Friday, May 3, 2019

Tobi Alfier - Research and Poetry

This week I got to do one of my most favorite things (don’t laugh). Change the calendar. May’s picture is a beautiful butter-yellow and white 1959 Edsel Corsair. I could write this whole post on the joys of butter-yellow, also known ironically as Honeymoon Yellow if you’re buying paint to re-do your kitchen after your husband leaves you (back in 2003)…but I won’t.

Just as I had to do research to find the perfect paint color for the kitchen, sometimes we have to do research when writing poems. But poems are not academic papers. We should trust ourselves to know when to stop.

Have you ever seen a contemporary poet use footnotes? Maybe there’s a page at the end of a book with some explanations. Do you even read it? I will, out of curiosity. Rarely does some miniscule factoid ruin my enjoyment of reading a poem pages earlier.

In my opinion, there are two kinds of research: footnote research, and gimme research.  Gimme research is using the Thesaurus to find a different word for the one you’ve already used twice. It’s using Google to find out how to say closed in Spanish. Poor Jeff, I lose words all the time. He’s my human thesaurus. And you know that word on the tip of your tongue that starts with “D”? It never starts with “D”.
Sometimes you need the name of a bar in Warsaw. Sometimes you need the name of a street in Ohio. That’s what Google’s for. That’s research.

Back in 2005, I wrote a poem that was totally made up. I thought about it this week because I think my grandfather almost bought an Edsel dealership, and he was a Cadillac repairman. But that was my grandfather, not my father, and the whole poem is completely made up.

Cadillac Days

You come to me on our anniversary bearing roses.
I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
I think of all the times I spoke of them,
wonder how you couldn’t possibly remember.
I whispered my secrets while you held me, pouring
out the injustices that caused me to be who I am.

My mother worked for the phone company.
Always in a perfect dress, cinched waist
beneath a wide white belt, nylons and sensible pumps,
a lovely woman.

My father was a Cadillac mechanic.
He would watch my mother in the kitchen, his eyes
upon his favorite parts of her, as he drank his coffee.
His shirt perfectly ironed, name on the left pocket.
My father was a handsome man, with broad shoulders
and thinking man’s hands—sharp-knuckled and grazed
with fine black hairs. He made friends everywhere.
He was not discriminating. He was not considerate.

After nights when his friend was a woman,
he’d walk up our path carrying roses.
I would already be sleeping. I was grateful
my brother slept in my extra bed.
It seemed right to have him there against
the murmurs and sounds of muffled weeping
through the wall. To this day I cannot sleep
a whole night through.

These anniversary roses, what are you telling me? 
I question the innocence of these blooms,
and long for the Cadillac days—before
the thorns of the flowers scored my mother’s skin
until there was nothing left, and my secrets
remained untold and not betrayed.

Previously published in Red River Review, 50th Anniversary Issue

Before I submitted it, I sent it to a poet friend of mine. His response to me is below. The grammar errors and typos are all his.

“Your telling a story set in the early 50's which is a time you lived in, but were not really able to internalize.  To really do it justice, you have to research the time to get some authentic detail.  Early 50's were the Korean war, people trying to readjust to civilian life, the GI bill to go to college, wild constuction of ticky tack homes, cars that looked the same going backward or forward, picture windows, slided bread, refrigerators, round t.v. sets, newspapers delivered to the doorstep, no freeways, really clean air, hope so strong you could cut it with a cheese knife, the true ringing of a democratic country with awesome opportunity for everyone.  It was a time when millions of women stopped working and then wondered what the hell they were going to do with their time.  It was the introduction of clothes driers and the end of the old Maytag wringer, spin dry, hamburgers for 35 cents, a nickle ice cream cone.  Gas was less than 19 cent a gallon.”

I was embarrassed, and I was angry! Maybe this post should be called “how to critique work without taking someone off at the knees”. “To really do it justice, you have to research the time to get some authentic detail”? No. I wasn’t writing about the 50’s, I was writing about a made-up family with a wandering father; the effect that had. I could’ve watched “Mad Men” to know that women wore nylons and wide belts. Yes, that was an interesting time. Yes, I was young, but I wrote the poem in 2005, not 1958!

Honeymoon Yellow,
Benjamin Moore
What’s my point? Well definitely, if you’re writing about horses in Perthshire, make sure there ARE horses in Perthshire. But know when to stop! My friend above was trying to prove to me how smart he was. How much smarter he was than I was. Maybe if I’d read all about those things, it would have inspired another poem or twelve, I don’t know, but it had nothing to do with my poem. If you cram a bunch of facts into a poem, you now have a lecture. It may get accepted, but not in a journal that only publishes poetry.

Will I ever write a poem about the lovely butter-yellow Edsel? I’ve used “butter-yellow” but I’ve only just started submitting it. I’ve used “Honeymoon Yellow” because of course, everything in life is fodder for poems, if you want it to be. Have I used horses in Perthshire? Yes I have. Look up what you need to look up, then stop! Don’t make your readers feel the way my poet friend made me feel. Write beautifully, not smarter.

Springtime in Perthshire

Soft vibrations in a field of grass,
bladed and poppied. The rhythmic

chug of a cargo train crosses
left to right, a distance away.

His shoes come off.
He recalls a sundown journey

in a life too far-off to regather.
Three white horses, patient

and pale as childhood unicorns,
share their field as he lies down.

Popcorn clouds are white, parceled
through the clear and quiet sky.

He closes his eyes, his mind clear
as the breeze washing above him.

A lifetime of mercy summoned
in a few brief minutes.

Spikes of green caress his palms—
laid flat, warming, released.

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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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