A Conversation with Tobi Alfier

An interview by Alicia Cole.

Tobi AlfierTobi Alfier is a multiple Pushcart nominated poet and Best of the Net nominee whose poems have appeared in The Chaffin Journal, Chiron Review, Gargoyle, Hawai’i Pacific Review, The Los Angeles Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, Suisun Valley Review, Town Creek Poetry, and other print and online journals in the United States and overseas. Current chapbooks are The Coincidence of Castles from Glass Lyre Press, Romance and Rust from Blue Horse Press, and Down Anstruther Way from FutureCycle Press. She is co-editor of San Pedro River Review (www.bluehorsepress.com).

Down Anstruther Way (Scotland poems) is her eighth chapbook, the second published since her marriage to poet Jeffrey C. Alfier. Previous work was published under Tobi Cogswell. You may contact Tobi at sprreview@gmail.com.

Black Fox Literary Magazine: Down Anstruther Way offers a beautifully cohesive landscape of Scotland, its physical features, and its culture. What was the process like, putting this collection together?

Tobi Alfier: Thank you very much. It took me a long time to put this collection together. I had a broken arm when we were there. My left arm was in a cast and I’m left-handed. So even though I could type at night on our Surface Pro, I couldn’t take notes during the day.

I was so worried about tripping and falling, I didn’t do a lot of the activities, so I heard about them second-hand. When you’re on a trip with a large group of people, you get a lot of different viewpoints and experiences. It took me a while to sift through what everyone said, look at the photographs my husband took, then find a way into each poem.

After the poems were written, it took me a bit of time to appreciate them. Mostly I remembered the cold, the rain, the wind, and trying to haul my ass up on the bus with one hand. I remembered the embarrassment of being so ungraceful. I remembered feeling terrible because our wonderful tour leaders offered to change rooms with us because the beautiful hotel we were staying at on the Isle of Mull didn’t have an elevator, and our room was far away. I didn’t want to ruin anyone’s time, so I was “Tobi who always had a smile on her face” but I was often uncomfortable, humiliated, and embarrassed.

When I finally looked at the poems, I was able to separate myself from the more difficult experiences and I thought “hey, I like these!” That’s when I put them together and looked for a publisher. I was thrilled to work with Diane Kistner and her team at FutureCycle Press.

BFLM: In tandem with the beautiful imagery of the country, this collection also tells a love story. How did your marriage become wedded to the collection?

TA: I always say that I don’t write love poems, but truly, every poem I write is a love poem. This collection is a love story to a country and people who are resilient, kind, proud, hard-working, and lovely.

My marriage is in every breath I take, every day. My husband Jeff is a beautiful poet and photographer. He sends me lots of photographs when he’s out and about, and we read each other’s poems, so much of what he does ends up being “poem triggers” for me. He sometimes puts me in one of his titles “Letter from a ‘Pensione’ to my Woman Back Home” or “Listen, Tobi,” but he dedicates his books to many people. I mostly include Jeff in all my dedications, and don’t visibly put him in my work. He usually does the photographs for the covers of my books, and in Down Anstruther Way there are two photos inside the book that were taken by him.

I always say that even though we both write, we don’t write the same way at all. We can look at the same thing and write two completely different poems. I think that’s what makes us good editors of our journal –San Pedro River Review – and it also means that people don’t have to “take sides” when deciding whether they want my book or Jeff’s. Jeff’s book of Scotland poems is The Red Stag at Carrbridge from Aldrich Press. We’re kind of like reading Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver – each chapter is written by a different family member. You know they are talking about the same event, but the points of view are so different, each chapter is fresh.

So I guess my marriage is wedded to this collection by trust. And by the same last name on the cover. And by everything.

BFLM: How do you write poetry about place?

TA: I’ve heard Steve Almond say many times that we write our obsessions. That is something Richard Hugo said as well. I love writing poetry about place because I love to draw people toward an observation they never noticed, or could not articulate. In the poem “Excursion out of Loch Shiel and Mingarry Park,” nobody else noticed the powdered-sugar handprint on our host’s black pants, and no one connected that to the dessert we were served by his wife. I love those little things. You can find them anywhere.

As my writing has evolved, or as I have gotten older, I find it important to add a human element as well as place to my poems. Most of this collection, and almost all my work now, contains an element of redemption, or narrative, something that breathes besides our environment.

I start with place, because I travel often, though less now, and then build a story around the description. The only place I can think of where the stark reality of it is enough to carry a poem, for me, is Detroit, although I have also written Detroit poems that include a human storyline.

BFLM: The title poem is one of the strongest in this collection. Talk about the process of writing this one; why was it chosen for the title?

