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.

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