Saturday, April 03, 2010

Poetry Makers - Francisco X. Alarcón

Several years ago while looking for some bilingual poetry for a student teacher, I stumbled across the book Iguanas in the Snow and Other Winter Poems / Iguanas en la nieve: y otros poemas de invierno, written by Francisco Alarcón and illustrated by Maya Christina Gonzalez. The vibrant art on the cover reeled me in, and once I was inside the magic of the poems enchanted me. Here's one I suggested she use with her ESL students, all recent immigrants, all Spanish-speaking.

Ode to Buena
Vista Bilingual School

here Spanish
goes to school
with English

is as easy as

here children
of all races write
beautiful poems

in English
and Spanish
even in spirals

and following
the beat of teacher
Felipe's clave

here children
learn to sing
with their hearts
Oda a la Escuela
Bilingüe de Buena Vista

aqui el español
va a la escuela
con el inglés

es tan fácil como

aqui niños de todas
las razas escriben
bellos poemas

tanto en inglés
como en español
hasta en espiral

y siguiendo
la clave del
maestro Felipe

aqui los niños
aprenden a cantar
con el corazón

Before moving on to Francisco's interview, take a few minutes to listen to him talk about his family and read some of his poems.

How did you get started writing poetry? What got you hooked on children’s poetry?
Francisco: I started to write poems when I was around 13 years. I was in Guadalajara, Mexico, and I wanted to put down in writing my grandmother’s songs she used to sing. I thought the songs were part of the oral tradition but when I found out they were her own compositions that she had never written down, I decided to transcribe them. Since I don’t have a very good memory, I would make up for a line or two that were missing in the traditional ballads that usually have stanzas of four verses each.

I published my first book of bilingual poems for grown-ups in 1985. Later I became aware that there were almost no books of bilingual poems children written by any Latino poet in the United States, and so I wrote and published my first book of bilingual poems for children in 1997, “Laughing Tomatoes and Other Spring Poems” (Children’s Book Press). I published three additional books to complete the “Magical Cycle of the Four Seasons” of the year. I wrote a book of bilingual poems for children about dreams. “Poems to Dream Together” (Lee & Low Books, 2005). My latest book, “Animal Poems of the Iguazú / Animalario del Iguazú” (Children’s Book Press, 2008) is a celebration of a natural wonder of the world.

What are the things you enjoy most about writing poetry for children/young adults?
Francisco: I write poetry for children in the same way I write poems for grow-ups. My signature poetics is that “less is really more,” that is to say, that few words in a poem can express a great deal and some times better than long texts. I believe that poems can only be complete when they are read by readers or are heard by listeners. My poems demand readers and listeners who are “accomplices” of the author and can make sense of my poems that I believe are incomplete without the participation of readers and listeners. This is why I enjoy immensely reading aloud my bilingual poems to children during school visits or during poetry presentations in public libraries or community centers.

In the past, I used to present my poems together with slide shows, but last year, at the urging of the organizers of “Words Take Wing,” an annual literary presentation of children sponsored by the School of Education and that takes place at the Mondavi Performing Arts Center at the University of California, Davis, I began doing power point presentations in which my poems are projected to a screen together with visual images from my children’s books. I did this for the first time at a morning presentation at the Mondavi Center together with artist Maya Christina Gonzalez, the illustrator of five of my children’s book.

There were about 1,000 children and teachers in the audience in one of the largest performance theatres in Northern in California. It was a smashing great success and as a direct result, I was invited to visit about 20 schools in the surrounding areas in the following months. I see this as an integral part of the poetic process that starts with my solitary writing of the poems, then includes the edition and publication of the books of poems with artwork by inspired artists and designers, and finally extends to the actual presentation of the poems to children, their families and teachers, and the public in general. This process brings lots of joy and satisfaction to me as a poet and educator.

Who/what made you want to write?
Francisco: I began writing poems as a way to retrieve family memories, first by writing down the songs composed by my paternal grandmother in Guadalajara, Mexico, and then, by giving testimony of my family and personal experiences. After I do presentations of my poems to children, I usually ask children if they have any questions or comments, and often I receive some very insightful comments or questions from children, like the one I received at “El Festival del Libro” on March 14, 2010, in Sacramento.

A nine-year old girl commented that she noticed that all the poems I had read were in some way connected to my own life. I told her that I appreciated very much her insightful comment, and that yes, for me, poetry is an extension of my own life; that my poems are direct reflections of life and reality that I find fascinating, mesmerizing, and magical; that although I celebrate the imagination of other poets and writers, my poetry is a celebration of our surrounding reality, than more than being fictitious, my poetry is above all a testimony of life.

