No Holding Back: An Interview with Alexis Rhone Fancher

Before Passing contributor Alexis Rhone Fancher chats with George Wallace.

Alexis Rhone Fancher is the author of How I Lost My Virginity To Michael Cohen and other  heart stab poems, (Sybaritic Press, 2014) and State of Grace: The Joshua Elegies, (KYSO Flash Press, 2015). Find her poems in great weather for MEDIA's Before Passing,Rattle, The MacGuffin, Slipstream, Fjords, H_NGM_N,  Ragazine, Chiron Review, Wide Awake: Poets of Los Angeles, Quaint Magazine, BlotteratureMenacing Hedge, and elsewhere. Since 2013 she's been nominated for three Pushcart Prizes and four Best of The Net awards. Alexis is photography editor of Fine Linen Literary Magazine and poetry editor of Cultural Weekly, where she publishes "The Poet’s Eye," a monthly photo essay about her ongoing love affair with Los Angeles.

Hear Alexis at the upcoming great weather for MEDIA 2015 west coast tour events: Stories Books and Cafe(Friday Nov 6, 7:00 pm) and Beyond Baroque(Saturday Nov 7, 4:00 pm.)


GW: You're known not only as a poet, but as a photographer, and I understand you've had a Nikon slung around your neck since you were ten. I'm interested in your portraits – like the exhibition of your take on Southern California poets, at Beyond Baroque recently -- and in 'field photographs' you do, such as your online images of LA's Grand Central Market. How does your approach to portraiture differ, if at all, to your 'field photographs?'

ARF: Street photography is a life-long addiction. Since moving to downtown in 2013, I walk far more than I drive (yes, in LA!) and I’m never without my iPhone camera. I try to be inconspicuous. I pretend to be texting when in reality I'm shooting, or I shoot (literally) from the hip, finger on the button, intuitively. There's a kind of magic to this, an askew moment of connection with a stranger, often, a fleeting intimacy. I channel my invisibility; I avoid eye contact.

I shoot portraits in the studio with my Nikon D-810. I prefer an 85mm lens. Unlike the moment to moment carnival photography on the street, in the studio I control the light, which means I control everything. The portrait work is far more thoughtful, deliberate. A portrait sitting is an agreement, an invitation to witness a subject's truth, to capture his or her unique beauty at an exact point in time. Street photos are stolen moments.

GW: Your poetry is known for its strong assertion of persona, particularly your erotic poems, many of which you have said are drawn from or triggered by actual events in your own life. Photography, on the other hand, might seem more observational and exterior. What are the interiorities of your poetry? Of your photographs?

ARF: My poems are, for the most part, interior musings made public; a retraced memory, a belated recognition, a changed perspective, a revelation, a mea culpa. The people I write about are not victims. They own their tarnished humanity. I mine the depths of my experience for material. I don’t hold back.

When I write a poem, I have the luxury of creating draft after draft, honing a poem until (hopefully) nothing superfluous remains. Similarly, the portrait photographer has time and tools at her disposal, both in the studio and at the computer in post (production), to create the ultimate  image.

The street photographer has no such luxury. She shoots down and dirty, aiming at people’s outer façade, hoping to catch a glimpse of the humanness underneath. But studio or street, my goal is always to show something startling and naked and essential about each person I photograph. I want them to reveal themselves to me.


GW: You have said that "Accidental Lover," your poem published in our GWFM anthology Before Passing, was written as an exploration. I wonder if you could discuss your thoughts about  the 'transformational' work poetry can do, moving a writer and her poem from the actual to the imagined – ie a process of finding truth, a 'true account of something that never happened.'

ARF: 'A true account of something that never happened' is an excellent way of describing "Accidental Lover." The poem began as a visceral response to something in the news that jogged a memory and soon became an image in my head, me and my ex on a collision course to (our) breakup.

The relationship was a glorious failure - two people sexually perfect for each other - and unsuited in every other way. After the breakup, he wrote me that death was preferable to separation. It felt like he wanted to crash into me.

I've written several poems about this relationship; "Your Target," "Upon Running Into My Ex On A Summer Afternoon," "Handy," and "(Three Little Words)." "Accidental Lover" is by far the most metaphorical of these poems.

GW: What does LA Noir mean to you? What has LA given you, and what have you given to LA?

ARF: LA Noir is a state of mind. It's also the working title of my latest erotic collection, which will be completed by the end of 2015. That I've been a fan of noir photography, novels and films since my teens is apparent in these poems, and the flames were fanned when I studied with the queen of LA noir, the great poet, Suzanne Lummis.

Here's a video of one of my poems, originally published in Boyslut, given the Noir treatment in a film by Othniel Smith.

LA Noir is also the subject of a photo-essay I published recently in Cultural Weekly (my monthly column, The Poet's Eye). ).

As a life-long resident, LA has given me sustenance, identity, and infinite material. What I hope I've given LA is an on-going love letter, an affectionate homage in both photos and poems.

GW: What role do you see poetry playing as vicarious entertainment, for the reader - or for the writer?

ARF: As a poet I want you to slip between my sheets, inhabit my life, look into my bathroom mirror and see your truth. Vicarious entertainment? Perhaps. But what better than a poem that knocks you off your feet? I crave that catch-your-breath-moment at the end of a poem, when I realize I’ve read something that mattered. I want to take my readers along with me on that ride.

When I first read the poetry of Dorianne Laux, I was thrilled by the way she took me on her very personal journey and made it my journey as well. I wanted to write poems like that. So I began writing about my own vida loca. I’ll admit, it's been interesting. I've discovered other people are interested in it, as well.

GW: What is the dividing line between what you give the world, through your art, and what you hold back?

ARF: Between my poems and photographs (especially the self-portraits) my life is an open book. My first collection, How I Lost My Virginity To Michael Cohen & other heart stab poems, explored and glorified my sexuality. My new chapbook, State of Grace: The Joshua Elegies, both mourns and celebrates the too-short life of my only child. When it comes to my art, I'm determined to hold nothing back. This great quote (prominently posted in my studio) says it better than I ever could:

I know that until I started pushing on my own fears, telling the stories that were hardest for me, writing about exactly the things I was most afraid of and unsure about, I wasn't writing worth a damn. - Dorothy Allison

Each of us guards secrets we long to feel safe enough to spill, secrets that make us who we are. Sometimes after a reading, or in an email, a reader will confess something dark or brave or troublesome about his own past, his particular version of cousin Lisa, or daddy’s friend, Stan.

That I've shared my history gives people permission to share theirs. That's what I like best about what I do; sometimes a poet can give you a safe space to own yourself.

GW: In one of your better known poems a woman, asked how big an urn needs to be built in order to hold the ashes of her son, replies 'big enough to hold it all.' When it comes to life, how big an artistic world do you intend to build in order to 'hold it all'?

ARF: I want to dance on the ceiling, avoid labels, defy expectations, and create something new that matters. I want to document the world I see - the beauty, the humanity and the pain - and gift it back to the universe. I'm just like everyone else; I want a safe space in which to flourish. How big a space? Big enough to hold it all.

Top right photograph: Self-Portrait by Alexis Rhone Fancher

Bottom left photograph by BAZ Here


Submissions for great weather for MEDIA's anthologies are open October 15  2015 to January 15 2016.