Saturday, February 29, 2020

Tobi Alfier - Down the Rabbit Hole

You know how I always say to have your writing read by a trusted reader? And also sleep on it and see if you still respect it in the morning? You know how everyone in the world says “do as I say, not as I do?”

This past week I wrote a poem that I really liked. I sent it to my trusted reader (Jeff). Other than a couple punctuation/line break things, I got the thumbs up. Thank goodness I didn’t start submitting it right away as I sometimes do.

The first stanza of the poem was:

“A passenger arrives one Saturday from a dirty, broken town.
Her head leans against the window of the finally stopped
train; she opens her eyes to brilliant sun,
prepares to disembark.”

I went to sleep. I’m lucky because I can obsess about my writing twice a day —during my afternoon naps, and during my middle-of-the-night insomnia. Yes, I’m so lucky.

I couldn’t stop thinking about the poem. I’m all for negative capability—inviting the reader into a poem to draw their own conclusions—but in the first line? That’s not fair to the poem, and it’s not fair to the reader. So I began to obsess: Why was the town she left broken and dirty, what made the new town any better, and how could I re-write the poem to explain more without telling everything?

I got ridiculously creative. One of the good things about obsessing when you’re not near your computer, is you can go from one extreme to the other, before settling on a place that works in the middle. I ended up with:

A passenger arrives one Saturday from a broken town
with no chances. Her head leans against the window
of the finally stopped train; she opens her eyes
to brilliant sun, prepares to disembark.

“a broken town with no chances”. That still has enough breathing room for the reader to think about what those chances are. I took out “dirty” so the line length would be better. It wasn’t important to the poem anyway (we’ll discuss concision at a later date).

God willing, at some point this poem will be accepted, and once it’s published I will post the whole thing here. I don’t mind if you cross your fingers for me.

Down the Rabbit Hole, aka the Tipping Point

Years ago I learned about this in a workshop with Nick Flynn and it’s amazingly true. All poems have places in them that are like forks in the road. You choose one direction and write your poem. If you had chosen another direction, the poem would have been completely different. This is true whether you pretend to be looking left or right, or at a whole traffic circle of directions!

Take the stanza of the poem above. Instead of saying “with no chances”, what if I had said “with no farmers”? The poem could have been a nostalgic piece about family. About getting up before dawn to light the stove and fill a thermos of coffee for the dad, who was about to spend a back-breaking day out in the fields. Maybe not the dad. Maybe the brother, who had to forfeit a sports scholarship to work the farm when the dad came back from a war too broken to climb onto the tractor.

What if I had said “with no music”? Barring a reprise of “Footloose”, why on earth would a town have no music, and why would that be important to the character?

Tipping Point does not mean Tip-Toe:

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There are lots of poems and lots of books about pain, about recoveries, about sexuality and other personal and sometimes difficult issues. I’m not suggesting you tip-toe around those subjects; some of the writing is exquisite and necessary. I’m suggesting that when writing these sometimes difficult pieces, you take the time to find a tipping point, and determine if going in a different direction will say what you want to say in a better way for you, for the work, for the reader. There are tipping points in all writing; they may be easier to see in the “tough” work.

Jeff is currently reading “Sacrament of Bodies” by Nigerian poet Romeo Oriogun, published by University of Nebraska Press. He sent me some of the writing from it Friday. To quote Jeff it is “A powerful and emotionally deep witness to the salience of the body and its desires as it overcomes the strictures of cultural custom and religion.” I’m not as articulate as Jeff, but I agree.

Two excerpts Jeff sent me were:

“Say cities where the only freedom
for a man who loves another man is to leave.
I tell you this so you understand my silence,
understand why I crawled into my voice.”


“I only have the lullaby to remind me that my father once held my hand and called me beautiful.”

I don’t know this poet. I don’t know if he made an initial choice to write his poems as is, or if he came to a crossroads, and made a choice. These are examples of using exquisite language to convey something that could have been more graphic if he’d wanted, but in my opinion, they would have been less poetic and probably not as powerful. For me as the reader, my heart is stunned for him, and what his life must’ve been like. This is negative capability—I was invited in, and I drew my own conclusions about his upbringing. I think that is our job as writers, to invite our readers in.

Taking a turn-off at the Tipping Point allows you, and the reader, to use their imagination. Think about the possibilities your writing can have—and no matter what anyone else thinks, what you finally decide to write will be the best thing that you want to write. This is NOT the same as a journal editor giving you suggestions, Rich gives me suggestions all the time. Jeff, who is my trusted reader, gives me suggestions all the time. This is about what you present being the absolute right direction for you and your writing.

God bless. Feel good. Write well xo

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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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