Friday, April 12, 2019

Tobi Alfier - Inspire Your “Kids” to Read and Write

Don’t think this is exclusive to parents. You could be a grandparent, teacher, nurse, doctor, librarian…even a barista or waitstaff at a family friendly restaurant. Anywhere you are in a place to ask “oooh, what are you reading?” you are in a position to inspire. Anyone who is younger than you is a “kid”.

Inspiration Example: I spent most of Wednesday in “Health Insurance Hell”. At one point I said to the very nice woman “I can tell you anything you need to know about 401(k) plans, but I know nothing about insurance.” “Yeah, I need to start saving”, she said. That was all I needed to hear. At the end of our conversation, I was no longer crying in frustration, she’d learned something, and I felt like I’d inspired her to start saving for retirement (yes, I am a dork). It wasn’t reading or writing, but I hope it was inspiration.

It works that way with poetry – this IS National Poetry Month after all – and it works that way with fiction, short fiction, memoir, any kind of writing, and reading…JUST because we are focusing on poetry this month doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to keep “kids” excited about anything to do with words! (In my opinion 😍 ).

In April of 2008, Prism Review, published by the University of La Verne, had a “Sleepover Issue”. The submission window was open for 24 hours, and the issue was printed the next day. Jeff and I submitted. My nine-year-old son Owen submitted also. Jeff and I were accepted. Owen was not. We agonized over how to tell him. When we finally did, he threw his clenched hands up in the air in victory, and yelled “NOW I’M A REAL POET!!!!

My poem from The Prism Sleepover Issue (somewhat inspired by the art of Belgian artist Jean - Michel Folon, a favorite artist of mine and also a favorite of my wonderful Aunt Debbie, a gorgeous artist herself):

Surrealist, Mon Amour


A ladybug lands on her collarbone.
He wants to lick it off her,
get some good fortune for himself.
But she unrolls the window, tells
him to gently help the ladybug free.
He picks it up with fingernails—square,
like unopened Valentines, the same way
he makes his bed—precise. 
Her collarbone free, she tells him
to lick it anyway, and she drives straight,
the car honing a razor’s path through desire.
He does not wear scent.  She leans toward
him anyway.  Wants to take a picture of him
in front of the window and kiss his neck.


The label in her shirt says 13 years married.
She tucks it in and pours a glass of wine,
it makes no difference.  Change is heavy.
When she empties it out of her purse
she walks lighter, looks at the cherry blossoms
in the valley of hearts.  Hearts floating like
paintings of melting ice cream between
green and purple hills. Her roll of stamps
also has cherry blossoms but they are for
right-handers.  She awkwardly pays
her debts and otherwise does kind things.
She has left-handed scissors and a left-handed
fish knife.  No one else thinks about this.


They can’t take their eyes off their hands.
They talk about them over and over until
their hands become organic.  They would
name them, but then the beautiful
sea-creatures of them might come alive,
undulating in their exhalations
and changed breaths.  What would be
the explanation—they do not know, and they
take turns raising them to their lips, his finger
innocently yet deliberately stroking
the inside of her wrist, her pulse keeping time
with their unspoken words and unblinking eyes.
Time is interesting.  So is quiet.  So is the sea.

THAT’S inspiration, and what we need to do.  If you teach a group, or are in a group, whether it’s practicing English in an ESL class, or practicing typing…it doesn’t matter. Make a project for yourself (try and get extra credit, what the heck?) Take a group of people, tell them to go outside and write what they see, or write what they hear. When they come back in, show them what makes a line break…it’s not like how you breathe, it’s how you put an important word at the end of a line, and a teeny unimportant article at the beginning…Remember: not everyone watched “Conjunction Junction” on TV…you may need to explain what an article is. Even if you’re not a teacher, and God knows I’m not one, you can explain an article.

Have everyone read their work out loud to themselves all at the same time. It’ll be noisy for a few minutes but so what? MAKE IT FUN!!! Before they know it, they’ll have a poem! It may be horrible but who cares? It’s National Poetry Month and they’ll have a poem!!

Seeing the way people write will give you intel on authors you can suggest to them. Not necessarily poets…authors. And here is where you shouldn’t worry too much about the age of the people you’re talking to and the authors you suggest. My nine-year-old read books from the “Tweens” section all the time. He read all the Harry Potter books, All the Eragon books, The Chronicles of  Narnia, The Boy in theStriped Pajamas (which he’s now reading in German), and so on.

The same works for you!! What do you like to write? Make an effort to read that way too! Are you a narrative poet who likes to write about food? Read “Garlic and Sapphires” by Ruth Reichl. Read Jim Harrison’s “Roving Gourmand” books. Read (and submit to) anthologies and journals focusing on food.

Like magical stories? Read “Crescent” by Diana Abu-Jaber. Southern works? Poets Jack Bedell, Dixon Hearne, William Wright, Tyree Daye. Fiction writers up one side and down the other. And on and on. There are a ton of gorgeous books and authors who write in and about Northeast Canada! Annie Proulx, Howard Norman, poet Ross Leckie, The Fiddlehead, a journal based in New Brunswick…”Our editors are always happy to see new unsolicited works in fiction, including excerpts from novels, creative nonfiction, and poetry.”

Fiction writers, memoirists, and poets! Read them all and be inspired by them all. Before you know it, you’ll have written a poem with some sadly beautiful woman sitting at a copper bar, tapping her nails on the counter as she waits for a Kir Royale, and you’ll realize the drink was inspired by a book by Georges Simenon!

Now let’s just say you do work in a restaurant, and you see someone sitting alone at a table reading a book. What harm does it do to ask them “oooh, what are you reading?” Is it the worst thing to have them feel like they are not eating alone? (Note: If it’s “The Story of O”, or any book that raises the hair on the back of your neck, have someone walk you to your car when your shift is over).

You can’t have writing without reading. Why don’t you bring someone along with you on your journey? Kids, adults, book club members, writing group members…help match them up with what might resonate with them. They will remember you forever. They will read forever, and hopefully, they will write forever.

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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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