Speaking with Francisco X. Alarcón
Francisco X. Alarcón is a Chicano poet and author who lives is Davis, California.
TDP: Tell us about your greatest satisfactions as a poet?
FXA: There are several things that have given me great satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment during my trajectory as a poet. One of the greatest satisfactions is to have been able to contribute for the opening of new publication possibilities for Latino writers who live in the U.S. through an independent publishing house, Children’s Book Press of San Francisco, California.
I served first as a translator (Spanish to English; and English to Spanish), consultant, and then, as an editor of several children’s books done by Chicano/Latino writers and artists who for the first time were publishing bilingual picture books for children. I also served as a Board Member of the Board of Directors of the non-profit Children’s Book Press.
For myself, it took me several years to be able to publish my first book of bilingual poems for children, “Laughing Tomatoes and Other Spring Poems / Jitomates risueños y otros poemas de primavera” (Children’s Book Press 1997) because the main editor thought that a children’s book with bilingual poems will not sell well in the U.S. But this first picture children’s book with bilingual poems was very well received by readers in general and by critics in special. It was awarded several prestigious literary awards, and it was the first of title of a series of four picture books dedicated to the seasons of the year published by Children’s Book Press.
The four books include wonderful artwork by San Franciscp-based Chicana artist Maya Chistina Gonzalez: “From the Bellybutton of the Moon and Other Summer Poems / Del ombligo de la luna y otros poemas de verano” (1998), “Angels Ride Bikes and Other Fall Poems / Los ángeles andan en bicicleta y otros poemas de otoño” (1999), and “Iguanas in the Snow and Other Winter Poems / Iguanas en la nieve y otros poemas de invierno” (2001). These picture books were also awarded several important literary prizes. The fact that around 250,000 copies of these books have been sold means that there is a big market for bilingual poetry books for children in the U.S.
TDP: Do you write another genre besides poetry?
FXA: I have also written short stories. One these short stories, titled “Las repatriaciones de noviembre” (“The Repatriations of November”), deals with a Latino family in Los Angeles, California, that is about to move to Mexico during the Big Depression in 1931 when being “Mexican” had become almost a crime. It’s a story based on real life experiences endured by my mother’s family. It was awarded a major literary prize in Texas, and it has been included in several Chicano Literature anthologies published in the U.S. and Spain, and in many Spanish language textbooks as well since it was originally written in Spanish.
At the moment I am interested in exploring different poetic forms, styles and themes, like eco-poetics. Recently I was named Editor of POETAS•PUENTES, a new poetry series of Swan Scythe Press of Sacramento that will concentrate on publishing original poetry written in Spanish and Mesoamerican indigenous languages with English translations. “Ce / Uno/ One: Poems for the New Sun / Poemas para el Nuevo Sol” –my new book of poems in Spanish, English, Nahuatl, some Gaelic and Mapuche- will inaugurate this new poetry series.
TDP: Children are natural poets, why then, children poetry workshops?
FXA: I really love to visit schools, do poetry presentations, and facilitate poetry workshops for school children. After visiting and doing hundred of classroom poetry presentations and workshops, I have learned that children from the third grade to the sixth grade are truly excellent natural poets. I have come out with Poetry Lesson Plans intended to show children how poetry really works, about the use of comparisons, similes, metaphors, and the five senses, in addition to the sixth sense that in poetry is our own imagination.
I have a poetry lesson titled “Our Dreams” in which the students write a poem visualizing themselves in the future. Students first interview older family members about the dreams these relatives had when they were children. Then the students are asked to visualize themselves in the future and write a poem about their future lives using their five senses and their imagination. As a response to amazing poems written by students of a bilingual school in Washington, DC, Oyster Bilingual Elementary School, I wrote a collection of bilingual poems illustrated by Paula Barragán, “Poems to Dream Together / Poemas para soñar juntos” (Lee & Low Books 2005). I would love to be able to participate in the First Festival of Children’s Poetry in El Salvador in order to share my own experiences and to also learn from other participants.
TDP: In your life as a teacher and as a poet who had conducted hundreds of poetry workshops, do you know of any children, any youth who had been member of gang and once they enter in contact with poetry their life had a positive changed?
FXA: Some years ago I had a very special experience at Oyster Bilingual Elementary School in Washington, DC., in which a third of the students are Latinos, a third are Anglo students, and the other third are African-Americans. The majority of the Latino students are of Salvadorian origin because there is a big Salvadorian community in the federal capital of the U.S.
In a poetry lesson I presented to sixth graders at this school, students had to write a poem using their five senses about a family member. A Salvadorian kid (to whom I would here give the fictitious name of José Pérez) wrote a striking beautiful and very moving poem in Spanish (he then translated the poem into English) about how he felt pride and was thankful for everything his dad who worked as a plumber had done for him and his whole family. I remember some of the poetic lines that went like this:
“Although society in general doesn’t appreciate much
your hard labor as a plumber that dirties your hands,
I bless the sweat on your honest forehead, father,
because you are like the strong tree that has given
protection, sustenance, shelter to our whole family…”
The poems was an ode in honor of the hard working father who had immigrated to the U.S. from El Salvador in order to give a better life to his children and family. When José read aloud his poem in front of the class, the teacher and librarian couldn’t contain their tears since they knew the very difficult circumstances that José’s family had undergone. The poem also impacted José’s classmates who applauded very effusively at the end of his reading of the poem. Some days later the teacher sent me an e-mail to let me know that José’s dad was so moved by the poem that he had bought a computer so that José could continue writing poems. Weeks later, the same teacher notified me that José had sent the poem dedicated to his dad to a children’s poetry contest organized by the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, and that he had won a prize and had been awarded a full scholarship to attend a prestigious private academy where he was going to go for his high school with all expenses paid. This is just a concrete example of a real impact of poetry on the life on a Salvadorian boy who lives in the capital of the U.S.
