The Interview with Jeffrey Alfier

TA: What sorts of things do you underline in a book?

 

JA: Striking passages that make great use of figurative language, especially lines that knock me out of my chair. I’ll often go back and just read those lines, not the entire poem unless I’ve annotated that the whole poem is excellent or outstanding.

 

TA: Can you think of a recent example of something that hasn’t left your head?

 

JA: Lines from Richard Hugo’s opening stanza in “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg” always stay with me: “. . . the last good kiss you had was years ago . . . the jail turned 70 this year, it’s only prisoner always in, not knowing what he’s done . . . isn’t this your life, that ancient kiss still burning out your eyes? . . .” But over the last several months there are also the stark and haunting lines of Frank Stanford, and the early work of CD Wright, that stay with me.

 

TA: Do you try to incorporate any of this into your own writing?

 

JA: Influences are subtle, though I often ask myself what it is about a poem that makes it stand out so much for me. I find that I unconsciously pick up the rhythms and syntactical arrangements of poems that stay with me. As I mentioned, my poetry turned the corner in late 2003 after five years of writing poetry that was mediocre at best. That’s because poets like Walt McDonald, Jane Kenyon, Richard Hugo, and Philip Levine began to show me, in subtle ways through their poems, what actually constituted good writing.

 

TA: Early on, one of the distinctive features of your poetry was its decasyllabic form. Nowadays, you seem to write poems in many kinds of free verse. Can you think about what might have led to that broadening of style?

 

JA: Yes, I got away from the decasyllabic line because it begged for the inclusion of unnecessary words, just to lengthen the line to ten syllables. Things like articles and adjectives — totally superfluous words.

TA: Is form necessarily linked to content for you?

 

JA: No, I’d say not at all. Or not anymore. Having said that, I do look for a kind of rhythm in my lines, and for me that means using words with few syllables. I have my radar out for any word over four syllables, though that’s not necessarily a rule I purposely stick to, per se.

 

TA: Have there been times where you’ve deliberately tried different forms in your writing?

 

JA: I’ve only tried different numbers of syllables, such as octosyllabic lines. But that process never stayed with me as I abandoned syllabics in favor of simply writing the best lines I can, employing a sense of concision, an economy of language to produce a finely wrought line.

TA: Early last November you mentioned on Facebook that you keep notebooks with you for observations, poem triggers, and chronicling events in your life. The contents often become poems. Walk me through your process of distilling poetry from the rest of the writing.

How has this process evolved?

 

JA: I write the lines in my notebook but when I transfer them to a computer they are often edited for length or style. They start off as lines looking for a context down the road, so when I transcribe them to word processing they will often change. For example, I change them to the active voice as opposed to the passive. Some I disregard altogether; they just look hokey upon second glance.

TA: Have you always kept notebooks?

 

JA: Yes, since my early days of writing.

TA: Is this the only way that you write, or do you also have lines that you jump out of bed to write down?

 

JA: Oh yes, such sporadic, eclectic lines often come unannounced and beg to be recorded. I once wrote a line of poetry in pencil on my bedroom floor in the dark one night. Usually I have my notebook at hand, but I’ve also used bar napkins, scraps of torn junk mail, etc.

TA: When do you decide to write about something in your notebook vs. photograph it?

 

JA: I always go for the photograph first because moments are so often fleeting, especially when I photograph people — something I usually do on the sly with my phone. So the lines come later after I’ve had time to view the photos in private, and have spent time thinking about the scene or person I photographed.

 

TA: As one of the co-editors of San Pedro River Review (SPRR) for ten plus years, you must’ve read some of the best and not the best poetry out there. What have you learned about the journal building process?

 

JA: Well, this would really take a while to reply to. Some of it is mechanical, such as word processing and graphics lessons, transcribing the poems into our templates and such, while other lessons, the important ones, relate to quality: accept only the best, compliment those whose work almost made it, and be tactful and respectful of those whose work falls short. Another thing we’ve learned over the years is how important it is to be organized, and how important it is to have very clear guidelines, and broad descriptions of any themes.

TA: How are things different now than they were in issue one?

JA: We’ve upgraded publishing programs, honed our guidelines, and now advertise in things like Duotrope and Poets & Writers.

TA: Can you talk about a time when you and your lovely co-editor (me) have disagreed about taking a poem and how it was resolved? Has this given you a bit of perspective when your poems get rejected?

