Friday, December 7, 2018

Tobi Alfier - Errors, Quirks, (and Oxford Commas)

I mentioned in my blog on editors that I was the sixth grade spelling bee champion. My husband and I still read each other’s poems before we finalize and submit them, both for edits to consider, and typos. Thank goodness we do this. I didn’t know I had no idea how to spell “Morse Code”.

I have also mentioned that I have a dear friend, Ricki Mandeville. Ricki is a beautiful poet and brilliant editor. She calls herself my son’s “Oxford Comma Mama”. I think only the two of them understand it enough to explain it, although many of us use it correctly without knowing. If you have a chance to read Ricki’s work, stop everything and read it right away at Gravel. 

Anyway, that blog post was about editors. This post is about errors. The goal is to help you write the best poems possible, and capture your readers forever.

In my opinion, spelling is a fatal error. Almost everything else can be rationalized as style. If you punctuate like hell, you should pay more attention to it, but it could also be style. If you write in vernacular— that’s style.

I have a couple of personal peeves, but would I reject a submission because of them? Not if the poems were great. It’s style.

If you use neologisms, for example a word like “whisperwinter” to describe falling snow, or use nouns as verbs or vice versa—you will find your niche with readers and editors. Some people will love you, and some won’t. Newsflash—it will be that way no matter how you write.

If you use foreign words or phrases in a poem, you may wish to include their translation at the bottom. They may not always be easy to interpret, and you don’t want it to cause your readers to give up on you. Time spent googling a phrase is time away from reading your work. You don’t ever want that to happen. The poem below, written by my husband, is not his usual subject matter. He spent a long time deciding whether or not to include a translation. He’s glad he did.

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The Partisan
Belgrade, 1944
            by Jeffrey Alfier

The soldier, too long in the wreck of years,
stands now with his arms raised,
weapon jammed, Ich gebe auf
rasping its way out of his dry throat,
meeting the tunnel of his captor’s eyes:
a young woman of indeterminate years,
chambering rounds with her small fingers.
He’s fast against the flaking cement
of the wall behind him as she pins
the wrists of his upheld hands,
her fists feeling his bloodbeat there
so she will better know the musk
of his breath, homesickness on his skin,
the soft remembered thud of her bullet.

Ich gebe auf: German: I surrender

The Partisan was previously published in CopperNickel

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If you try something special or different in your writing, and you should, at some point you’re going to make an error. Make sure you have good linebreaks and your spelling is perfect. Everything else is style, voice, or can be explained. Sometimes…often…errors make a poem the way it was supposed to be all along.

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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.

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