Friday, May 25, 2018

Tobi Alfier - You Need To Read

To Write A Lot You Need To Read A Lot

You know this! If you want to excel with your writing, read everything you can. 

To read poetry, you may need to buy directly from the publishers. You may want to buy a signed copy directly from the authors. And if you are unable to do that, support your local independent bookstore before you buy from a “Big Box Store” (it’s a way to be a good literary citizen. They will also be more amenable to hosting your book launch if they know you).

My husband is Jeff Alfier. He’s a beautiful poet and a wonderful photographer. We don’t write the same way. We don’t read the same way. But we both read. He loves poetry, and buys so much of it, I don’t have to. I fall in love with individual poems, with fiction, and the occasional memoir. I keep authors in my head forever (says the person who never finished the last volume of The Diary of Anaїs Nin because she couldn’t bear for it to be done).

I’m not telling you what to read. I telling you what we have read and liked very much.


·         Rail by Kai Carlson-Wee from BOA Editions in 2018

·         The Long Drive Home by Nick Bozanic from Anhinga Press, 1990

·         Begging for Vultures by Lawrence Welsh from University of New Mexico Press, 2011

·         A Romance by Bruce Weigl from University of Pittsburgh Press, 1979

Jeff has sent me passages from Cormac McCarthy novels that are so beautiful, they could be poetry. And he loves Richard Hugo, Yusef Komunyakaa, Joseph Millar and James Lee Burke.


·         Crescent by Diana Abu-Jaber from W. W. Norton & Co., 2003

·         Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver from Harper, 1998

·         The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx from Scribner & Sons, 1993

·         A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley from Alfred A. Knopf, 1991

I also loved Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl, Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison, The Bird Artist by Howard Norman and many many poems by contemporary poets who I go back to time and again. And I love Jeff’s poetry.

As Richard Hugo, Steve Almond and others have said, we write our obsessions, whatever the form. By reading we can learn: how chapter lengths help propel a story, the beauty of white space on a page, how the pacing of a poem with five-syllable lines is different than a poem with ten-syllable lines, the importance of word choice and punctuation, the calming look of couplets, the brilliance of rhyme …

Read poetry. Read fiction. Read short stories, magazines, your one or two favorite books on writing. Whatever is on your bedside table is there for a reason.

Whether you go to the library, read on a tablet, or have walls of bookshelves, your writing will be so much better if you read.


Tobi Alfier's most recent collection of poetry is Somewhere, Anywhere, Doesn't Matter Where. She is also co-editor with Jeff Alfier of the San Pedro River Review. Don't miss Tobi's columns on the craft of poetry: insert your email address in the "Follow By Email" box to the right of this article and you'll be notified every time a new article appears.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Tobi Alfier - Ten Ways to Be a Good Featured Reader

Ten Ways to Be a Good Featured Reader (and be asked back again)

The time will come when you will be invited to feature at a reading. It may be a venue you’re familiar with, or one you’ve never attended.

This will be an opportunity to maybe sell some books, and introduce yourself and your poetry to a whole new audience. You want to make a good impression. If you don’t have a new book now, you want to be asked back when you do have one…so you can sell some books, introduce yourself and your poetry to a whole new audience, etc.

This list may be obvious to you. If so, great! It’s not all inclusive, so if you have other things that work, keep doing them.

10.  If you’re reading at a coffee house, be sure and thank the Baristas. Not on the mic, but afterwards, thank them for oh, not running the steamer during your reading. If a hat was passed for you, tip them. They may not get much business on a reading night, and it will be appreciated.

9.    Thank your hosts at the mic. Look at them when you thank them. Be sincere.

8.    Your hosts will usually provide water, but make sure you have a bottle with you even if you have to buy it. It’s awful when you get dry-mouth smack in the middle of reading. Try not to swig like a sailor unless that’s your persona and everyone expects that of you.

7.    If there’s also an open mic, your feature may be at the beginning or middle of the other readers. Be there early enough to see the readers before you. Stay until the end. Even if they are playing the bongos and singing their poems off-key, give them as much respect and attention as you expect from them. If you smoke? Go outside during a break, not during a reader.

6.    Don’t wear a “poet costume” and try not to wear black. You know there is no such thing as a costume, so if you try to wear one, your audience will spend more time whispering to each other about how dumb you look and less time listening. Black does not provide a blank canvas for your words, it’s just black. Wear some color. Show some personality. 

5.    If you have books to sell, bring change. People will have twenties and if you don’t have change, they won’t buy. Alternatively, if you have two books you’re selling, and let’s say they total $24, you will end up selling both for $20. This could be a blessing and a curse. You probably didn’t pay your publisher cover price so you won’t be losing money. Your buyer will think you’re a wonderful person because you gave them a deal. If they like your work, they will buy more of it in the future.

