Interview with Tobi Alfier
Tobi Alfier is a two-time Pushcart nominee. Publication credits include Illya’s Honey, REAL, Red River Review, Inkspill (UK), Iodine Poetry Journal, The Smoking Poet, Slipstream, Chiron Review and Hawai’i Pacific Review among others, and are forthcoming in, Paper Nautilus, North Chicago Review, The Linnet’s Wings (Ireland), StepAway (UK), Ballard Street Poetry Journal, Blinking Cursor (UK) and Untitled Country Review. Her latest chapbook is Surface Effects in Winter Wind (Kindred Spirit Press). She is the co-editor of San Pedro River Review (www.bluehorsepress.com).
SCP: So we want to kick this off with a rather generic question. The type of question one would expect in such an interview. And that concerns the impetus of your work. What is it that compels you to participate in this very strange and underappreciated habit of writing poetry? What’s your inspiration? And then secondly, what sort of atmosphere is conducive to this habit i.e. are you one of those poets who tends to write frantically on scraps during whatever moments can be salvaged from the day, or do you have a quieter, more regimented time set aside for the creative process?
Tobi: I have no choice. I have to write. Poetry. I have taken classes in fiction and mixed genre and always complete the assignments as poems. In fact the mixed genre class made me realize that I will never write a memoir because in my opinion I am not very interesting. I eavesdrop a lot and try to observe what’s going on around me; that is a source of a lot of inspiration. If something interests me I pay attention to it.
But sometimes it doesn’t matter what inspired me. What gets written is what wants to come out, no matter how detailed the backstory has become as I’ve thought about it. Once I wanted to write a poem about a gray weimaraner in the driver’s seat of a gray car that I saw in a parking lot. I knew everything about this dog, and the owner, including why the car was in the parking lot and what the owner was buying. What came out was “I Wish I Looked Like Meg Ryan”.
I love workshops and writing prompts. Again, the final poem may have nothing to do with the original prompt but I end up with a poem and that is great. With workshops, I have been lucky to be in classes with wonderful, brilliant, generous poets. Every time I take a workshop I learn something, not only about poetry but about respect and generosity. My only regret is that I will never be able to workshop with Dorothy Allison because I just don’t write fiction.
For years I wrote from 4:15am to 6am. Every day. Even on vacation. Partly because I work full-time and partly because I would wake up with words. Now I write whenever the words are ready to be written. I remember the first time I wrote a poem during the day, when it was light out. It was so odd. I have gotten out of bed at night to write down a line. My son has emailed lines home to me while I was driving. I don’t try to manage it, and except for writing workshops I am not very disciplined. One thing I have learned – if I have a word, a line, a thought… I write it down now. I won’t remember it later!
SCP: There is a great variety in your work stylistically, but as with any artist there are some ongoing themes that thread the pieces together. One of the ones that seems most notable is the subject of personal and/or romantic love. In your extensive oeuvre there are many poems of domestic warmth, poems of jazz-like romance and quiet comfort, but there is an equal number dealing with the failure of love, the fragility of family ties. One senses at times that your words are softly treading over those unspoken abysses that yawn beneath any family unit in 21st century America.
Do you find this accurate? And if so, what is it that continues to draw you to these themes over and over? These stories of seemingly personal wounds that at the same time reflect the experience of so many people, so many couples and families, in the new century.
And at a time when divorce rates are skyrocketing, and more and more people are setting aside the notion of personal love for purely legal partnerships and the corresponding socio-economic benefits what do you think is the relevance of romantic love, the personal, somewhat mythical quest for one’s other half?
Tobi: Oh my lord, there are a few subjects that I don’t write about often because I don’t want to give them too much power and I don’t want to be defined by them: work, my divorce and not having 100% of my health. I was diagnosed with MS in 1996. That’s probably where the failure of love and fragility of family ties comes in, the “treading lightly”. Those subjects do permeate the poems sometimes, like little darts doing a slash and burn, hopefully with a bit of humor. For God’s sake, they are what they are. Might as well laugh at them. Even though they may be couched, they are honest.
One time at a reading I read a poem entitled “Life’s Mysteries”. After the reading a woman came up to me and said “I’m sick”. I said “I am too”. She said “I never talk about it”. I said “I don’t either”. That someone else can recognize their own challenges in my poem, and tell me, is humbling, and very much a blessing.
On the other side of things I laugh every day. I love every day. I eat candy every day. I hope that the laughter and love, and sweetness permeates my poems as well. Every poem has a story behind it. If you want to know the story, ask, I’m not going to spend 20 minutes explaining it and 1 minute reading it. Because they are truth-based in some convoluted way, I do write the occasional dark and quirky poem. I also love writing the celebratory ones. For myself, I want romantic love. I want the personal, somewhat mythical quest for my other half. And truly, it is my responsibility to make sure my son knows that it’s possible. I want him to have that hope for himself.
SCP: Anyways on a lighter note you have for the last couple years been running your own independent publishing project The San Pedro River Review. What has the experience been like publishing and editing your own journal? How do you divide your time between such a demanding project like running a literary journal, and continuing to be such a prolific poet?
