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?

- - - -

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 

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