I told the audience that I have thinking about my work as a poet of the past 30 years; that I have come to the conclusion that maybe the main reason why I have never used periods in my poems is that in reality all my poems are really part of a single very long poem that is my life; that a big final period will mark my tombstone. And then I read the following poem that I include here:

Life Poem

not a single
period in all
of my poems--

my life
is really
the one poem

I've been
writing all
these years

--one single
long sentence
with no periods--

the day
I pass away
will mark

the last
and only

of all
my life
Poema Vida

ni un solo
punto en todos
mis poemas--

mi vida
es de veras
el único poema

que he estado
escribiendo todos
estos años

--una sola
larga oración
sin puntos--

el día
que muera

el único

de todo
mi poema
©Francisco X. Alarcón, 2010.

Have you had any formal poetry training? If not, how did you learn to write what you do?
Francisco: I had the privilege of having excellent education opportunities in my lifetime. I was a scholarship student that attended El Instituto de Ciencias, an elitist high school run by the Jesuits in Guadalajara, Mexico. Since I was in the Dean’s List, I was given the keys to a wonderful literary library of more than 3,000 books that was at my personal disposal. This library was a paradise for a teenager interested in devouring books.

Then after I moved to California and went to college, I took many solid courses on Latin American and Spanish literature and got a BA in Spanish and History from California State University, Long Beach. For five years I undertook graduate studies at Stanford University, in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese. I consider Fernando Alegría, a Chilean poet and novelist who was the cultural attaché in the Chilean Embassy during the Allende government, and a professor at Stanford, one of my literary mentors. When I was a Fulbright scholar in Mexico, I met and became a very close friend of Elías Nandino, who at 80 years old was a survivor of generation of Mexican writers known as “Los Contemporáneos.” Elías Nandino became my mentor in poetry and life.

While attending Stanford, I moved and lived in the Mission District in San Francisco, California, and met and collaborated with many great poets and writers like Juan Felipe Herrera, Lorna Dee Cervantes, José Antonio Burciaga, Lucha Corpi, Jack Hirschman, Alejandro Murguía, among others.

Being faculty to some intensive poetry workshops like “Art of the Wild” organized by Jack Hicks, professor fo UC Davis, in Squaw Valley near Lake Tahoe in California, taught a great deal about poetry. I had the chance to interact with Gary Snyder, who is one of the main teachers of poetry of my generation. Above all I have to say that life is the teacher, mentor, inspiration, and main theme of my poetry.

Can describe your poetry writing process?
Francisco: I am always very puzzled by poets who say that they write poetry every day at a certain time. I have never been able to do so. I write poems really in a fit of passion. I can go on days and months without writing anything and then suddenly poems come rushing to me unexpectedly. I have learned to leave everything aside and become a medium for the poems. Whole collections of poems have come to me in a matter of few days. Most of the bilingual poems my latest book, “Animal Poems of the Iguazú / Animalario del Iguazú.” came to me while I was visiting the Iguazú National Park in Northern Argentina. So, I can say the poems were written in situ.

For some unknown reason, I write most of poems by hand on yellow lined paper blocks. Maybe I see myself as a secretary taking dictation for a poetic brief instead of a legal one. I am so old fashioned; I still use cursive handwriting; for me, the movement and cadence of writing by hand are very inspirational and conducive to poetry.

Do you have a favorite among all the poems/poetry books you have written?
Francisco: This is very difficult question to ask to poet like me. It’s like asking a father about his favorite son or daughter. I celebrate each poem of every poetry book as being unique and part of a large book that I have been writing all my life. For me poetry somehow escapes the realm of the possible. I read some of my poems I wrote decades ago as if I had written them yesterday, and others that I wrote recently I read them as if someone else had written them; they keep surprising me.

Would you like to share the details of any new poetry project(s) that you’re working on?
Francisco: I have been working on two books of poems for children. The first one is collection of bilingual poems about the Mesoamerican origin of Chocolate. I have submitted the manuscript to several published and I have been told by editors that although they loved my poems they found that the subject matter, chocolate, is really a taboo subject for children’s books, because chocolate supposedly makes people obese. But my poems deal with the indigenous origins of chocolate and not about the sugar that was later added to chocolate. I sent the manuscript to a university press that is still considering it. I know that when my book of chocolate poems comes out it will do really well among children, educators, critics, and the public in general.