JA: I don’t like to pull the senior editor card and override you, but I find that I rarely need to do that. Our aesthetic tastes are almost always in sync. And yes, it gives me a definite sense of perspective when I get rejected, because I know the challenges editors face sorting hundreds of submissions during a submission period. That’s why I don’t get angry anymore when I get a quick rejection.

Yermo. Shuttered Bar. © Jeff Alfier

Girl with Accordion, Warsaw, Poland.

© Jeff Alfier

by Tobi Alfier

TA: Is there anything else you’d like to talk about?

JA: I think it would be good to speak on what my poems are about, what my triggers are. In sum, as poets we take emotional possession of regions where we are foreigners, attempting poetic realization through an invented relation with the landscape, one that proves a simple and direct validation of our relationship to the world (Richard Hugo). We may even write as an insider — a resident of a foreign place — through a personal investment that leads to poems of depth, where external and internal realities become closely knit — one flowing into the other. Images becoming metaphors, altered, clarified, deepened, as I read in a commentary on the poetry of Georg Trakl. That is, for a brief time — for the life of the poems — we internalize a region. They are in some respects extensions of ways you have of feeling about regions and the people that inhabit them.

 

James Wright, as quoted in Jonathan Blunk’s biography, believed that “A poem can begin anywhere as long as the poet is willing to approach that location with the appropriate reverence. Even ugly places.” And again, Wright felt one may touch a place with imagination just as he or she would with their physical hands. Most speakers in my poems are what someone once characterized as haggards of pastoral loneliness — bluesy, isolated and marginalized figures who deal with a wide range of losses, unmoored souls, negotiating flawed lives in a flawed world. The someone who, as in Isabella Pedicini’s comments on the subjects of the late photographer Francesca Woodman — is “losing himself on the city street — a habit of the Surrealists, who hoped to stumble into chance, objective encounters.”

 

BTS: Thank you, Tobi and Jeff.

Tobi Alfier is a multiple Pushcart and Best of the Net nominee. Slices of Alice & Other Character Studies was published by Cholla Needles Press. Symmetry: earth and sky is forthcoming from Main Street Rag. She is co-editor of San Pedro River Review (www.bluehorsepress.com).

Shuttered Textile Factory. Hillsborough, North Carolina.

© Jeff Alfier

I want my photographs to condense experience into small images that contain all the mystery of fear or whatever it is that’s latent in the eyes of the viewer, and bring it out as though it were her own experience.

  • Francesca Woodman 

Photography is also an act of love.

  •  Hervé Guibert, Ghost Image

A photograph is a writing of the light.

  • Photo Graphein

 

In my photographic wanderings I find similitude in what Larry Levis said in The Gazer Within about landscapes and poetry. What he wrote concerning them is intensively visual: as with the poet, the photographer of solitary, silenced, abandoned, wayworn and defeated places finds that “an intimacy occurs, surely and obliquely,” a connection with “human fertility within time,” whereby “some delicate linkage is preserved between past and present.” The flaw is the art, the beautifully marginal — what is changed at the brink of dissolution, ruin, illegibility. [i] “The eye searches after deviation.” [ii] As with art, “you unsettle the viewer, by making a not-rightness.” [iii] And I believe good photography, like art, often involves negative depths, the boundaries of the legible, components that recede into darker spaces of the field of vision, the dimly lit things on the periphery. [iv]

 

Like Saul Leiter’s street scenes and nudes, I love, with imperfections and unguarded moments, his belief that the real world has more to do with what is hidden than what is open. My eye is always out for artistic potential; that is, an aestheticizing of the scene or object takes place.[v] We are struck deeply by what they evoke through their compositional qualities, often touching “our deeply rooted impulse to figuration and analogy”, where allegories can give shape to life. [vi] We love the seductive act of hunting an image, even one transformed into a grainy image that enhances the atmosphere of the scene.

