Saturday, February 2, 2019

Tobi Alfier - Dog in a Red Sweater

Dog in a Red Sweater…Living a Pantoum

I used to work with a man who was brilliant. He wasn’t disorganized, but his attention was easily pulled away from what he was doing. You could be having a discussion with him; he would look out the window while you were mid-sentence and say “Look!!! A dog in a red sweater!!”

That is like living a Pantoum, a form where you often don’t know where your poem is going to end up, no matter where you start.

Example: You go into to the kitchen to put away the dishes. While doing that, you notice a few dishes in the sink to wash. Standing at the kitchen sink, you look out the window and notice the rosemary bushes are starting to grow over the window edge, and tender rosemary blossoms are delicious in your salad. So you go outside to trim the rosemary bushes. While coming back in the house, dang, when was the last time the window box in front was watered? So you water the window box, and come back into the house with fresh rosemary.

You started out putting away dishes, and ended up with rosemary for your salad. That is like living a Pantoum. Just like Thursday morning. I started writing this post—unexpected thunder and lightning was my dog in a red sweater. I had to stop writing and go watch.
If your attention is easily waylaid, it might be hard to focus on writing. In the book Ron Carlson Writes a Story, he says “The most important thing a writer can do after completing a sentence is to stay in the room”. He goes on to say “The great temptation is to leave the room to celebrate the completion of the sentence, or to go out in the den where the television lies like a dormant monster and rest up for a few days for the next sentence, or to go wander the seductive possibilities of the kitchen”.

Ron is talking about fiction writers, but the same applies to poets. You’ve written the first line, or the first stanza. Maybe just a great title. You have to stay in the room. My husband Jeff and I agree that no matter what we’re doing, our kids always come first. I do think that applies to writing, but that may be the only interruption allowed. As Ron says, “Now would be a great time for a cup of coffee. I might be able to do some better thinking out in the kitchen with Mr. Coffee and Mr. Refrigerator, and oh, there in the other room is Mr. Television, and there’s Mr. Bed. And others. No, we won’t go there."

So let’s write a Pantoum. It may be the only form I’ve ever written besides free verse and prose, although I recognize others. I have to look up the instructions every time I write one. In other words, a Pantoum is a deliberate act for me. The instructions are in the hyperlinks above. Use the one that works best for you.  

Somewhere Between Doubt and Hunger

A priest cleans his nails with a pocketknife,
rubs his thumb over its scrimshaw mermaid.
There’s a blonde outside he hopes catches his eye
like most of his prayers, this one is wasted.

He rubs his thumb over the scrimshaw mermaid
an old man, he tilts his head as he listens.
Like most of his prayers, this one is wasted
more shaky than dreams, his bones are tired.

An old man, he tilts his head as he listens
to traffic and rain on the northbound freeway
more shaky than dreams, his bones are tired
face gaining in years but the eyes are the same.

Traffic and rain on the northbound freeway
“come in” she says, “sit anywhere you want”.
Face gaining in years but the eyes are the same
as the wonder-haired boy’s many lifetimes ago.

“Come in” she says, “sit where you want”
she misnames him “Dave” like somebody’s ghost
the wonder-haired boy from lifetimes ago
pulls at his collar and acknowledges hunger.

She misnames him “Dave” like somebody’s ghost
her pale hand stirring a whirlpool of stillness
he pulls at his collar, acknowledges hunger
settles into eggs with ham and burnt toast.

Her pale hand stirring a whirlpool of stillness
the bar-closers come, let the perfect stay home.
He settles into eggs with ham and burnt toast
with grace and sly glances, he leaves them all be.

The bar-closers come, let the perfect stay home
there’s a blonde outside he hopes catches his eye
with grace and sly glances he leaves them all be
he, the priest, cleans his nails with a knife.

Previously published in Bellowing Ark

The poem goes all over the place. I had no idea where it was going to go when I wrote the first stanza.

Important Notes on Pantoums in my opinion:

  1. They can be as many stanzas as you want
  2. The repeating lines do not have to rhyme. Mine rarely do
  3. The repeating lines can change a little. They don’t have to be exact (see the first line and the last line of the poem above as an example)
  4. Don’t panic reading the instructions. Go slow. They make sense.
  5. Dogs do not wear red sweaters. Get your coffee, trim your rosemary, put away your dishes, sit down and write!!

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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. Great post! This is very useful for me and gain more information, Thanks for sharing with us.

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  2. Thank you Vicky. I'm glad it was useful to you. If you haven't written a Pantoum before, I hope you try one now! Good luck, and thank you so much.


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