Jeffrey Alfier is a poet and photographer who resides in Southern California. His most recent poetry collection, The Shadow Field, was published by Louisiana Literature Journal & Press. Other books include Gone This Long – Southern Poems, The Wolf Yearling, The Red Stag at Carrbridge – Scotland Poems, and Idyll for a Vanishing River. Bleak Music, a photography-poetry collaboration with poet Larry D. Thomas. Literary journal credits include Copper Nickel, Faultline, New York Quarterly, Southern Poetry Review, and Vassar Review. Alfier is co-editor of Blue Horse Press and San Pedro River Review. He’s a member of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.
Jeffrey’s poem “Just North of False Cape, Virginia” appears in the current issue of LPR. Our conversation follows.
LPR: What was the inspiration was for this poem? I ask as it is incredibly haunting. You write of a winter shore town, but also a storm heading north. The specific location was curious too. Why just north of False Cape? (And what a name for a Cape!)
JC: Thank you, Wendy. My muse is a forerunner of my travel plans, and I wrote that poem after studying the Virginia Tidewater area in online maps before I actually traveled to the area, as well as walking the actual locale last September. I grew up in that area and have always wanted to return. Since the poem is set in the strand along the Virginia coast as it stretches north from False Cape, I added “Just North” to the title. But more broadly, as a writer of Place, I’m sometimes a fan of inexactitude when it comes to locations in poems, those elements of the unknown in my obsessions and triggering towns, to use Richard Hugo’s terms. So for me, I define poetry as the imagination’s love affair with the imagistic power of language.
LPR: Can you talk a little about inexactitude on locations? I’m thinking of what Robert Boswell calls “the half-known world, a dimension to the fictional reality that escapes comprehension.”
JC: I believe inexactitude leaves the reader a bit of mystery, but not puzzlement. That is, a touch of mystery surrounding a poem’s landscapes or settings may tantalize without being vague or cryptic. In this sense it is related to what Keats called “negative capability”—where the poet inscribes uncertainty, obscurity, or doubt without any desperate reaching for resolutions derived from reasoning processes, clarifying moments but not necessarily logical outcomes, assuring a bit of inscrutability. Having said this, most of my poems speak of very specific locations. Moreover, locales or regions like shorelines stretch the landscape by their very setting, opening up the possibilities inexactitude offers, those boundaries of the legible, components that recede into darker spaces of the field of vision, the dimly lit things on the periphery. Beyond geography, inexactitude often concerns the speakers or characters that populate my poems. That is, it’s enticing for me to leave room for interpretation, to leave a sense of wonder as to why someone within the poem is in such soulfully plaintive circumstances. And those who populate my poems are not isolated, but solitary — what they become, how they exist by themselves in the captured moment; immediate and palpable are the kinds of characters I am drawn to. I believe many poems ruin themselves through too much revelation. Through well-wrought images, you give the reader a hint of what is there through a touch of doubt, a bit of uncertainty. The last thing I want is emotional over-commitment in a poem; for me, good poems never give too much away in the ending, that spot in the poem where negative capability is most important.
it’s enticing for me to leave room for interpretation, to leave a sense of wonder as to why someone within the poem is in such soulfully plaintive circumstances.”
LPR: I love so many lines in this, too many to list here, but I must point to “the husks of March crabs and mollusks/thread the surf like discarded toys.” They do so much heavy lifting for the reader and I love the comparison to discarded toys. It’s incredibly fitting.
JC: I like to use figurative language, metaphors and similes that liven or deepen my images for the reader. That particular line came from walking Virginia Beach and looking at the detritus and such that ran along the shoreline, how they often overlap, especially in the later hours.
LPR: You’ve been writing poetry for a while now. Do you feel there’s an overarching theme to your work? If so, has it shifted over time?
JC: I began writing poetry in 1997, and my focus has indeed shifted over time. For the first ten or twelve years I was primarily a Southwest regionalist, and even when I walked farmland threading the fields in Germany, I would transfer the triggered lines to a farming situation in the American Southwest, then later in the Southeast. My first two full-length poetry books are collections of poems set in that region. After that timeframe, I began to expand geographically as well as in the different ways I entered a poem. I wrote several poems set in western Virginia because my daughter and grandson lived there for a few years. Overall, my poetic obsessions are landscapes and small towns, the people I invent to populate them; “geography wedded to its people,” to use the late CD Wright’s term.
LPR: What writers have influenced you or are influencing you now?
JC: In the early days of writing – post 2003, when I began to actually write poetry that made sense – my influences were Jane Kenyon, Yusef Komunyakaa, Richard Hugo, Philip Levine, and Walt McDonald. Others came later. I began to study the poetry of those poets whose work I loved and went back to time and again, asking myself why I liked their work so much.
LPR: I am such a Philip Levine fan. There is a poem, “Any Night” that I used to have memorized. Do you have a favorite?
JC: Yes, though I would say a favorite would be hard to pin down. Suffice it to say that I love his poems, “Flowering Midnight,” “Night Words” are among so many other favorites.
LPR: What advice would you give to the poet just starting out, especially in these tech times?
JC: Fundamentally, it comes down to what I wrote just above: read and re-read those poets whose work is striking to you. What is it about their lines and images that pulls you in? I would also remind them of the fundamentals, especially employing an economy of language to hone their images and make them more memorable in their readers’ minds.
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