TDP: You are a very dynamic poet, what are you doing right now with poetry?
FXA: This Summer I’m finishing a collection of poems in three languages (in Nahuatl, Spanish and English) "Tonalámatl: el libro de los días / the Book of Days" that deals with the Mesoamerican calendar. This would be the first time that a collection of poems in these three languages would be published in the U.S. I don’t a have a publishing house yet, but I hope that I will find a press willing to publish this unique book of poems for young readers by the end of Summer.
On Abril 24, 2010, as a direct result of the discriminatory law against undocumented immigrants known as SB 1070 that was approved by the legislature in Arizona and signed into law by the governor of that state, I created a new Facebook page, POETS RESPONDING TO SB 1070, that at the moment has 3,500 fan members and has posted and indexed around 430 poems by poet from different regions of the U.S., Mexico, Spain, Iran, and other countries of the world.
There are 10 other poet moderators who help with posting poems, links,notes, and writing comments to posted poems. This FB page is visited by more than 2,000 people every week and has become an important public forum for poetty in solidarity with undocumented immigrants. Our theme is” “Civil Right For All! –For a Humane Immigration Reform Now!” You can send poems in Englidh or Spanish or visit this FB page at: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Poets-Responding-to-SB-1070/117494558268757?ref=ts
TDP: For many years you had been a friend of El Salvador, tell us how was this poetic relation?
FXA: I have felt a natural cultural affinity with El Salvador for many years that really goes beyond just poetry. My paternal grandmother was an indigenous person from the Nahuatl tradition in Mexico and I had a very close relationship with her that marked forever my whole life. The indigenous peoples known as Pipiles in El Savadot are part of this same big Mesoamerican cultural tree. I love the colloquial language known as “guanaco” that is used in El Salvador, with words like “cipotes” (“children”), “metate” (“grinding stone”), and “Cuzcatlán” that are words with Nahuatl origin; the legends of the Siguanaba and the Cipitío are now mine; one of my favorite foods are “pupusas” (“corn cakes”) that are filled either with cheese, “chicharrones” (“pork meat”), and “loroco” (a tropical flower). Of course, all this knowledge of Salvadorian culture have resulted from my close contacts, friendships, and socialization with people from El Salvador who live in the U.S.
As many other Chicanos/Latinos, I couldn’t remain indifferent or unconcerned in front of the heroic resistance of the poeple of El Salvador during the social conflict and civil war the 1980’s that only ended with the Peace Agreement of 1992. I was an active member of the Roque Dalton Cultural Brigade in San Francisco headed by Chicano poet Alejandro Murguía, and with thr participation of poets like Jack Hirschman, Juan Felipe Herrera, Barbara Paschke, David Volpendesta and activists like Magaly Fernández, Tony Ryan,and Rosa María Galdámez, among others. This cultural brigade published the first bilingual anthology of Central American poetry in the U.S. and several bilingual book of poems by masters of politically committed poetry, the Salvadorian poet Roque Dalton and the Guatemalan poet Otto René Castillo.
I was also member of CÓDICES, a Salvadorian cultural center directed by professor/poet/artist Martivón Galindo in the Latino barrio of the Mission in San Francisco where Salvadorian culture is without doubt an integral part of its rich cultural rainbow. Poet Jorge Argueta, artist/muralist Isaías Matta, and narrator/poet Manlio Argueta are some of the Salvadorian who have bestowed a cultural and literary legacy to our community and whose works I treasure, study and teach at the university level as part of my teaching duties at the University of Cailfornia, Davis. I wish that in a near future I will able to visit in person the old “Cuzcatlán” of my dreams-El Salvador.
Francisco X. Alarcón, award winning Chicano poet and educator, born in Los Angeles, in 1954, is author of eleven volumes of poetry, including, "From the Other Side of Night: Selected and New Poems" (University of Arizona Press 2002), and "Snake Poems: An Aztec
Invocation" (Chronicle Books 1992), "Sonetos a la locura y otras penas / Sonnets to Madness and Other Misfortunes" (Creative Arts Book Company 2001), "De amor oscuro / Of Dark Love" (Moving Parts Press
1991, and 2001).
His most recent book of bilingual poetry for children, "Animal Poems of the Iguazú" (Children’s Book Press 2008), was selected as a Notable Book for a Global Society by the International Reading Association, and as an Américas Awards Commended Title by the Consortium of Latin American Studies Programs. His previous bilingual book titled Poems to Dream Together (Lee & Low Books 2005) was awarded the 2006 Jane Addams Honor Book Award.
Children’s Book Press of San Francisco published his acclaimed “Magic Cycle of the Seasons” that includes four titles: " Laughing Tomatoes and Other Spring Poems" (1997) awarded the 1997 Pura Belpré Honor Award by the American Library Association and the National Parenting Publications Gold Medal; "From the Bellybutton of the Moon and Other Summer Poems" (1998) that received the 2000 Pura Belpré Honor Award; "Angels Ride Bikes and Other Fall Poems" (1999); his fourth book of bilingual poems for children, "Iguanas in the Snow and Other Winter Poems" (2001) received the 2002 Pura Belpré Honor Award.
He has been a finalist nominated for Poet Laureate of California in two occasions. He teaches at the University of California, Davis. He is the creator of the Facebook page POETS RESPONDING TO SB 1070 that you can visit at: