Saturday, October 20, 2018

Tobi Alfier - No Place For Bullies! (Part One)

Whether you are in a class, a workshop, a small group or an open mic, nobody has the right to make themselves feel taller by making someone else feel smaller. I have seen it. I have felt it. I am proud to say I have never done it, and proud to say that I have given poets the courage to keep on writing, even when they thought they were terrible and did not deserve that privilege.

Who has the right to make anyone feel like that? I can count on one finger the academic person who acts this way. I will never go to a reading of theirs. I will never spend one dime on anything  they’ve written. If their car was broken down in the rain, I would give them a ride into town. But I would not talk to them about poetry. And I will not name that person.

My friend Denise Buschmann is a Southerner transplanted to Indiana. Years ago, she was bullied so badly by a critique in a writing class over a line of Southern vernacular, she almost stopped writing poetry. She thought, “If this is what it’s like to participate in the writer’s community, I want no part of it.”

Denise says “I have always been a good writer and was starting to write more and more poetry. I took a class so I could learn and improve. What made that incident so bad was after one person told me I couldn't say "cut the lights or air conditioning ON", everyone at the large table adamantly agreed with him. Then three or four of them fiercely spoke up and said the same thing. Finally, another person “explained" that you CAN say "cut the lights," because it means to turn the lights off, but then agreed that you couldn't say "cut" with "on" because it does not mean to turn the lights on. 

She added, “I had used that phraseology my entire life and had never even questioned it. I was frankly shocked that no one had ever heard of “cutting” something electrical “on”. When I left the class that day it felt like I had been blindsided on a battlefield.”

After that unproductive class critique, Denise emailed her old neighbor from her hometown, who is a nuclear physicist, and asked if he knew what "cut on the lights" meant. He replied, "I know that you know that I know what that means!" She was so rattled by the nasty critique, she made him say what he thought it meant. He said, “It means to turn the lights on, of course.” She was not crazy!!

That weekend, Denise found her first LinkedIn poetry group online (the group I moderate – Poetry Editors and Poets). She explained what had happened and respectfully requested feedback. I asked her to private message me and that was how Denise and I met. Here is the poem she sent me.

Digital Immigrant on Heat Control in July

Shacktown community, Yadkin County, NC

It was pleasant without AC in my great-grandparents’ house
third Sunday each July, at the reunion on Mama’s side. 
The old folks in North Carolina knew how to plant 
their homes in the midst of generous trees 
to shelter them from sun.

Madison, GA

I toured an antebellum house once 
—one that Sherman didn’t burn.
Outside, it was smouldering.*
Set among ancient ash parasols
it had a wide hallway, running front door to back.
Our guide said, summers, they’d leave doors wide open
to capture the east wind.
Sometimes wild animals wandered in at night.

Center community, Yadkin County, NC

Sitting back in Daddy’s Tar Heels chair
under the brim of our four-vehicle shelter 
at Grandpa’s homeplace—Five Oaks—
I listened to a gentle, patient wind 
whisper something soft and kind. **
That same friendly zephyr
swishing and rustling leaves overhead
stroked my face, soothed my spirit.

Carmel, IN

We moved North July 1,
the house cool as could be midday,
when we stepped inside.
How long could we go, I wondered, without …
“Cut on the AC!” my husband interjected.
After several rounds, 
I knew when to concede.

D.C. Buschmann
June 10, 2013
* Taken from Sherman’s memoirs: "Behind us lay Atlanta, smouldering and in ruins, the black smoke rising high in air, and hanging like a pall over the ruined city."
** From James Taylor’s “Carolina in My Mind.”   

Denise stuck to her guns on that poem. It was her poem. Workshop groups are meant to point out places that aren’t clear, or possibly could use revision. They aren’t meant to gang up on someone because they don’t like a poem, or aren’t familiar with a particular phrase.

Has my friend Denise’s writing gotten better since 2013? She has grown, just as we all have. And her confidence has grown, and she has blossomed. Although she still remains unpublished in her home state, she’s been published many times by Indiana journals and on four continents (and in San Pedro River Review), and has won awards, (which she’s never gloated about or shoved down that guy’s throat, so he must’ve gotten nicer too.)

photo: Angelo Esslinger
In fact, Denise says “The person who sternly told me I couldn't say "cut the lights on" many years ago ... we were in a critique group together, after that, for four or so years and we now respect each other’s work and are friends. The last time we both were at a third critique group, he liked my poem that I brought so much, he asked if he could keep it instead of giving it back to me with comments. I was so touched. He kept saying ‘Wow. Wow.’ and asked how I wrote that. Such a 180.”

This is unfortunately a common issue I see with critique groups that have no leader strong enough to stand up to the “chest pounders”. This is why I don’t allow people to post their work on the LinkedIn site I moderate. People can be mean. I don’t know if they have any idea what kind of effect that can have on a newly-brave writer, just getting up enough nerve to show their work in public. I don’t know if they care.
I am sorry to say that Denise is not the only writer I personally know who almost stopped writing. We all have our strengths. We all have our weaknesses. But we all write for a reason.  Shame on anyone who tries to take that away from us!
Next week: stay tuned for my horrible experience with a poetry class, and why I LOVE workshops. I will talk specifically about Tin House, Tomales Bay, Catamaran, and Desert Nights, Rising Stars at ASU. I will talk peripherally about a few others.
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Tobi Alfier's most recent collection of poetry is Slices Of Alice. 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.


  1. You have given me the courage to go on with my writing. I thank you. That is a rare gift that is far greater than using Ivory Tower creds to strip you of your desire to create. That is like skinning a Sapling before it finds its light. Someday that sapling just might surpass that twig in spirit, beauty and grace.

  2. Bless your beautiful heart! I am so happy you're going to go on with your writing!! It's for a reason. You're going to walk taller, my friend, and I am so happy for you. Most importantly...enjoy! xoxo


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