FXA: in memorium
by Francisco Aragón
It was the early 80s. Ronald Reagan was obsessed with Nicaragua, undermining the Sandinista’s incipient revolution at every turn. Salvadorans were fleeing U.S-funded death squads and settling in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and elsewhere. The Sanctuary Movement was in full bloom. One night, my older brother took me to the Women’s Building in San Francisco’s Mission District for an evening of Central American solidarity: comida, música, poesía.
There, I got my first glimpse of him: trim, in pressed jeans and snug jacket made of leather, one that matched his short, stylish, black hair. He would have been just shy of thirty. He read “Prayer,” a poem whose English version he rendered himself, but which I would tweak years later for our first book collaboration. He read “Fugitive”—a piece that hinted at a clandestine homoeroticism. I was mesmerized. I was sixteen. Two years later I was a student at UC Berkeley.
I’ve often spoken and written about my stint with the Berkeley Poetry Review. Looking back, I don’t think I recognized nor appreciated what a crucial crucible the BPR was during my college years—when I met and befriended, was befriended by, Francisco X. Alarcón.
It was at a poetry reading at Cody’s Bookstore one Wednesday night in 1986. As a staffer for the BPR always on the lookout for poetry to solicit, I approached him after his reading and introduced myself. He suggested we go for coffee. After we said our goodbyes to Joyce Jenkins and Richard Silberg of Poetry Flash, the sponsors of the event, Alarcón and I walked to a nearby café on Telegraph Avenue, and took our seats.
He dug out of his shoulder bag—it was of woven cloth—the Spanish-language pages he’d been reading from. He kept the unpublished volume in one of those fancy black manuscript binders I came to know him for. He wanted to share something he hadn’t read that night. He leaned in close and began reading, almost in a whisper, “En un barrio de Los Angeles,” a lovely poem about his grandmother that ends with the one word line, italicized:
His signature minimalist strokes began to visually register with me right then and there. I don’t recall how much time we spent with one another, but by the end of what today I can only call that seminal first encuentro he promised to send me the manuscript, and gave his blessing: I could start translating it. I was a college student he was meeting for the first time, and he was entrusting me with his work. It was an early lesson in mentorship and generosity.
The manuscript arrived in the mail a week later and I got to work. In less than a year, we’d place two poems (“My Hair” and “Order in the Home”) in two issues, respectively, of the new West Coast journal, ZYZZYVA. In less than a year we’d have in hand contracts with Chronicle Books for the eventual publication of Cuerpo en llamas/Body In Flames—with its reproduction on the cover of Jose Clemente Orozco’s stunning and startling mural of what appears to be a naked man engulfed in flames, “Man of Fire.”
It would be Alarcón’s first full-length book and my first collaboration with him, as his translator. Until then, he’d authored a range of small press titles, mostly chapbook-length, including an exquisite volume with silk-screen cover, Ya Vas, Carnal, co-authored with Rodrigo Reyes and Juan Pablo Gutierrez, a title Juan Felipe Herrera has written movingly about in his online essay “Gay Chicano Poets.” For my part, from the closet, I recognized in Francisco X. Alarcón someone I would eventually aspire to emulate—in other words, he was one of my first role models in this other unspoken (at least by me) terrain, one of assuming, unapologetically, one’s sexual identity.
Concurrently, during this period, I was beginning to co-translate Lorca’s “Sonetos del Amor Oscuro/Sonnets of Dark Love,” alongside John K. Walsh, who I’ve written about elsewhere—specifically, the John K. Walsh Mentorship Essays published in Origin. I eventually posted these sonnets to Alarcón. Truth be told, sending them was my way of coming out to him. He, in turn, showed them to Lorna Dee Cervantes, with whom he was sharing a flat in Santa Cruz at the time. These inspired at least one piece of hers that went on to appear in From the Cables of Genocide. These Lorca sonnets, along with Neruda’s unrhymed love sonnets, provided the groundwork and inspiration for our next collaboration, this time with Moving Parts Press: De Amor Oscuro/Of Dark Love—a bilingual collection of homoerotic sonnets and line drawings that saw the light of publication after I moved to Spain.
