Friday, February 14, 2020

Tobi Alfier - This Isn’t a Poem, it’s a Story!

Welcome! For those of you new to this blog, this is a continuation of last week’s post. “This isn’t a poem, it’s a story” is something I say often to my husband when reading submissions for our journal (San Pedro River Review).

This is a subject I struggle with myself. I describe the majority of my poetry as “Plain Speech Narrative Poetry of Place”.

“Plain Speech” – you’re sitting outside in the beautiful weather with a friend, just drinking sweet tea, maybe with a touch of rum in it, rocking on the porch swing and chatting.

“Narrative” – a description of events.

“Place” – anywhere from the A & P, to Timbuktu.

How the hell can you determine the difference between a poem and a story? In my opinion, you can’t take a story, slice it up into lines and stanzas, and call it a poem. But you can take elements from a story and write poems. And hallelujah, if you’re a submitting writer, you now have two pieces and types of writing (or more) to submit.

Consider the following 579-word story published by Revolution John 

In another time, another life, before even the roosters were up, he was usually at the café in the butcher’s district, a glass of coffee in one hand, churro in the other, and a song on his lips. But today, as the sky begins to pinken, he takes a swig of grappa and goes to the river, to say good morning and pay his respects to his departed wife. She left such a short time ago the sheets and pillow still hold her shadow, and the cupboard still holds her scent on the clothes he can’t bear to give away. He misses her deeply. He will miss her every day.

People greet him as he walks, a chorus of “hello”, “good morning”, “ciao” and “buongiorno”. Most don’t even know his name. They call him Grandpa Salerno because a long time ago he came from Salerno. He isn’t sure they would call him Antoni even if he asked, but he doesn’t mind.

He makes it to the park by the river with his coffee, black, and his egg sandwich, well done, watches the sky and city come to life. He watches Matteo, his friend and fellow émigré, who waves to him from across the river with his coffee, cream and sugar, and egg sandwich, runny. They both came to this city full of promises and dreams. They both ended up happy for a long time, family and years crinkling their eyes with laughter and now, sadness also.

Antoni loves the chill, even as thoughts of his beloved in the lightening sky warm his shoulders the way she rubbed them warm after a hard day at work. He loves the smells, he loves the people. He loves this adopted city, and wouldn’t trade it for the world.

Today is planting day. Under Antoni’s watchful eyes, three of his four sons, the fourth far away in Trenton, New Jersey, were coming to plant his garden. For the raised bed already built there were lettuces and peas, carrots and herbs. Rolls of copper tape would line the wood to keep out snails. The rest of the small garden would be protected from animals by posts, wire and a gate, to be built by the sons. There they would plant corn and broccoli. Trellises for cucumbers would line one side, tomato cages the opposite. Plants, fertilizer, shovels and bags of cork for lining a path were all delivered yesterday. They all knew to bring their own gloves.

Also delivered were four bushes—roses created in 1952. Antoni and his wife Rose married in 1952. He ordered four to represent each son. This will be a garden of the heart as well as the body, and after he works his sons to back-breaking exhaustion they will feast on wine and tapas, congratulating each other and deciding who will come each Saturday to visit their father and weed.

It was a long day followed by a late lunch, the sons returning home to their wives, their gardens. Antoni, in an old chair dragged from the kitchen, toasted the last bit of color from the sky with one last glass of wine, whispered to his Rose in a mix of Italian, Spanish and English. And then, walking a little stooped from age and the surprise of being alone, he retired, an early night by anyone’s standards, to dream the plants growing and to get ready for the sunrise tomorrow.

Is there any way this story can be split up and made into a poem? No. It would look bad, be way too long for most journals to publish, and the language is not poetic enough to be a poem.

But there are poetic elements in this story that can be written as poems, and I wrote many of them:

  1. Multiple poems about Sevilla, a city I love,

  1. Multiple poems about my Italian father-in-law whose name wasn’t Antoni, but whose name began with an “A”,

  1. A poem where Dad A sat in a chair and directed his sons who were planting his garden. He worked them to the bone that day,

  1. Several elegies about my former mother-in-law, whose name also began with “A”. In my story her name is “Rose” because she had a “Rose of Sharon” planted in their backyard to honor a dear departed friend. She was so happy and proud when she told me the story,

  1. One of the Landlady poems in “A Slice of Alice” is a gardener,

  1. When Jeff was in Sevilla, he went to a fisherman’s café early in the morning, where the fisherman drank their coffee from glasses and sang songs,

  1. Our house was built in 1952. The rosebush out front is a type that was created in 1952 to honor our house.

And so on.

Does a story have to be true? Absolutely not. Do the poems have to be true? Absolutely not. For me, I like putting tidbits of truth in my fiction and writing poems about them later. I also like taking bits of previously written poems and adding them to my fiction.

Bottom line, in my opinion, poetry is poetry, and fiction is fiction. They are not the same, but they’re not mutually exclusive.  AND it’s another writing skill to develop—there’s NOTHING wrong with that!!!

I hear the desert weather is back—hot during the day, and cold at night. Sunrises and sunsets are times when the two mingle, but they are not the same. Think of your writing the same way: daytime poems and nighttime fiction. Have a good week. 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.


  1. Sunrises and sunsets ... love it. This is really helpful. Thanks, Tobi! Enjoy your desert weather. It's freezing here! xxoo Shelly

    1. I'm always freezing, I think that's why a lot of my poems are about winter!!! Glad you liked the post. Stay warm!! xoxo


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