Every writer in your audience knows there’s a story behind most poems. The most you could say is “there’s a story behind this. If you want to know, ask me at the break”. I say that all the time, and no one has ever asked me. This allows your listeners to become part of the poems with you. You have also timed yourself…unless you factor in five minutes to read a 30-second poem, you’re stealing time from the open mic readers who come after you. At some point they will stop listening and start fidgeting.

3.    Scan the audience before you start reading. See if there are children present. If there are, censor your poems. Swap your alternate out for the extremely explicit, shocking poem you were dying to read. You know you shouldn’t read it. Another thing that works is to say “I’m going to say ‘_______’ for the dirty words”, and then do it. When you say ‘pumpkin’, and everyone in the audience knows that’s NOT the word you mean, you will get a chuckle. You’ll also have some appreciative parents and a curious audience who may buy your book just to see what the word really was.

2A. You might want to begin your reading with a poem you love by a poet you respect. This will introduce your listeners to someone they may not know. One poem less of yours is not going to change the world but such a small thing is such a big thing. It will show you are generous with your allotted time and make your listeners feel like you want to share with them. They made the right decision not to stay home and watch TV. And starting with a poem by someone else will let you get comfortable with the whole setup before you start impressing people with your own work.  

2.    Rehearse, rehearse, and rehearse! Continue to time yourself. This will give you comfort and allow you to look up as you are reading. Nothing is more boring than 20 minutes of someone looking down and reading into a mic. If you feel comfortable, you’ll be able to make eye contact. You’ll be able to smile. This does not mean you should memorize your poems, although if you can, you can use BOTH hands when you read. A comfort level is key to a good feature.

1.      Find out how much time you’re being expected to read. Pick out a number of poems and time yourself. Pick an alternate poem and time that. Make sure you come in about five minutes less than your allotted time. This is to allow time for applause (!). This is also to allow time for a bit of chatting between poems. A little chatting will make your listeners feel comfortable. You will be their friend, not a guest lecturer. The best thing you can hear is a chuckle. The second best? Applause.

Laugh at me on Youtube. I used to think I looked like I had a mustache and no teeth until someone explained that the lighting is often horrendous, and that’s the reason why. Yes, I’m wearing black but I also look up, smile, and chat before the poem. So no, I don’t always follow my own advice, but I try. And have a blast!

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Tobi Alfier's most recent collection of poetry is Somewhere, Anywhere, Doesn't Matter Where. She is also co-editor with Jeff Alfier of the San Pedro River Review. Don't miss Tobi's columns on the craft of poetry: insert your email address in the "Follow By Email" box to the right of this article and you'll be notified every time a new article appears.

Photo of Bored Statue by Hans Braxmeier

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Tobi Alfier - Scout’s Honor

Scout’s Honor – Always Write the Truth

We have to be fearless in our writing. We can make it beautiful. We can make it ugly. We can make it reach for the stars, and we can touch people with truth. One time after a reading where I read a particular poem, a young woman came up to me with a couple of her friends. She said “I’m sick”. I said “I am too”.  She said “I never talk about it”. I said “I don’t either”. I will never forget that.

Flash forward to a reading by Pete Fromm and Heather McHugh. I sat in the front row because Heather was my workshop leader; I wanted to support her.

Pete read first. He read part of a story that later became the book “If Not For This”. It won the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award in 2015. I hope you have read this beautiful book. Within two minutes, I started crying. I knew it was true to the characters, and it killed me. At that moment I understood what a writing teacher had been trying to drum into my stubborn head -“You have to write the truth. Your readers will not know if it’s true, but they’ll know if you’re lying.” Unfortunately you can’t wipe your face with an “aha moment” but I got it.

Next it was Heather’s turn. She first told a wrenching, private, unbelievable story, then she read her poem. You would never know the event that caused her to write it—her truth was buried deep. But it was her truth. No reader would ever doubt her. I urge you to read it, and think about your words when you write…