One can imagine Alarcón giving readings from the poems in these two books and crediting me, in public, with the English versions. In fact, this is precisely what he did. And one might imagine audience members, in my absence, speculating about the twin quality of our names—Francisco Alarcón/Francisco Aragón. And thus began the myth, as Alarcón would amusingly share with me years later, the belief that “Francisco Aragón” was a clever invention of Alarcón’s, no matter how much he insisted, when he read my translations, that I existed.
And so, when I returned to California in 1998, after my ten-year residence in Spain, we gave a handful of joint readings in the San Francisco/Bay Area. We touted ourselves as “Los Franciscos!” In fact, Intersection for the Arts—located on Valencia in San Francisco’s Mission District—ran a series that paired mentors with mentees. Francisco X. Alarcón generously invited me to share a stage with him for one installment of this series. In the days leading up to the event, we carefully curated our poems. On the appointed evening, we each took turns reading a couple at a time—attempting to place not only our work, but our disparate reading styles in a kind of dialogue. To this day, it remains one of the most meaningful experiences I’ve had at a reading—as a reader.
In the first phase of our friendship—let’s call it my “pre-Davis years,” our encounters typically consisted of long sessions in a café in the Mission going over my English versions of his Spanish-language poems, the fruits being, as I’ve said, Body in Flames (Chronicle Books, 1989) and Of Dark Love (Moving Parts Press, 1992).
But once I enrolled as an M.A. student at UC Davis in the Fall of 1998, Alarcón and I would now see much more of each other. By then he’d begun his long tenure directing UC Davis’ Spanish for Native Speakers Program. I’d also see more of Javier Pinzón, his partner, and I’d get to know, and spend quite a bit of time in, their lovely home in Davis with its brightly painted, art-adorned walls. In the years that followed, I’d often stay in their guest room. They graciously hosted me in the spring of 2005 when I returned to Davis to read from Puerta del Sol, my first book, and appeared on Doctor Andy’s Poetry & Technology Hour, a radio program that’s been going strong since 2000. That would be Andy Jones, Davis’ current Poet Laureate.
It was during my time as a grad student in Davis that I would actually enroll in one of Alarcón’s classes—a creative writing course he taught, in Spanish. This experience led to my decision to make Puerta del Sol a dual-language book. It was also during this time that we shared a meal in Berkeley one day with Donald Ellis of Creative Arts Book Company. And it was at that lunch that we sealed our third book collaboration: Sonetos a la locura y otras penas/Sonnets to Madness and Other Misfortunes (Creative Arts Book Company, 2001). Here is one I particularly enjoyed rendering:
your eyes show me how to see again
like mirrors of water, understanding all
there’s no mystery they can’t solve—
a single glance is more than enough
your eyes see, listen, touch, speak
are beacons on the horizon
shedding light on shades of life
beyond the reach of words
so I start to read your body
pausing at every mole, as if
they were commas or periods
how I love to scribble on your chest
use the muscles on your back as lines—
you and I are both page and pen
One of the highlights of my time in Davis, in fact, was having the opportunity to give an informal talk at an Irish Studies colloquium in which I compared Alarcón’s and the Irish-language poet Cathal O’Searcaigh’s use of the natural landscape to depict the male body. Alarcón was present, as was the visiting Irish-language poet Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill. Why am I invoking Ireland? Because one of Alarcón’s most memorable experiences as a poet was a reading tour he gave in Ireland in the early 90s to read from the Irish-language edition of Body in Flames. The poet/translator Gabriel Rosenstock came upon our Chronicle Books volume and was inspired to produce a tri-lingual version of it, relying, in part, on my English versions to render Alarcón’s signature slender poems into Irish. And relying, as well, on the Spanish linguistic skills of Noel Griffen, who wrote the Introduction to the Irish edition of Body in Flames. Jack and Adelle Foley, last Sunday at La Boheme, movingly read Rosenstock’s brief tribute to Alarcón, sent from Ireland. I’ve had the pleasure of breaking bread with Rosenstock, in Dublin, a number of times—with Francisco X. Alarcón, as always, serving, in absencia, as our puente, our bridge.
