Earthy poet and photographer Alexis Rhone Fancher returns to Venice for a reading with Leslie Anne McIlroy
By Bliss Bowen
To outside observers, Alexis Rhone Fancher’s life can seem the stuff of film or fiction.
Raised in the Valley and a theatrically trained actress schooled at UC Santa Barbara, she documented (and paid for) post-graduation European travels with her sister in photos and an English column. Back in the States, she toiled as an LA Times/Chicago Tribune advertising rep before finally achieving her lifelong dream of being “a full-time artist with money — not a lot, but enough.”
In 2012 she got serious about poetry; she’s since been published in Rattle, the MacGuffin, Good Men Project, Bukowski on Wry and numerous other journals, and has been nominated for three Pushcart Prizes.
On the recommendation of predecessor Wendy Rainey, she also became poetry editor for the digital magazine Cultural Weekly, a “dream job” that introduced her to “the literary community of the world.”
Not long after, Fancher and her husband “decided to do something really radical” and exchanged their Marina del Rey home of 12 years for a roomy downtown loft with an attached photo studio. “I don’t go out much if I can help it,” she says. “My day is writing and editing and photos.”
Last year, Fancher published her second volume of poetry, “How I Lost My Virginity to Michael Cohen and Other Heart Stab Poems” — riveting musings on love, lust, Louboutins and erotic experimentation illuminated by her black-and-white photography. Onstage, her wit is martini-dry, her style hip, her language as mercilessly precise as a scalpel shaving exposed veins.
On Friday she returns to Beyond Baroque, which recently mounted an exhibit of her photographs of L.A. poets, for another reading.
How did you find your way to poetry?
I have always written poetry. I like the economy of it. I like the succinctness of it. I may be misquoting Faulkner: “Failed poets write short stories; failed short story writers write novels.” It’s just always been the way I’ve expressed myself. I had a life and career, [then] in 2008, I started studying with Jack Grapes, and I wrote a novel. Then I started writing poetry again seriously.
You’re working on another book, “Angeles Noir.” Is it another poetry collection?
It’s poems that take place in different parts of L.A. In Little Tokyo there’s a series of tattoo girl poems, about this girl who has completely transformed her body — every inch of it except her face and hands is completely tattooed; whether she’s trying to document her life or totally obscure it is what’s going on in the poem. There are poems about downtown, an unsolved homicide at Hotel Cecil, about my friend Bambi who lives across the street, about how she walks her dog, how she explains living with a gay roommate. There’s stuff about me and my sister growing up in the Valley, and the porno industry out there. There’s stuff that takes place in Hollywood. It kind of is the dark side of Los Angeles. … People are saying, “You are going to put photos in this book,” like it would be less if I didn’t. I’ll see what my publisher wants.
When you have camera in hand and you’re exercising your photographic eye, do you feel more like a poet or a reporter?
[Pause] I don’t think I feel like a reporter. I feel more like a documenter. I see it through a poet’s eye, you know. I have a monthly column in Cultural Weekly called “The Poet’s Eye” where I write a blurb about what I’m doing, and show photographs from my perspective. I think one informs the other. I’m never without a camera — usually my iPhone or a small Canon that has lovely range. I shoot with a Nikon D810 with 85mm lens in the studio. Some women ask for jewelry; I ask for cameras.
What makes a piece poetry instead of prose?
My teacher and mentor and friend Jack Grapes says the only difference between poetry and prose is the length of the line.
Does music inform your poems?
I listen to a lot of Bach when I’m writing. The Goldberg Variations. I can’t listen to anything that has lyrics; it just confuses and dismays me. But I love Miles, Coltrane, Dexter Gordon, Mingus and Booker Little and Eric Dolphy, a lot of the LA jazz legends of the 1950s and ’60s.
Is poetry performance art for you, or does it exist primarily on the page?
Poetry is meant to be spoken out loud. I always work, from the very first word of the very first draft, out loud — for the rhythm, the cadence, just the fit of the poem in my mouth. There are poems that I don’t read at readings that I think are really good, but they don’t translate well to a reading.
Is your subject matter indicative of what you prefer to read?
Hmm. Not necessarily. I don’t read much erotica, per se. I read everything. I’m very — huh, that’s an interesting question. Just, no. [Laughs]
Who are some touchstone writers and visual artists for you?
As far as poets, I love Dorianne Laux, Ellen Bass, Anne Sexton, Matthew Dickman — probably too many poets to mention. As far as visual artists, I’m a big fan of Mary Ellen Mark, Diane Arbus, Helmut Newton and Robert Motherwell. Georgia O’Keeffe. A photographer named Arthur Tress. Joel-Peter Witkin. I like people who see things differently. I love Edward Hopper because there’s room inside the paintings for me to write inside of that.
Is Cultural Weekly an effective platform for supporting L.A.’s literary community?
Not only the L.A. literary community; we’re international. The first year I ran a poetry contest, and the winner was from Africa and the runners-up were from France and Japan. I’ve had an extraordinary opportunity to meet, photograph and get to know some of the most astonishing poets in Los Angeles and beyond. It’s been a gift.
What do you believe a poet’s role is in modern society?
I think poetry holds a mirror up to contemporary society. Additionally, I think poetry comforts, it amuses, it challenges. There’s always been poetry. Persian people have contests with hundreds and thousands of dollars for prizes for the most fabulous poet. It’s like they have game shows here with suitcases of money.
Poetry is more alive, more vital, more brilliant than ever. I just think people are afraid of it. It’s like people are afraid of art because they don’t understand it; they think there’s a right way or wrong way to read or write a poem. I don’t think there’s a wrong way.
Poets Alexis Rhone Fancher and Leslie Anne McIlroy read at 8 p.m. Friday at Beyond Baroque, 681 N. Venice Blvd., Venice. Tickets are $10, or $6 for students and seniors. Call (310) 822-3006 or visit alexisrhonefancher.com.