Friday, July 5, 2019

Tobi Alfier - Consider what Poetic is

It’s a holiday week. Some people are taking extra time off. You may be using that extra time to write. You may think it’ll be a great idea to write a poem about your Fourth of July party but please consider that it’s difficult to write poems in the first-person, especially if they’re true accounts. 

Many times first-person poems end up sounding like memoirs, or stories. They are not poetic.

Any writing that starts with you in bed, listening to your husband or wife snore is probably going to sound more like a story than a poem.

That doesn’t mean you can’t write it. It means that it’s time for you to explore short fiction or flash fiction.

Any writing where you describe getting in line to eat, and what you ate is probably going to sound like a Neighborhood Watch meeting. Call it a story. Add ants, add all the little kids collecting tadpoles in the creek,
Jimmy drinking too much beer and burning the hamburgers, and too many grownups in the bounce house. Maybe this is where your daughter met your future son-in-law. Maybe you all saw a movie being filmed and some of you got to be extras. It’s a story now, so do whatever you want.

I am 99% a poet. When I start a poem, sometimes it feels wrong with stanzas, so I try it as a prose poem. If the language isn’t very poetic (there are a lot of articles and complete sentences, and it just isn’t pretty), I consider if it works as fiction. If that’s the choice you make, it gives you a lot of opportunities. You can make it longer. You can tell a story. You can include more dialog, and add more characters. It doesn’t have to be true, but it doesn’t have to be poetic.

I have an eleven-hundred word piece of flash fiction in the current issue of Better Than Starbucks. It’s called “The $640 Dinner Date” Even the title isn’t poetic. There was no way this was ever going to be a poem, but I wanted to write it. Flash fiction it is. Did I do all things I’m supposed to do – hang the plot like coat hangers on a clothesline and fully develop the characters? I am embarrassed to say I did not. I just had a story I wanted to tell, and I told it.

Regarding the difference between flash fiction and short fiction, a lot depends on the journal. Some journals say that flash fiction is 500 or 750 words or less. For some journals it depends where they have room. But no matter how many words you write, there will be a place for you if you write it the best way you can. Take a class if you can find one. I took a class at UCLA Extension called “Fiction for Absolute Beginners”. Unfortunately I turned every assignment into a poem. If I had paid more attention, I’d be a better fiction writer today.

Consider this poem:

Applewood Bridge in August

We stand on the bridge
in scarletting twilight,
watch the river.
It moves the way
you say my hair
looks on the pillow
and I have to believe
that is true and beautiful.

I tell you about
my fifth-grade boyfriend
who held my hand
on this very same spot.
Window-pane checked
shirt, bought and buttoned
to the chin by his mother,
chest pocket burgeoning
with skimming stones,
so many years ago.

I still remember his
spit and slicked hair,
that stupid black comb
all the boys carried,
and his sharp elbows.

You are so much more,

yet I describe you so privately.

We write notes to each other
sealed in separate jars,
dropped quietly
into the darkened water.
I write mine with
invisible ink – no one else
to know what I know.

Previously published in Rufous Salon – Lush, Sweden

Are the words poetic? Are the stanzas appropriate? Is this a first-person poem that works? I hope so, they liked it in Sweden.

I’m never going to be a novelist. I’m never going to write short stories. The only place I’m going to learn about plot and character is at craft talks at writer’s workshops. The most important thing is to have choices, and you have choices. If you want to write something in the first-person, and it’s sounding like a column in the local newspaper instead of a poem, short-fiction it!

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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. Love your poem! Now I'm going to read your story. Lately I've been writing poem/story combos. So fun, so free, reminds me of the Oomploompas singing songs in the middle of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory".

    1. Thank you on the poem. It was for an anthology entitled "Lush" I was invited to submit to. I didn't think I had anything, but I didn't have the same definition of "Lush" as they did. They were much broader, and I was very thankful.

      I can't write poem/story combos. I don't write that many stories. I'm envious!!!

  2. Read your story, loved it so much! So happy you wrote it, and hope you write many more because I want to read them!

    1. Thank you so much!! I've probably written less than twenty altogether. I'm very grateful because they've all been published. I keep saying I need to learn to write dialog, but then I have very little in my stories. Still, it's something I want to try. xo

  3. So beautiful. Gosh, you have a way with your Poetic Slices!

    1. Thank you so much. I really appreciate you reading them. xo

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  5. Replies
    1. Hahahahaha can you see me writing a novel??? I would be bored beyond belief. No, you got your 21-page Slices of Alice. I can't see myself writing much longer than that!!! xo


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