 

Temporal and spatial distancing are both important to me. As Proust wrote, imagination bears upon absent, distant places.[vii] Windows and doors fascinate me as they endure the warp and woof of time. Delhi photographer Nipun Prabhakar said that doors “define borders, but they also mystify them, in the sense that one ultimately sees an opened door: a way in for some, a way out for others, and a comfort zone of liminality, and all the in-between for most of us.” [viii] Sometimes I’ll revisit places and the scenes I’d photographed, only to find that the elements of the scene – a crumbling building, a rusted-out truck – are no longer there. The photos I’d taken have become memorials. As Teju Cole states, “Such a photograph is shadowed by its ancestor.” [ix] With respect to landscapes, what counts is my response to them, not their replication. And in scenes not completely abandoned, I find veridical what Philip Roth said of Kafka’s fiction, that it refutes the easy humanist dream of salvation with densely imagined counterdreams that mock escape. That is, through the momentary scrutiny of the camera, the universal resonates with the viewer, for “insofar as it was a moment, merely, or perception, it was everyone’s moment.” [x] Perceptions overlap, meld; so much of the visual is transience loaded with subtexts so often articulated by the scenes of existential melancholy that I find in my wanderings. Thus meanings, for the viewer, often come well after absorbing the images, as photography serves as a cultural metaphor.

 

Lighting, like camera positioning, is an intrinsic factor throughout — it’s placement and intensity. Sometimes it illuminates an entire scene or person, at other times just a segment, emphasizing certain features within the photo. Some scenes and people are not worth photographing unless they’re captured in a particular illumination, whether from the sun or artificial light. It’s not that scenes and people are unimportant without lighting, but that light, particularly when it’s angled or affected by shadowing resulting from time of day, or the angle of artificial light — such as a lamp, makes the person or scene go from common to extraordinary in the mind of the photographer. In speaking of her nude photography, Ruth Bernard, author of Eternal Body, says light is her paint and brush, that it’s “Profoundly significant, it caresses the essential superlative curves and lines.” Sometimes other factors affect lighting, such as sky conditions and fog. Think of how someone walking under a streetlight in heavy fog at night is much more interesting than if they were walking under the unlit streetlight at noon on a sunny and cloudless day. In Scotland and Ireland, I’ve shot the same scenes from the same position just minutes apart, because sky conditions can play with sunlight and shadow within a short time span.  Related to light is time of year, the seasons. Is that decaying barn silo more interesting to me in a field of flourishing wildflowers and greenery than in winter with its stark lack of colors? It’s often the case that the scene is interesting during both times of year, perhaps the summer scene more interesting color, the winter more interesting in black & white.

 

In my photographs of the solitary individual, I seek faces turned aside, or away in pensiveness, sorrow, or some deep or shallow thought, perhaps some fugitive or ambivalent look in their eyes that draws the reader in — an ambivalent physiognomy known in poetry as negative capability, where uncertainty, obscurity, or doubt is inscribed without any desperate reaching for resolutions derived from reasoning processes; clarifying moments but not necessarily logical outcomes. That is, the individual is not isolated, but solitary — what they become, how they exist by themselves in the captured moment. I like what Sven Birkirts cites “. . . what is caught in the arrested moment…some way brushes up against some larger abstraction”, “the instant’s intersection of the thing and the deeper recognition that it activates.” [xi] Faces, even still ones may create emotions giving more meaning to the image. Capturing the solitary figure in the fleeting moment should be “faithful to the memory of my emotion” when I take the photo. [xii] As Proust wrote, imagination bears upon absent, distant places, and I find these places often pervade the solitary individual in situ. That is, so much of the visual is transience loaded with subtexts.

 

          Jeff Alfier

[i]      See Claire Raymond, Francesca Woodman’s Dark Gaze:

         The Diazotypes and Other Late Works 

          (New York and Oxon, UK, 2016), p. 17.

[ii]      See Sven Birkerts, Speak, Issue 4 Winter 2019, 18.

[iii]     See Olivia Laing, The Lonely City (New York, 2016), p. 33.

[iv]     See Jack Bedell interview,

           https://www.theshorepoetry.org/interview-bedell-2

[v]      Birkerts, pp 16 – 25.

[vi]      ibid, 18.

[vii]    As told by Adam Zagajewski, Slight Exaggeration,

           (New York, 2011), p. 21.

[viii]    Nipun Prabhakar, “Kathmandu through its doors,”

           Speak, Issue 03 Summer 2019

[ix]      Teju Cole, quoted in Speak, Issue 4 Winter 2019, 17.

[x]        From Philip Roth, ‘Looking at Kafka’ (1973)

[xi]       Birkerts, 18.

[xii]      Hervé Guibert, Ghost Image (Chicago, 1982), 22.

Shuttered Diner. Cochise County. © Jeff Alfier

Jeff Alfier Photography

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