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Bilingual poet Francisco Alarcón takes his artform to talented next generation

August 7, 2016
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@dcn.davis.ca.us

This article is from The Davis Enterprise, Monday, January 7, 2008 and is new material by Elisabeth Sherwin at this web site. This is posted in memory of Francisco Alarcón, who passed on Jan. 15, 2016.

Shortlisted but ultimately bypassed for the prestigious post of state poet laureate, Francisco Alarcón, 53, smiles at the idea that he might one day be given the nod.

But not because of the honor — although he thinks it would be a lovely honor — but because of the hundreds of thousands of people he could reach with his poetry.

In an interview at his Davis home last week, Alarcón said "a celebration of poetry" was the idea behind the creation of the poet laureate position. It was established by the state Legislature in 2001; Al Young was the most recent honoree.

"The idea is that it's not just a solitary individual sitting at a desk but it's a celebration of communication — poets are able to communicate the most intimate feelings in just a very few words," Alarcón said.

"It's a celebration of humanity — this is what makes us human, that we can get across the same feelings to someone who doesn't know us — it's magic. And the poet laureate brings people and poetry together."

However, Alarcón isn't sitting around waiting for the call. Instead he's working on more projects than he will likely be able to finish in a lifetime. He teaches "Spanish for Native Speakers" at UC Davis — where he has been since 1992 — and has written a series of textbooks on the subject.

He's an accomplished children's poetry book author — bilingual poetry is his specialty and he is a classroom expert when it comes to coaxing poetry out of 8- and 9-year-olds.

His first four books of bilingual poetry for children began in 1997 with "Laughing Tomatoes and Other Spring Poems," followed by "From the Belly Button of the Moon and Other Summer Poems" in 1998 and continued with "Angels Ride Bikes and Other Fall Poems" in 1999 and "Iguanas in the Snow and Other Winter Poems" in 2001.

He says children are natural poets because they are imaginative and are not afraid to express their feelings.

"Give me an hour (with a class of third- or fourth-graders) and they will be writing poetry," he said. "I also teach poetry workshops to adults at the university but it takes me weeks to get adults to open up."

He pulls out a poem composed by a third-grader at a school in San Jose. The kids were given the template of a hand print and asked to write a poem in the palm and along then fingers.

"This is the hand of my abuela

Who always bugs me when I visit her," wrote a little boy.

Another student wrote:

"This is the hand of my grandpa

Who gives me horsies on his leg

And I would call him silly."

Alarcón loves children at this age because they have enough linguistic ability to put together feelings with writing. His most recent book, "Poems to Dream Together," continues the bilingual tradition.

He said a fifth-grader in a Washington, D.C., classroom write a poem about his father that started a life-changing chain of events.

"The boy wrote a poem about his father, a plumber from El Salvador. The boy described how no one paid attention to his father with his dirty hands. But when his father came home, his son worshipped him."

Alarcón said the boy's poem won a prize and led to a prep school scholarship.

"It changed his life," Alarcón said.

The poet's next book, a book of animal poems or ecopoetics called "Animal Poems of the Iguazu Paradise," is coming out in May. He wrote the book after a trip to the national park in Argentina.

He very much hopes the book will bring some attention to the problem of deforestation in Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay. He also plans to tour Argentina giving readings from his book.

He has another book of poetry for adults called "Solstice in Machu Picchu," written after a trip to Peru, and has a book "Chocolate Poems and Wonders" for children looking for a publisher. Chocolate, he says, is getting a bad rap from publishers who look at it as a forbidden substance contributing to childhood obesity.

"That book has been rejected by six publishers," he said.

Alarcón has many other projects in the works, too. He says Davis is great place for him in terms of providing a base for research and teaching. He grew up in Los Angeles and Mexico and makes frequent return visits to see family (he has four brothers and two sisters and lots of nieces and nephews) and friends.

But he's thinking about the future, too. He has the idea of someday building a retirement home in Mexico in a little fishing village north of Puerto Vallarta. He has a collection of bilingual children's literature and quite likes the idea of putting his 2,000 volumes in a library there and making it accessible to local children.

"Mexico doesn't have a tradition of children's books," he said. "It was an invention of the British that influenced Argentina."

But there's a lot to do before retirement in that Mexican fishing village. Alarcón is in love with pre-Aztec civilizations and has ideas for children's books and adult books that celebrate those indigenous roots.

"My grandmother was a full-blooded Indian," he said. That makes it difficult, sometimes, to appreciate his brother who is a Catholic priest.

"We have a colonial mentality in my own family," he said, smiling.

"But we are part of America, of the mix, this is who we are. And really, reality is more interesting than fiction. There are no made up characters in my poetry."

Instead Alarcón wrote a poem collected in "From the Other Side of Night" condemning one of his ancestors, Hernando Ruiz del Alarcón (1587-1646), a conquistador, concluding:

"I am

from your tree

from your dream."

-- Reach Elisabeth Sherwin at gizmo@dcn.org

For More Information, Visit These Links:
In Printed Matter:

  • Alarcon, Francisco 4/1/16
  • Alarcon, Francisco 8/29/99
  • Alarcon, Francisco
    External sites:
  • At Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francisco_X._Alarc%C3%B3n
  • At Poetry Foundation: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/francisco-x-alarcon

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