addiction, possible mental health issues, and it doesn’t sound as though she’s been afforded many opportunities in life. It is irritating a) that someone dumbed down her troubled life to rival some pseudo psych article you might read in Glamour Magazine, and b) it’s beside the point. Up on that stage is an actual human being with complexities. Most likely she feels for her children. She has hopes for them, even if her ability to take good care of them is inhibited by her current state of mental health. Who was she as a child? How was she treated? What did she learn about relationships? about herself? about her body? about men? If a poet were going to write about her, these are some of the questions the poet might ask even before putting pen to paper.

How could poets know the answers to these questions? Unless they can research or interview the woman, they’ll probably have to guess. Nearly all poets create speakers and dramatic situations for their poems that are, in some way, reflections of their own experiences. If a poet writes about the woman on the talk show, does that mean that she, too, has a drug problem? Maybe, maybe  not, but she may know what it feels like to be confused or betrayed or ashamed.

For these reasons, it is always best not to ask the poet if the poem is autobiographical. If it did “really happen,” then you are probably in for an awkward, if not depressing, conversation—and believe me, you do not want the poets getting depressed on you! Also, the poet took time to give the speaker depth and grace. It is much more interesting and enriching to honor that speaker as her own person, rather than trying to match her personality to the poet’s. Finally, it’s complicated. One might answer the question “Did this really happen?” with a question: “Which part do you mean?” Of course, this conversation quickly becomes tedious. Maybe the poet does have a drug problem but doesn’t have any kids. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Poems want to stand on their own, uninhibited by their creators.

Now that I’ve explained why poets don’t like to be asked if the subject of a poem actually happened to them, I will tell you that “Dormant Trigger” is about something that actually happened to me! And no, before anyone asks, it didn’t happen at the university that I teach at now. Despite the fact that it “really happened,” I’m still going to discuss the poem in terms of speaker and dramatic situation as to keep the focus on the poem rather than on the mean girls. Here’s the story:

I’ve always appreciated my dad’s honesty, even when I was younger. When I came home one day, frustrated with the casual cruelty of teenagers, I asked my dad if things get better after high school. His face slightly twisted into a tentative grimace. “Not really,” he said. “People act like that even when they’re old. They just get slightly more sophisticated about it.” Unfortunately, I have found that he is right. “Dormant Trigger” is a poem about such behavior, later in life. I think it’s funny that this experience happened after a faculty meeting. Much of our young lives are spent in school, and it seems that that’s where much of the bullying occurs. Well, apparently, teachers are not immune!

In the first stanza, the speaker directly addresses “you and your friends” who “laughed and mocked” the speaker. It is not until the third line, that the reader learns that the speaker (as well as the ones mocking her) is a teacher. The poem then shifts out of the moment and into a memory. We’re not sure, at this point, how the speaker feels about the other faculty members. Rather, she thinks of Stephanie, a girl from high school whom the speaker remembers as more beautiful than her but also as unkind. She reveals that the only reason she spoke to Stephanie was because of an unnamed “kindness…despite / the countless times she smoothed lotion / over her jail bait legs, longer, slimmer, than / mine.” In these lines, the reader can visualize Stephanie’s appearance as beautiful, but there’s also an edge to it. She has “jail bait legs” that she “smoothed lotion / over,” indicating that she understands her sexuality and power. The reader also imagines her as supernatural. She makes “that silent / whistle only teenage sirens possess” to rouse her group of girlfriends to “feed on the weak” (presumably the speaker).

In the second stanza, the reader is back in the present moment of the poem: “Restraint: Outside the faculty room, I wanted / to fling on you all the glares and inside jokes / (at my expense) from gym class. To claw / your pretty, straight hair and make you feel / like a pimple-faced idiot, naked / in the shower room.” The speaker holds back her urge to retaliate. She feels transported back to adolescence and can only think to respond as she wishes she could have, when she was young and bullied.

In the third stanza, the speaker uses the word “escaped” to describe how she leaves “without taking / your poise with me.” One gets the sense that it was all she could do to hold herself back as she walks away from her colleagues. However, the tone shifts quickly as she then begins to wonder “who Stephanie might have married, / what job she took. Were her thighs / still firm; did her friends still serve / as her beautiful, clear-faced watch dogs?” The speaker’s musings sound realistic at first; Stephanie very well may have gotten married and she most likely has a job. However, the reader can see the hold Stephanie still has on the speaker, as the questions begin to imply that life could remain stagnant, that Stephanie hasn’t aged and that her girlfriends still swarm around her, “protecting” her from less popular kids.

The concluding lines offer a reflection on pain:

“What I remembered then, is that inflicting pain
is a prayer. Like tattooing
Don’t look at me across your throat:
you want what you give.”

Often times, a line break can add an element of surprise. The first line break in this passage creates a slight pause before “is a prayer,” an action one does not usually associate with “inflicting pain.” The next image takes the reader completely out of the school setting. I’ve always found it strange when someone dresses or makes up her / himself to be noticed but then, gets angry at the attention. It’s an interesting game. The last lines emphasize the contrast between intention and reaction: “Like tattooing / Don’t look at me across your throat:”

The last line reveals a complexity in human desire. Perhaps people who are combative don’t precisely want arguments but rather to feel passion from someone. With this idea in mind, I ended the poem with “you want what you give,” which leaves the reader to reconsider some human behaviors.

“Dormant Trigger” was Issue 9’s Poetry Contest Winner in Bop Dead City, December 2014.

Dormant Trigger

When you and your friends
laughed and mocked me after our
faculty meeting, I thought
of Stephanie, a beautiful, skinny
9th grader whose one moment
of kindness kept me
speaking to her, despite
the countless times she smoothed lotion
over her jail bait legs, longer, slimmer, than
mine, as she made that silent
whistle only teenage sirens possess,
alerting the other girls it was time
to feed on the weak.

When I escaped, without taking
your poise with me, I wondered
who Stephanie might have married,
what job she took. Were her thighs
still firm; did her friends still serve
as her beautiful, clear-faced watch dogs?

What I remembered then, is that inflicting pain
is a prayer. Like tattooing
Don’t look at me across your throat:
you want what you give.

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