What He Thought

We were supposed to do a job in Italy
and, full of our feeling for
ourselves (our sense of being
Poets from America) we went
from Rome to Fano, met
the mayor, mulled
a couple matters over (what’s
cheap date, they asked us; what’s
flat drink).  Among Italian literati

we could recognize our counterparts:
the academic, the apologist,
the arrogant, the amorous,
the brazen and the glib – and there was one

administrator (the conservative), in suit
of regulation gray, who like a good tour guide
with measured pace and uninflected tone narrated
sights and histories the hired van hauled us past.
Of all, he was most politic and least poetic,
so it seemed.  Our last few days in Rome
(when all but three of the New World Bards had flown)
I found a book of poems this
unprepossessing one had written: it was there
 in the pensione room (a room he’d recommended)
where it must have been abandoned by
the German visitor (was there a bus of them?)
to whom he had inscribed and dated it a month before.
I couldn’t read Italian, either, so I put the book
back into the wardrobe’s dark.  We last Americans

were due to leave tomorrow.  For our parting evening then
our host chose something in a family restaurant, and there
we sat and chatted, sat and chewed,
till, sensible it was our last
big chance to be poetic, make
our mark, one of us asked
                                                “What’s poetry?
Is it the fruits and vegetables and
marketplace of Campo dei Fiori, or
the statue there?”   Because I was

the glib one, I identified the answer
instantly, I didn’t have to think – “The truth
is both, it’s both,” I blurted out.  But that
was easy.  That was easiest to say.  What followed
taught me something about difficulty,
for our underestimated host spoke out,
all of a sudden, with a rising passion, and he said:

The statue represents Giordano Bruno,
brought to be burned in the public square
because of his offense against
authority, which is to say
the Church.  His crime was his belief
the universe does not revolve around
the human being: God is no
fixed point or central government, but rather is
poured in waves through all things.  All things
move.  “If God is not the soul itself, He is
the soul of the soul of the world.”  Such was
his heresy.  The day they brought him
forth to die, they feared he might
incite the crowd (the man was famous
for his eloquence).  And so his captors
placed upon his face
an iron mask, in which

he could not speak.  That’s
how they burned him.  That is how
he died: without a word, in front
of everyone.
                        And poetry –
                                                (we’d all
put down our forks by now, to listen to
the man in gray; he went on
                 poetry is what

he thought, but did not say.


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Tobi Alfier's most recent collection of poetry is Somewhere, Anywhere, Doesn't Matter Where. She is also co-editor with Jeff Alfier of the San Pedro River Review. Don't miss Tobi's columns on the craft of poetry: insert your email address in the "Follow By Email" box to the right of this article and you'll be notified every time a new article appears.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Tobi Alfier - The Joy of Cooking – With Adjectives

The Joy of Cooking – With Adjectives

 If we’re at a restaurant and I see on the menu “butternut squash ravioli with browned butter and sage”, I look no further. I know the dish will be beautiful, delicious and perfect. If this were a poem, I would buy the whole book.

A few well-placed adjectives work the same way. They can elevate a poem to perfection. Too many, in my opinion, muddle what could be lovely into something average. I would probably keep looking…on the menu and in the bookstore.

As a poet, I want my work to be concise, but I don’t want it to be “just the facts, ma’am”.  I want it to have browned butter and sage. Whether it be the use of a compound word, a neologism, or a few well-placed, surprising adjectives, I want my poems to clearly say what they want to say, and I want the voice to be mine. That is part of the fun, and challenge—write poems that other people recognize and want to eat.

Try this exercise:

Take a poem you recently finished. Count the number of lines in it. Let’s say it has 26
lines. You want to submit it to your favorite journal but they have a line limit of 25.

Sleep on that conundrum overnight. Look at your poem with fresh eyes in the morning.

Can you take a line of beautiful, heart-stopping description out and submit it? Don’t throw that line away, put it in your notebook for another poem. Believe me when I tell you that your poem will still be great. You will be able to submit it. You will never miss that line.

I do it all the time. I have no choice. I know I am wordy, and too many words is like too much spice. They dilute the essence of a poem. They also don’t give your readers a place where they can jump in, fill the words in for you, and become emotionally invested. Once that happens, they are not just readers – they are sous chefs. You have gotten them thinking about your words and they will want to read more.

You have satisfied your readers, met the requirements of the journal, and have a line in your notebook for a future poem.

The poem below had to be reduced from 23 lines, to 20. Do you miss anything?


She has hands like a man,
fingers you’d expect to see
shooting pool, or throwing
the power switch at a backwater 
carnival.  But here she sits,
knees parted, eyes focused
with unblinking attention.
Light from the chandelier
blares stars through her hair
and onto her cello.  Her grip
could take you down in a snap
yet here she takes direction.
As the audience files in,
they in turn follow her urgent
bass notes to their seats.
The play is about to begin.
You teeter on the edge of melody.
She draws you in with those hands.

Now, what are you going to have for dessert?

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Tobi Alfier's most recent collection of poetry is Somewhere, Anywhere, Doesn't Matter Where. She is also co-editor with Jeff Alfier of the San Pedro River Review. Don't miss Tobi's columns on the craft of poetry: insert your email address in the "Follow By Email" box to the right of this article and you'll be notified every time a new article appears.

photos courtesy of Tania Van den Berghen, Aero, Meghan Kehoe, and Matheus Goncalves