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Pierre Alféri - Biography

Pierre Alféri is a French novelist, poet, and essayist, born in 1963 in France, and currently living in Paris. He earned a degree in Philosophy at the University of Paris and published his thesis on William of Ockham (Guillaume d'Ockham) in 1989. In 1991, he published another philosophical essay on questions of language and literature, Chercher une phrase. Nevertheless, Alféri did not pursue an academic career in philosophy; instead, he became one of the most innovative French poets of today. He has since published several books of poetry, including Les Allures naturelles (1991), Le Chemin familier du poisson combatif (1992), Kub Or (1994), Sentimentale journée (1997), La Voie des airs (2004) as well as the novels Fmn (1994) and Le cinéma des familles (1999), and most recently Les Jumelles (2009).

Alféri nurtures collaboration with other artists and often performs with musicians, painters and other poets. With Suzanne Doppelt, a photographer and professor at the European Graduate School, he co-founded the literary review Détail, and with Olivier Cadio La Revue de Littérature Générale. His collaboration with the sculptor Jacques Julien led to the production of the DVD Ca commence à Séoul (2007). Alféri has also written lyrics for the actress and singer Jeanne Balibar. He wrote two of the songs for Balibar's 2003 album, Slalom Dame ("Cinéma" and "Ton Diable"), in collaboration with Rodolphe Burger, who composed the music. Alféri is well-known for his translations of works by John Donne, Giorgio Agamben and Meyer Schapiro into French. His creativity on film was edited and published as a DVD, Cinépoèmes & films parlants (2003).

In several books, Alféri experiments with language formulas and reflexive writing, without falling into the trap of empty lyricism. At the same time, he does not want to abandon the idea of the possibility to compose a poem with a distance. For Alféri, prose is not a genre nor the opposite of poetry. Instead, in his writing, all categories merge and stretch to compose a form that is constantly reinvented and connected to the surrounding world in a critical manner. Alféri's verse seems pleased to be irregular, often short with fast cuts and breaks, as if to signify the difficulty of achievement and the refusal of being chained up.

In Alféri's poetry, language plays a very important role. One of his widely praised collections of poems, Kub Or (translated into English as Oxo), uses the concept of the bouillon cube, with each poem two-dimensionally reflecting a side of the cube. The book consists of seven poems, each poem made up of seven lines and each line composed of seven syllables. Being not only a propitiatory number, a good omen and the number of daily life, the number seven also challenges the dominant prosody in French poetry and the use of even-numbered syllabic lines. This asymmetric meter produces surprises, cuts and overlapping, with each poem describing some aspect of modern Paris in seven short lines. Being interested in the minutiae of modern life, it comes as no surprise that the media occupy the center of attention in these poems – cinema, TV, advertising – as well as the artifacts of low and high culture. Alféri takes the reader on a journey through the streets, commercial life, politics, music, and the questions of how much the figures from the past inhabit the consciousness of the present. As a poet, he is not alienated, but always prepared to engage actively with the variety of experiences he encounters. In the same way, this engagement is expected from the reader as well – if the poems are bouillon cubes, the mind of the reader is the boiling water in which to dissolve them and fully taste the modern life.

Every collection of Alféri's poems takes a form of a particular story. In that sense, Sentimental Journey can be read as a melange of paths, routes, and activities with seemingly no effect. Anglo-Saxon inversion in the title makes one imagine an American road movie from the '70s – neon lights, flashes and LSD. On the other side, the construction of verses resembles the editing of a film, underlining Alféri's permanent inspiration with moving images. Expressive and diaphanous, this journey seems to be in search of its map. Under the ironic titles of each poem, the events are being described and clashed with blocs of displaced thoughts, creating language that is breathless and quick. At the end, it can all feel as a memory of an unusual journey "into the history of the present, into the archeology of intimacy."

In 1996, with his friend and fellow-poet Olivier Cadiot, Alféri founded the Revue de Littérature Générale, each of whose two issues was a thick book: a "digest," as he and Cadiot diffidently put it, of poetic methods, mechanisms, ideas and techniques, all aiming at a lively new conception of lyricism. With Cadiot and Anne Portugal, and in a different manner Emmanuel Hocquard or Jacques Roubaud, Pierre Alféri is leaving behind the divide that has characterized French poetry since around 1980 between "poetry that sings" to an appreciable public and on the other hand an austere, abstruse, negative poetic sensibility (represented, for example, by Denis Roche or Jean-Marie Gleize). Pierre Alféri and his fellow poets, rather than deferring to a polemical style, are vibrantly creating new, humorous, startling, stirring lyric energies, which a reader can easily feel in Alféri's nightingale poems, for example (in the collection La Voie de l'air, 2004), as well as in the "grunge ideas" active in his 1994 collection Kub Or (translated by Cole Swensen as Oxo).

Throughout his career Alféri has been an active translator of John Donne and of the American objectivist poets George Oppen and Louis Zukofsky. He earns his living as a teacher in art schools in Lyon and Paris (L'Ecole des Beaux-Arts de Lyon, L'Ecole des Arts Décoratifs de Paris, and L'Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts de Paris).

Pierre Alféri is a professor of poetry at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland, where he teaches an Intensive Summer Workshop.