Francisco X. Alarcon, 43, looks somewhat like a Mexican buddha with a round face, glasses and a long ponytail. Ah, he's a poet. That explains it. Poets can adopt any look they desire and it's appropriate.
"Yes, I'm a poet first then a teacher. When I'm not teaching, when I'm not eating, I'm a poet. I'm a poet all the time, I think," Alarcon said in a recent interview to discuss his bilingual book of poetry, "Laughing Tomatoes and Other Spring Poems" (Children's Book Press, 1997). The 20 poems, written in both English and Spanish, are brightly illustrated by Maya Christina Gonzalez.
Alarcon's adult side directs the Spanish for Native Speakers Program at UC Davis. "I've been here for almost five years," he said.
He is the author of seven books of poetry and co-author of several textbooks for Spanish speakers but "Laughing Tomatoes" is his first book aimed at children. He thinks he's on to something very cultural, very wonderful.
"I celebrate tomatoes, corn, chiles, the season, nature," he said. " 'Laughing Tomatoes' is a celebration of life ... we have to become like vegetables, like trees, to accept water and life. I really believe that poetry is magical. When you read poetry you have to find new ways of looking at yourself, at the universe. Poetry can communicate feelings that everyday speech cannot."
He spent much of his spring break visiting classrooms up and down the state - classrooms that the Children's Book Press had supplied in advance with copies of his book.
"It's been an incredible introduction into how kids relate to poetry. I've learned so much going to 14 schools in three weeks. I would read a poem and then we would discuss it. I relate to children in the third and fourth grades because they are natural poets. I learn so much from children. I teach creative writing here at the university and let me tell you...I don't want to say too much...but third-graders are better poets. They make connections, metaphors. They take risks and go for broke and open up."
The very first poem in the book has to be read upside down, a quirk that children love: "A poem makes us see/Everything for the first time" or "Un poema nos hace ver/ Todo por primera vez."
He loved working with children who knew about his work in advance and were ready, when he arrived as a guest lecturer, to write poems.
"I am very happy that at least for once in my life I was able to be a medium for other writers to become writers," he said, laughing.
He writes, too, about his grandmothers. His maternal grandmother appears in "Laughing Tomatoes."
"Here you have a woman who suffered a great deal...moving from Mexico to the United States in 1919, and then, during the Great Depression in 1931, back to Mexico...and yet she was happy within herself. She was the one who really raised us. I had a lot of fun with my grandmother."
Alarcon grew up both in the United States and Mexico. "I consider myself bi-national," he said. "In fact, my family has been bi-national for four generations."
He reads a poem about his roots: "I carry my roots with me all the time/Rolled up I use them as my pillow."
Going back to his Mexican village regularly is important to Alarcon. He recalled his summers there, growing up in a time and place where there was no TV. "We sat around and listened to stories night after night and went to bed with our heads full of those stories," he said.
"Now the village has radio and TV. I'm concerned about the loss of the oral tradition...and for awhile I was concerned about Chicano writing. I was worried thinking there were no writers in the generation behind me. But I think the problem was there were no venues. When I was at Stanford there were at least 50 Chicano literary magazines (which don't exist anymore). But in the past few years there has been a wealth of Chicano writing. "I'm not writing a novel. I write some fiction...but poetry is enough for me. And after going to those 14 schools and seeing those children and the tremendous need they have for bilingual books, I've made a commitment that I want to continue doing this for the next several years."
His second book for children, "From the Belly Button of the Moon," is at the publishers now. "It's about my going back to Mexico when I was a kid, about spending time with my uncles, and I hope the same artist decides to illustrate it."
He mourns the fact that there are so few original bilingual books for kids in California. "I want to retain my native tongue, Spanish, and the native (Indian) language of my village, too," he said.