After my years in Davis (1998-2000), I re-located to the Midwest to begin my time at Notre Dame. Not surprisingly, I saw less of Alarcón. Though, in the Fall of 2002, he was one of five Latino/a poets who took part in a Latino Poets Conference at Notre Dame, where I had the pleasure of introducing him. But in the last few years, Letras Latinas has provided two wonderful occasions to come together in vital and meaningful ways.
The first was inviting Alarcón, in 2012, to judge the fifth edition of the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize, which supports the publication of a first book by a Latino/a poet residing in the United States. He selected Laurie Ann Guerrero, the current Poet Laureate of Texas, whose winning manuscript became A Tongue in the Mouth of the Dying (University of Notre Dame Press, 2013). After Guerrero’s book was published, Alarcón came to Notre Dame with her to give a joint reading. Their visit happily coincided with the second gathering of the Letras Latinas Writers Initiative and one Sunday afternoon we all went to a matinee performace of Lorca’s Bodas de Sangre at Notre Dame’s DPAC Performing Arts Cengter. It was also during this second visit that I was able to conduct a substantive Oral History Video Interview with him, which one can now view on the web today.
But what is perhaps not as widely known is that Francisco X. Alarcón was the judge who selected, back in the late 90s, the manuscript—for UC Irvine’s now discontinued Chicano/Latino Literary Prize—that became, the iceworker sings and other poems (Bilingual Press, 1999) by the late Andrés Montoya. This was a book I discovered at the campus bookstore while I was a graduate student at UC Davis. It was the book that inspired the creation of the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize.
Laurie Ann Guerrero
Francisco X. Alarcón
When I learned, a few years ago, that the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s exhibit, “Our America: the Latino Presence in American Art,” would be traveling to the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, and be on display there from late September of 2014 until early January of 2015, it felt like a gift.
Letras Latinas, in the fall of 2013, had launched its multi-year initiative, “PINTURA:PALABRA, a project in ekphrasis.” The initiative involved, among other things, holding on-site ekphrastic writing workshops at museums where the exhibit would land. We held our first workshop in February of 2014 in Washington, D.C., designed and facilitated by Brenda Cárdenas and Valerie Martínez. We held our second, in May of 2015, at the Frost Museum at Florida International University in Miami, which was led by former Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize winner, Emma Trelles, who’d been a participant in the DC workshop.
For the Sacramento workshop, which took place in October of 2014, I asked Francisco X. Alarcón to lead it. With seventeen participants, from the Sacramento as well as the Bay Area region, it was our largest thus far, and the experience was magical, culminating with a group reading on Sunday at the Sacramento Poetry Center.
October 10-12, 2014
Crocker Art Museum
Letras Latinas is immensely proud to have had a hand, in consultation with U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera, in recently bestowing upon Francisco X. Alarcón the first Yolteotl Poet Laureate Award. Yolteotl—the Nahuatl term for Divine Heart in the time of the Aztecs—was designated to the artists that demonstrated and accomplished an art that was for the people at all levels and all life.
Certainly, for me, Francisco X. Alarcón, as a poet, but also as a mentor and friend, has been, is a touchstone for what it means to be a conscientious literary citizen, as well as a friend to fellow artists and writers.
Our community rallied around him and sent him healing energy and love. My hope, moving forward, is that his poems gain traction beyond those of us who have been enriched by his work for the past 35 or so years--that he will continue to live and breathe and sing to us through his art.
January 10, 2016
San Francisco, CA