And what do you look for in a submitted poem?
Tobi: Well to be clear, San Pedro River Review was always a dream of Jeffrey C. Alfier’s. Jeffrey is a formidable and well-known poet in his own right. Several years ago when Jeff started SPRR I was fortunate to be included. I would never have undertaken a project like this on my own. I would not have known where to begin.
Having said that, I love being involved as co-publisher and co-editor of SPRR. It has given me the opportunity to see the other side of submitting work for acceptance. I now know that when my work is rejected (I like to say “declined”), it might not be because the editor hates it. It might be because the journal is shaping up in another direction and my work just doesn’t fit. Editing San Pedro River Review has given me more forgiveness toward my own work while still remaining its most brutal critic.
We made the decision to publish only two issues a year so we would have time to work on our own poetry. I generally don’t write very much while we are in a submission window but I can. During our last open window we were at the Tin House Writer’s Workshop. We workshopped during the day, did our homework and read submissions at night. We missed a few evening readings but we got it all done.
Jeffrey and I do not write the same way. We have very different filters and styles. Jeff may take a photo of the upper window of an old brick building and write about the frayed white curtain blowing in the breeze with a shadowed old musician leaning on the sill, playing a saxophone. I will notice the old-fashioned street lamp at the bottom of the photo and write about the moths fluttering inside, and the 15-year-old girl who sneaks out of her house to write by the lamplight because she thinks it’s romantic. We bring those same differing sensibilities to our review of submitted poems. The result,
I hope, is a well-rounded journal. What we look for is very well explained in our submission guidelines but we approach submissions in different ways. Jeffrey is more intellectual and educated in his review of submissions. I read them out loud and see which ones stab me in the heart or make me cry. We both agree that we will probably never publish a poem with antique Victorian language, the word “vomit”, or anything that could be centered on the page and pasted into a greeting card.
SCP: Besides regularly and passionately publishing other people’s poetry, you have quite consistently put out your own. This includes dozens of poems in online literary magazines, a handful of self-published chapbooks and even small-press trade titles such as your Poste Restante from Bellowing Ark Press. There is an ongoing debate at the moment about acceptable forms of publication. What constitutes real publishing? Do you have any feelings about self-publishing vs. trade publishing? Online literary magazines vs. traditional print methods? How do you decide if you are going to self-publish a handmade chapbook collection or send it out to other presses?
Tobi: My first three chapbooks were self-published. I learned something from each one of them. Sanity Among the Wildflowers was my final for a writing class. Hostage Negotiation in Negative-Land was my angry collection and Carpeting the Stones was my romantic collection. I made 100 copies of each. I still have about 20 copies of the second and third book but only two copies of the first. I chose Kindred Spirit Press to print my fourth chapbook Surface Effects in Winter Wind because I wanted it perfect-bound and I wanted an ISBN number. I loved working with Michael Hathaway on the chapbook and will hopefully work with him again.
The main difference between Poste Restante and my chapbooks was control. And the time horizon from start to finish is shorter with chapbooks. I get a box of 100 in the mail and as time goes on I know how many I’ve sent out and how many I have left. I know when it’s time to start thinking about my next one. And when I get that box, I’m still in love with the poems because they are still new.
Online literary magazines and traditional print magazines both have their place. I love getting contributor’s copies in the mail. I love paper. Besides the self-published chapbooks and trade full-length collection I am proud of the acceptances I’ve had in print journals. Because I go to many workshops I know poets from all over. I can post a link on Facebook or email a link to an acceptance in an online literary magazine, and not only can poet friends and acquaintances read my work if they are so inclined but they can read the submission guidelines and submit themselves if the journal matches their style of writing. Also, I don’t have a website. Someone can Google me and see work that is online. They can’t see work in a print journal.
It’s important to be discriminating when considering a submission to any journal, be it online or print. Do the poems they print resonate with the way I write? Respecting the sensibilities of the journal and making submissions accordingly equals more acceptances. Acceptances are much nicer than rejections although we all know that both are a part of the writing life.
SCP: Lastly, we want to re-pose to you one of the perennial questions that we have addressed over and over through various means here at SCP and that a few years ago you tackled as part of our discontinued Post-Modern Poet Essay series (Read Food, Loss and Failing Bodies by Tobi Alfier here) and that is what is the role of the poet in contemporary society and has your idea of it changed at all since writing “Food, Loss and Failing Bodies” back in 2008?
Tobi: I re-read the essay and no, I don’t think my thoughts have changed very much. At the end of the day they are words. They can make us happy, they can make us angry, they can make us thoughtful, self-righteous, satisfied, superior or humble. For myself, I am grateful.
SCP: Thank You So much Tobi!
Beckian Fritz Goldberg - She inspires me to write bravely
Nick Flynn - Everything he writes is poetry
Neil Aitken - Some of his words bring me to my knees. I wish I could write like him.
Heather McHugh - Brilliant. Funny. Generous beyond belief. I workshopped with her and learned volumes. Her reading was splendid.