Guest Post: Pull That Trigger (and I Don’t Mean Guns) by Tobi Alfier

In the old days (think Centennial by James Michener), I was afraid of nothing and no one. I flew hot air balloons, jumped out of airplanes, was kicked awake by the police while sleeping on a pier in Monte Carlo, and slept on the floor of Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam with my head on my purse to protect my passport. I was writing all the time, but not paying much attention to it. Really, I was living.

As I got older, especially after I had a child, I became more conservative with my safety. I was writing, but still “finding my voice” (as in, my poems were crap). I currently have some that are so old, they were written on my Brother Portable Selectric typewriter. I take them out once in a while and smell the pages. They smell delicious but they don’t get shared with anyone.

In 1996 I was diagnosed with MS. A poet friend of mine described it as “On Monday, you can sing but you can’t lift your arms. On Tuesday, you can lift your arms but you can’t sing.” Do I write about it? Rarely. I don’t want to be known as “the poet with MS.” That title belongs to someone else anyway. I don’t want people “mercy buying” my books, I want them to buy my books because they love my work. Besides, MS is not poetic, I personally don’t think it’s interesting, and I don’t want to give it too much power. It did, however, “gently” prod me to learn a different way to experience life, in order to inspire the words that were rumbling around in my head, so they could come out as poetry.

Did I mention that I rarely write about my daytime job or my divorce either? Also not poetic.

The Regular Obfuscated by Light by Jeffrey C. Alfier

The Regular Obfuscated by Light by Jeffrey C. Alfier

Into my life came Jeffrey C. Alfier. Jeff is a beautiful poet and photographer, and he loves to travel as much as I do. As much as I used to. Whether he’s going to Spain or to Barstow, Jeff always sends me photographs and texts. Not only do we feel that we’re travelling together (and sometimes we are), it often “flips that switch” of poetic promise lying just beneath the surface in my head. A few years ago we were both in Ireland and Jeff lost his phone. We were doing different things during the days and couldn’t stand not being able to talk to each other. Did we both write Ireland chapbooks? Yes. Are they as different as night and day? Yes. Were they both published? Thankfully yes. (The Storm Petrel, Poems of Ireland by Jeffrey C. Alfier, Grayson Books, and The Coincidence of Castles by Tobi Cogswell, Glass Lyre Press).

My point is, I think everybody has something that tries to stand in our way, make us want to give up and be that commercial on TV. God knows there are plenty of days I want to stay in bed and feel sorry for myself. But if you write for the same reason I write—because you can’t not—a way will show itself to you. To start with, everything is fair game. It doesn’t matter if your neighbor’s name is really Fernando, or if he really crashed his truck in a hit and run, who cares? If that’s the poem that wants to be written, write it. Make sure it’s good. Get it published.

That’s what I do with the snippets of inspiration I get from Jeff. Do I write more about bars, cars, trains, waitresses, and rust than I used to? Probably. Do those poems also have humans with lives, loves, tribulations, failures, and successes? That’s the part I add. So they are not ekphrastic poems. They are triggered poems. They are satisfying to write, and I dare you, whether it’s France, Germany, New Orleans, or Route 66, guess if I were there or not. I bet you won’t be able to tell.

The key is we need to find what “triggers” us. I love reading submissions for the San Pedro River Review ( and I love judging the occasional poetry contest. But these are compartmentalized in a way; they don’t make me want to stay up all night and write. A photograph of three nuns crossing a bridge in Sevilla, the wind swirling their habits across their legs? The smell of smoke on Jeff’s mustache when he comes in from watching our chiminea filled with smoldering olive wood? Those are triggers that can’t hold me back.

I have learned my personal tools for success, and the best way to write. For me. I have learned which writing books should never be put away (The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing by Richard Hugo and The Synonym Finder by J.I. Rodale). I have learned which writers inspire me to be brave (Beckian Fritz Goldberg, Dorothy Allison, Nick Flynn, Marie Howe). I have learned which writers have a graciousness of spirit that I want to emulate (Naomi Shihab Nye, William Wright).

Hopefully, thirty-five years later I have found my voice and it’s not crap. I know who I am, how I want to write, and what kind of person in the literary world I want to be. We are about to have an empty nest. Am I going to write “empty nest” poems? Probably not. The interesting part will probably be on the other side of the nest; that won’t be my story to tell. Stories to make up? Whether I’m there in body, looking at a photograph, or reading a text, that’s where you’ll find my poems.


Once the Dues are Paid

He worked in the mill.
Until he didn’t.
Now he works the chair,
inside the door, at the Alamo Bar.
It slouches in all the right spots
for his aching, defeated frame.

Light streaks in through the glass,
crosses his toes, lays a track
on the black and white tile.
A thin strip of sun shines
a stripe on the counter, just where
he reaches to pick up his drinks.

Beer in the morning. Boilermakers
at lunch. Whiskey straight, by evening.
He’s got coins for the jukebox, smiles
for the waitress, creaks and mutters
for everyone else. Booze and small
kindnesses. Till quitting time.

Previously Published in Connecticut River Review


tobi-photoTobi Alfier is a multiple Pushcart nominee and a Best of the Net nominee.  Current chapbooks are “The Coincidence of Castles” from Glass Lyre Press, and “Romance and Rust” from Blue Horse Press. “Down Anstruther Way” is forthcoming from FutureCycle Press. She is co-editor of San Pedro River Review (

Read Tobi’s poetry in Black Fox Issue 14.

12 comments to Guest Post: Pull That Trigger (and I Don’t Mean Guns) by Tobi Alfier

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