Friday, January 18, 2019

Tobi Alfier - There are Readings, and there are READINGS!

Photo by Mark Evans
First, many thanks to Rich Soos and Cholla Needles for inviting my husband Jeff and I to feature last Sunday. Space Cowboy Books provides a wonderful venue, and some of our books will remain there for anyone who’d like one.
Photo by Mark Evans

For those of you who were there, you know it wasn’t beach party weather. HUGE kudos to Rich as host – he makes the readings so supportive, safe, enthusiastic, fun, and transparent in terms of financial status, upcoming events, etc., that even though the open mic is first, you beautiful, wonderful, talented, funny and serious readers stayed to hear Jeff and I. And even though I wore layers as instructed by Rich, my overwhelming gratitude to Cynthia Anderson for the “red blanket from heaven”. Without that blanket, I would still be there waiting to thaw out!!

Thanks to those of you who bought books. Thanks to our Facebook friends for introducing yourselves…it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see why I rarely go anywhere anymore. I feel so blessed, and so thankful that we read for you (and I didn’t cry too much) 👸

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Now let’s talk about Mary Oliver. Full disclosure, I’m not very familiar with her or her work. She passed away this week at the age of 83. I know she has had a great impact on lots of people, both as writers, and humans.

To quote Al Maginnes, a Facebook friend and then some, and a beautiful poet often published in San Pedro River Review (SPRR):

“In fall of 1984 I was in my first semester of the MFA program at Arkansas and things were not going well. My poems were not well received and in desperation, I was floundering, trying to be WS Merwin one week and Anthony Hecht the next. The nights I was sober (there were one or two) I wondered why I had uprooted my life in NC, my wife and our dogs to live in this strange town. Our visiting poet that semester was Mary Oliver, who I had never heard of and who had just won the Pulitzer Prize.

Since I was in the poetry workshop, I got to have a private conference with her about a few of my poems. Because of the timing of my conference, my friend LuAnn Keener-Mikenas and I had lunch with her as well. I don't remember much about the lunch, other than being mildly surprised that she ate a burger rather than a salad or something vegetarian. At our conference, I had revisions of almost all the poems I'd sent her for the conference a few weeks before. She looked at the revisions, then at me and said, "Did anyone tell you these revisions were better?" I said no (I'm not sure now that anyone had seen the revisions) and she smiled and said "Good." Then she talked about how important it was to trust one's instincts and to learn what criticism worked and what didn't.

In workshop the next day she talked about trusting the place poems came from. One of the recurrent tropes in that workshop was someone or another saying, "Maybe you should save that line for another poem." She heard someone say this and said "Or maybe forget about the line and trust the place the line came from." My month was made when she proclaimed the poem I had submitted as "almost there." Later, Jim Whitehead told me that she had talked to him about my poems although I doubt I was unique in this. She probably talked with him about everyone's poems.

I never saw Oliver after that and I did not read all of her books. But she was very important to me because she gave me the confidence to trust myself and my poems when I was writing. At the time I had been writing poems with any degree of seriousness for just over a year, so I had and still have tons to learn. But I will be forever grateful for meeting Mary Oliver and for her kindness to a young student's work.”

One more quote from Luke Johnson. Luke is a Facebook friend, a personal friend, a friend of SPRR, and sometimes I feel like he’s part of our family. Luke says:

“Love you Mary O.

Thank you for standing firm against all the hate, for never backing down. For writing poems about nature when everyone thought you should write angry political poems. Thank you for teaching us that beauty is sharp and double sided and in its nuance, is worthy of our gaze.”

Many of Mary’s poems are online, and she has a jillion books if you’d like one, or you’d like to fill in your collection. What I took most from the comments about Mary was how good she was as a human. I don’t write a lot of nature poems and I never will. But I always strive to be kind, caring and human. I want to make a difference in people’s lives any way I can, particularly in their writing lives. Not for me, for them.

R.I.P. Mary Oliver. May you be looking down from the stars, finding new types of beauty to inspire us to write about.

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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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