Friday, March 22, 2019

Tobi Alfier - Why We Write

You’ve heard me say a million times that I write because I can’t not. And maybe you’ve heard the story I’ll tell in a second. But I also write, not to be clever, not to be funny (I’m not funny), not to be political, and not to make a living selling books. I write because if I can touch just one person, and make them feel not alone, forty years of writing poetry will be worth it. Why do you write? Have you ever thought about it?

I do believe that writers have an ability to articulate things in ways that non-writers sometimes can’t. That doesn’t make us special. That makes us lucky. One night at a Writer’s Conference I said something about the moon. My fiction writer friend said “only a poet would say that”.  Fourteen-ish years ago, I spoke at a memorial. I was told “you spoke like a poet”. I think that was good, despite the circumstances.

All kinds of writers do this, not just poets. Every day my poetry AND fiction-loving  husband reads me lines of fiction that are breathtaking. When I used to feature, I often started with a few paragraphs from “Another Bullshit Night in Suck City” by Nick Flynn. It’s a memoir but some of the prose were gorgeous. I was proud to read from it to start off my features.

Okay, the story: Years ago (everything was years ago, I’m a damned dinosaur, I swear) I took a class at LMU from Brendan Constantine. To me, Brendan is like a rock star of poetry, but much kinder and more generous than how rock stars are usually portrayed. For one of our assignments, he handed every single person in the class a wrapped box, and told us to write about mystery. He said after the first page we could unwrap the box and write page two. I never unwrapped it. I read my poem one night at a feature that Brendan attended, then I handed it in.  Thankfully it was an extension class so it wasn’t graded.

Life’s Mysteries


You can sing, and you do, but you can’t raise your arms.


You can raise your arms
tall, glorious stretches,
but you can’t sing.


You have no balance.


You wear heels all day and put on taller heels that night,
remember what it was like
to punch holes with your stilletos in the roof
of Jimmy’s car after the dance,
after a little sloe gin,
before your curfew.


You can’t swallow.


You can’t taste
but you can swallow.


Words fly away.
You know they’ll come back,
you just have to be patient.


Did someone sit on your glasses?
Did someone turn up the sun?


If you close your eyes at the red light,
you’ll fall asleep.  But you have to pee.
You know where every ladies room
is in the two miles between work and home
in case you can’t make it.


“9’s don’t want to type.
You write poems with    strange extra spaces,
You leave the spaces i n.


You can feel your fingertips
so you change your earrings.
The backs on the moonstones
are too awkward but the diamonds
go on nicely.


You can still feel your fingertips
so you change your necklace.


And on,


and on and on…

After the reading was over, a young woman came up to me with a couple of her friends. She said “I’m sick”. I said “I am too”. She said “I never talk about it”. I said “I don’t either”.

Did they buy my books? I have no idea. Did I give them some books? I don’t know. But I will never forget that humbling, heart-full experience. Never.

I still write the way I write, edit like hell, submit to every journal in the world, make books, try and sell books, ask people to put reviews on Amazon, then do it all over again. Just like you.

I could say I write because my mom hand-beaded my Barbie wedding dresses and I could NOT sew. The one “dress” I made in Home Ec had the armholes sewn directly over the boobs (the following semester I was the first girl allowed to take drafting).

I could say I write because my mom used to pick me up from junior high on her motorcycle, and the only time I rode a dirt bike I got stuck in hot asphalt in the middle of nowhere.

But that’s just because my mom is a wonder-woman and I was a typical nerdy insecure girl.

I write because I have to, and because of that one quiet young woman at a reading years ago, who resonated with a poem I wrote, that gave her a voice and made her feel she was not alone. I know I already said that, but for that I am so thankful.

And mom? Happy birthday (March 23rd), wonder-woman. For years you said I should publish “Slices of Alice” and I’m so glad I did. I love 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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