TA: Thank you. The first three lines of the last stanza, “The sun finds its place deep in the west/ an outdoor cathedral as light bursts/ onto the wet stone of uneven village roads” was based on a picture we saw on Google. I had never seen stained glass windows shine outwards before. There were people walking in the square. The stones paving the square were wet. That was my way into the poem. I made up the whole rest of it.

It was chosen for the title because it infers movement. Traveling. Since this collection is based on different areas of Scotland, I wanted the title to reflect that. I generally like my titles to be one of the included poems. Out of all my chapbooks and full-length collections – Sanity Among the Wildflowers, Hostage Negotiation in Negative-Land, Surface Effects in Winter Wind, Poste Restante, Lit Up, The Color of Forgiveness, Lapses and Absences, The Coincidence of Castles, Romance and Rust, and now Down Anstruther Way, only Lit Up is not the title of a poem. Originally it would have been, but I changed the book title to match a photograph I appropriated from Jeff for the cover.

There have been a few other little books we’ve put together for different projects, for example, a charity event; they are titled appropriately.

BFLM: What do you particularly like about this collection?  Where does it speak to you?

TA: I like that I survived the trip, and it truly was wonderful, even though I sound above like it was miserable. We have taken tours of Ireland and Scotland with Men of Worth, a duo that gives concerts around the U.S. during the year, and tours of Ireland and Scotland during the summers. They are pretty easy-going with me in terms of letting me sit somewhere and write, while everyone else is climbing a mountain or something, then at night they give concerts. They have graciously asked us more than once to come up and read a poem or two during their concerts. I’ll never forget one year I was walking over to the airport and a guest at the hotel passed me and said she’d liked the poem I read the night before. As someone who is consistently and constantly insecure, to be recognized, and praised, was unbelievable.

My memories of the trip itself are what I particularly like. The fact that some of my lines resonate with two well-known and hugely talented singer-songwriters is humbling, and amazing. The book speaks to me all over. Every time I read it, I have a new favorite poem. Right now I love “Mull to Ulva,” although when I wrote it, I loved the poem but wasn’t crazy about the title. But that was the name of the two places. It was a trip I didn’t go on – I was afraid I would slip on the shallow rocks separating the mainland with the island so I wrote it from what I read, what I heard, what I invented. As I get more distance, I like the collection more and more.

BFLM: What are you currently working on?

TA: I have a small manuscript that’s out for a collaborative project. Once I hear whether it’s chosen, I’ll know where I’m going. If it’s not chosen, I’ll flesh it out and make a respectable-sized chapbook, or possibly a full-length collection.

It is very rare for me to write a book completely on theme. Other than Ireland and Scotland, most of my books have been either first-person or narrative collections of beauty, challenge, hard lives, hard work, and redemption. Someone once said I wrote about “food, loss, and failing bodies.” I’ve expanded over the years to include (not exclusively) sex, music, and doors. I have no idea why. I don’t see it. And once in a while, though not in the title, the body of the poem or anywhere except in my heart and hands, is a real love poem to Jeff. You wouldn’t know it unless I told you.

I would like to close this interview by thanking you very much for the opportunity to talk about Down Anstruther Way in all its gorgeous recollection. It makes me want to go back tomorrow.

God bless.

From “Inland from Kinloss”

This gift from the land to the witness climbs
in and burrows like comfort. It will stay with you
always, if you allow. A secret, just like the name
of the road, unmarked until you happen upon
a small sign, a garland, and knowing this is yours.


5 comments to A Conversation with Tobi Alfier

  • Ann Howells

    Lovely interview with a lovely, very gracious, and talented poet. I bought a copy of Down Anstruther Way when it first came out and read it cover to cover in a single uninterrupted session. I have since returned to many of the poems to savor them again and again.

  • Walid zaiter

    It is a lovely interview that sheds light on many aspects of life, works and experiences of writing poetry; i enjoyed my self reading it. it reveals some autobiography of a lovely couple who love each other bring inspiration for their poems and works.
    Best of Luck Tobi and congratulations on your Connection of poetry entitled Down Anstruther Way
    Walid zaiter

  • Varindra Varma

    An enlightening interview—beautiful and joyful,too.

  • As an expat first generation Argentine, son of Scots, whose children decided to stay in England, I have had an enjoyable journey with Tobi Alfier Down Anstruther Way. A pleasure to wander through my father’s land, without moving from here in Larroque, Entre Rios (Argentina). So thank you very much poet Tobi Alfier for taking me with you. I will be in Edinburgh and Aberdeen next month and will keep you close to me as a reminder.

  • Tobi Alfier

    Thank you all for your lovely comments. I will cherish them.

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