The second book is a collection of poems about Aztec calendar. I have titled this unpublished book, “Tonalamatl: Book of Days / Libro de los días.” This is a trilingual collection that includes short poems for the 20 days in the Aztec calendar in Spanish, English, and Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. The poems in Nahuatl are translations done by Natalio Hernández, one of the most distinguished Mexican poets who write in Nahuatl in Mexico. This book is directed toward middle school children and young readers and is a groundbreaking literary project because it will be the first time that a picture book will be published in English, Spanish, and Nahuatl in the United States. I am in the process of looking for a publisher.

Pop Quiz!
Your favorite dead poet?
Francisco: In English, two of my favorite poets are E. E. Cummings and Langston Hughes. In Spanish, I would say Federico García Lorca and Pablo Neruda.

Your favorite place to write?
Francisco: I don’t have a particular place for writing. I have written many of my poems on my kitchen table and on small notebooks as I walk around or right after I wake up in the morning, also in the middle of night still on my bed.

Favorite quote on writing/poetry?
Francisco: "The earth laughs in flowers" by E. E. Cumming. I once wrote a poem that resembles this quote:
hills are starting
to crack a green
smile once again

Your nominee for the next Children’s Poet Laureate?
Francisco: I would nominate Pat Mora, who has published so many beautiful children’s books.

Francisco has done such a wonderful job describing his art that I can't add much more. I wish I had thought to ask if he composes in Spanish, English, or both. I'm not sure it matters, but to someone who is sadly monolingual, I am intrigued by those who can "think" in a second language. And frankly, I struggle to write decent poetry in my native language, so reading Francisco's work fills me with even more admiration and wonder knowing he's working in two languages.

I'd like to end this remarkable interview with two of my favorite poems. The first can be found in Poems to Dream Together / Poemas Para Sonar Juntos. The second can be found in From the Bellybutton of the Moon and Other Summer Poems / Del Ombligo de la Luna: Y Otros Poemas de Verano.

In My Dreams

buffaloes roam
free once again
on the plains

whales become
opera singers
of the sea

dolphins are
admired by all for
their smarts and joy

in my dreams
there is no word
for "war"

all humans
and all living

come together
as one big family
of the Earth
En Mis Suénos

los búfalos rondan
por las praderas
libres otra vez

las ballenas
se vuelven cantantes
de ópera del mar

los delfines son
admirados por todos
por su ingenio y alegria

en mis sueños
no hay una palabra
para "guerra"

todos los humanos
y todos los seres

se juntan como
una gran familia
de la Tierra

Ode to My Shoes

my shoes
all night
under my bed

they stretch
and loosen
their laces

wide open
they fall asleep
and dream
of walking

they revisit
the places
they went to
during the day

and wake up
so soft

Oda a mis zapatos

mis zapatos
toda la noche
bajo mi cama

se estiran
se aflojan
las cintas

muy anchose
se duermen
y sueñan
con andar

los lugares
adonde fueron
en el día

y amanecen

To learn more about Francisco and his work, visit these sites.
Many, many thanks to Francisco for participating in the Poetry Makers series.

All poems ©Francisco X. Alarcón. All rights reserved.


  1. Thank you! This is really wonderful! I love his poetry! The interview was great!

  2. I LOVE his Life Poem -- the idea of no periods in a poem (or a life) until the tombstone at the very end of it all...

  3. Ah, "crack a green smile" -- that sounds lovely.

  4. Hooray! A new poet I've never heard of and bilingual to boot. I know enough Spanish to enjoy both versions of his poems. Many thanks to Tricia for interviewing Francisco

  5. Great post - I'd love to know which language he composes in as well, but I think you did a great job anyhow!

  6. Since Tricia and Kelly want to know which language I write my poems in, I write almost simultaneously in both English and Spanish. Some collections of poems were originally written mostly in Spanish because they deal with life experiences that took place in Spanish, But many other poems were written first in English and then I did the Spanish versions. I don't have my own blog and this blog is about MANY VOCES/ONE VISION, a poetry benefit we did in Berkeley, Calaifornia, on March 28 for Haiti and Chile. Best greetings, and Tricia, keep on the god works, Francisco X. Alarcón

  7. So lovely to revisit this now that we've lost Francisco. Thanks for creating this beautiful dialogue and highlighting his groundbreaking work, Tricia.