Friday, January 25, 2019

Tobi Alfier - First Person

First-Person does not have to be Me, Myself, and I

More and more I’m reading a lot of first-person submissions that are stories, not poems. Cover letters and bios are forgivable, and they can wait. But if you’re a submitting poet, or any kind of writer of poetry, you need to be aware of the “first-person Writer’s Sketchbook notes risk”.

I don’t remember in what class we discussed the “Writer’s Sketchbook”, but it’s basically a way to write down everything you see, do, hear, etc. “I’m sitting at the bus stop waiting for the Number 93 bus. The bus comes, I get on, pay and sit down”.  That is not a poem. They are notes to help inspire a poem, or part of a story.

This is something I worry about myself—when I am writing a poem, there’s a time to make it first-person, and a time not to. And just because it’s written in first-person, that doesn’t mean that it’s written about me. It means the narrator of the poem is “I”, instead of “He” or “She”.

Joe Millar, wikipedia
The question about what narrator works best for a poem came up in a writer’s workshop last year with Joe Millar. Joe said, “write it both ways, then read it, then read it out loud. You’ll know which narrator works best.”

I’m grateful that I write on a computer! Just last week, I started to write a first-person prose poem that had a lot of inspiration from our being featured on January 13th in Joshua Tree. It was true. It was poetic, it was not “Writer’s Sketchbook”. After a few lines, I changed all the “I’s” to “She’s”, and realized third person was a better version. The poem is still true. It is still poetic. But the reader won’t know it’s written about “me”.

Some of you will recognize the inspiration, and please God, if it ever gets published, I’ll print it here so you can read it, but “I” being the narrator wasn’t the best thing for the poem.

Consider this first-person poem:

We Know Winter in Our Bones

Winter lights the streets a pale eggshell grey
the cold is deep, I’m the one who shivers
to the front room, starts the fire to make tea –
pomegranate and blackberry for you,
I warm last night’s bitter coffee quickly,

drink it with too much sugar as I touch
your face, not yet wanting to speak and yet
wishing I could kiss the plains of all the
Midwest browns and beiges into your heart
so you would know some things are forged deeply,

they just are, no explanation.  Know I
am your constant, your compass.  Wild poppies
in a field of flawless green do not
consider the bloom of orange to red
they simply live their beauty, much as you.

I saw the moon from our shared bed, full of
face, splintery shadows lighting us as
we made love with all that makes us human.
Takes away the pain of being a man,
grants us the answers to ancient questions.

Consider this first-person poem:

Wrong Turn Ronnie

Rain lacquered streets rise and fall
in cracked pavement. My weed-addled skull

takes a wrong turn off Route 66,
ends at Willie Mac’s House of Spirits.

I do a double-take, a high-school friend
selling crystal ice in the lot, his life an anthem

of money and malt liquor. He never could
hold his rot-gut and decided to cut out the middle man.

An uneven sun smokes creosote off the asphalt,
lights the oxidized red of my ’71 LeMans,

lights the rust of a half dozen junkyards and railcars.
The hooker leaving Willie Mac’s pulls down

her shades, half to hide the bruise from some idiot
who didn’t know she’d once offed a john

with a splintered pool cue, half to shield sub-glacial eyes
so dead, yet sensitive to light and going blind.

I’ve been in love with her for half of forever,
she just works hard at swearing she owns me.

The hour leans into a limbo of where the hell am I’s?
Mussed hair, torn shirts all over town.

Throwing my horse-piss of warm beer out the window,
I opt for pancakes and a hangover Bloody Mary,

pray Sister Sweet and Self Righteous
ain’t at the communal table, pray that the hooker is.

I’ll be home soon. If I can face it.

Did the same person write both poems?  Yes of course, I wrote both of them. Well how can that be possible because a woman wrote the first one and a man wrote the second one? EXACTLY!!! Because point of view has nothing to do with the narrator, and neither have anything to do with the Number 93 bus, whether or not your husband (or wife) snores, the names of your cats or dogs, or how many parking tickets you have!!!!

First-person does not mean you are writing a story, or a memoir. First-person means that “you” are the best narrator for your poem. But please make sure it is a poem. “Write it both ways, then read it, then read it out loud. You’ll know which narrator works best.” It doesn’t have to be true to be you!!

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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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