Saturday, May 9, 2020

Tobi Alfier - Subject and Form (Not Mutually Exclusive)


A few weeks ago, someone posed a question in a group on Facebook. She said she’d been writing a lot of ghazals lately, and wanted to know if there were any journals that published ghazals.

Read the guidelines! There are times when your writing may be limited—I’ve seen journals that don’t take Haiku, and some don’t take poetry at all, but every journal is different. If a journal doesn’t specifically exclude ghazals, and some of yours seem like a good match with their aesthetic, submit them.  There’s no law that says they can only be published “in their place”.

(editor butting-in-time - I can hear readers saying it already - "Cholla Needles has no guidelines to speak of". That's very true - because I've been editing since 1972, and have learned that the most creative writers who are saying the most exciting poetry have their own guidelines. Editors who post lists of guidelines are looking for cookie-cutter poets. At Cholla Needles we are looking for poets who are speaking for the ages, not to a guideline. Just don't expect "journals" to be like Cholla Needles & you'll be fine. Nuf on that).

One time an editor made a suggestion that I delete the last stanza of a particular poem of a submission I’d made. I wrote back and said that it was a pantoum, but if the poem was stronger without the last stanza, that was fine with me. It wouldn’t be a pantoum anymore, but it would be a better poem. The editor wrote back “oh, it’s a pantoum? I didn’t catch that” (I hadn’t indicated the form in the title as I often don’t), “let me read it some more”. He got back to me and decided to keep the pantoum as written.


Rolling easy down unsure roads, we see
first signs of spring through patches in weathered
and worn asphalt.  Blades of green force up
between sealed cracks that look like ancient faces.

First signs of spring through weathered cracks—
a universe of jigsaw pieces, black, gray, shiny, old,
new. Between fissures that look like ancient faces
shoots of green sneak up, tentatively aimed toward sun.

Over a universe of monochrome jigsaw pieces,
we drive casually, regard the seedling’s resolve to grow.
Shoots of green sneak up, tentatively aimed toward sun,
small blooms ignore the mountain snow, begin slowly to bud.

Driving idly, we photograph the resolve of spring,
watch the trains that are constant as they travel their own seasons
while small blooms ignore the high altitude blinding snow
and march upward, with purpose, sprig by sprig.

The trains as constant as earth and time
we say one day we will take that ride,
while someday marches upward, sprig by sprig,
we check the clock, change the station, turn toward home.

Someday we will take that ride, watch
the first signs of spring through a sleeping car window.
We change the station, then turn toward home,
our easy roll back over now-sure roads.

(previously published in That Literary Review #2)

I don’t know many forms but I usually recognize when a poem is written in one. It’s helpful when reading submissions because I know the repetition or rhyme is supposed to be there. Putting the form in the title is often done, but it’s not required. My only advice as an editor is if you put the form in the title, make sure it’s correct.

Themes i.e., Subjects:

A lot of anthologies are being published now, especially with the pandemic, and a lot of journals have themed issues. Sometimes the themes are quite broad, no matter how narrow they sound.

Example: I just submitted a piece to an anthology called “The Tyranny of Bacon”, published by Pure Slush in Australia. Part of their guidelines said:
“tell us how bacon is part of people’s lives, or what life might be like without it … or anything about bacon!”
(How can you write a story or poem and include bacon somewhere?)
PLEASE NOTE: We don’t want endless diatribes about the good (and bad) qualities of bacon!
I think the note at the bottom sums up themes and subjects quite clearly. No endless diatribes!  

Most anthologies are 100% on theme, but many “themed” journals are not. When looking at a journal, if the guidelines don’t specify, email the “contact us” tab on the website to ask. If a journal has some odd theme, and you have nothing to submit for it, checking to see if they’ll take other submissions is well worth it. The last thing you want to do is crank out crummy work on a dumb theme that will probably be rejected anyway.

Take pride in your submissions—that’s not the same thing as having an ego the size of Rhode Island, it’s putting your name on something you’ll be proud of years from now. It’s not expecting your work to be rejected, and if it is, it’s giving you work you can submit somewhere else.

Anthologies about the pandemic and virus:

There are a lot of them out there. It’s a horrific prompt, but may be the only thing that gets you writing. Just like the bacon anthology, don’t use the theme to write a diatribe. This will be a test of your skills as a writer. Whether you write poetry or fiction, craft the story behind something to do with the pandemic.

Example: the couple who scrimped and budgeted for two years to have a beautiful wedding, now being married in their front yard by a minister wearing a mask, all their friends driving by and honking, the food being donated to a homeless shelter.

Is that on the theme? I think it is. I wrote two poems in the last couple weeks. One was inspired by a show we’re watching on Amazon. The other was inspired by something a Facebook friend said. When I look back at those poems, both of them would meet the requirements of an anthology or journal theme of the pandemic. I had no idea.

The point is: use your skills as a writer and a storyteller to meet any theme. Editors and readers want to be surprised. They don’t want to read the front page in stanzas. Even if the theme is the pandemic, your work doesn’t have to be political, but if your intent is to write a political poem, do it well.

If you want to write about the woman who makes masks that look like jungle animals for all her neighbors? Do it. Just do it well.

As for form? Free verse or any of the other many forms available, the same thing applies. If you use it, write it well. And read the guidelines to make sure the journal or anthology you’re targeting does not explicitly exclude that form.

In closing, if I were to write a book today, it would be called “Drive-By Mother’s Day”. No one would buy it though because we’re all in the same boat. Have a good week. Write well, whatever the form, whatever the subject. Be safe. God bless.  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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