Francisco X. Alarcón and Juan Felipe Herrera
“Because We Come from Everything: Poetry &Migration” is the first public offering of the newly formed Poetry Coalition—twenty-two organizations dedicated to working together to promote the value poets bring to our culture and communities, as well as the important contributions poetry makes in the lives of people of all ages and backgrounds.
During the month of March, coalition members CantoMundo and Letras Latinas are partnering to present guest posts by CM fellows at Letras Latinas Blog that will include essays, creative non-fiction, micro reviews and dialogues between writers. This year’s theme borrows a line from U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera’s poem, “Borderbus.” Please return to this space and enjoy all the pieces in the series, and leave comments to participate in the dialogue.
Barbara Curiel, CantoMundo
Francisco Aragón, Letras Latinas
JFH’s homage to FXA
by Francisco Aragón
Juan Felipe Herrera’s poem, “Walking(Tenochitlan, DF) with Francisco X. Alarcón, 1978”, braids two concepts: what I’m calling exterior journey, and what I’m calling interior journey. Early in his piece, we read:
We walk on tiny quadrants of consciousness.
The “we” is Herrera and Alarcón strolling through “downtown Mexico DF”. They’re on their way to visit Elias Nandino, “El Doctor poeta,” whose office is in “La Torre Metropolitana,” “47 stories up above Tenochtitlan outside.” The walk these “two spirit wanderers” are on coincides with a major archaeological dig that started, as the title indicates, in 1978. The poem begins:
Thus, the first image is: “archeologists” “ben[t] down,” “swishing/brushes uncovering her stone armature”—in reference to the female figure in Aztec mythology.
So we have Herrera and Alarcón’s exterior journey of walking past these archaeological “quadrants.” Through the study of these artifacts, after they’ve been unearthed, a particular human “consciousness” will be revealed, which is to say: archeologists will soon embark upon interior journeys—exploring and researching Aztec civilization through the study of its physical objects.
Having said that, the poem’s principal arc is Herrera and Alarcón experiencing a series of encounters while on their paseo: after Nandino, they “meet up with Arturo Villafuerte” who “says he has a column/in El Excelsior” and encourages the young Chicano escritores to “send him some pieces.”
Next, they “run into Ernesto Trejo/huffing it down San Juan de Letrán with his mini-series of poetry/chapbooks.” That would be the late poet from Fresno, Ernesto Trejo, author of Entering a Life (Arte Público Press, 1990), who died before his time in 1991. In the poem, Trejo is 28 years old, two years younger than Herrera and four years older than Alarcón, making the three writers contemporaries of one another.
There’s something poignant about this: Juan Felipe Herrera migrating back in time in order to re-create, in the space of a poem, three young Chicanos coinciding in Mexico City, brimming with their particular passions, this dual gesture—journeying through time, journeying through space—unfolding before our eyes.
The next encounter is solely Herrera’s—an interior flashback: “I saw Macario a few blocks from here in the/early 60’s searching for a hut to be able to bite into/an existential turkey leg…” Memory breeds memory: Herrera, as he’s recalling that 1978 walk, is also recalling his encounter with Macario further back in time, his mind suddenly alighting on this:
an existential turkey leg this is the life on the street poeta a poeta
These encounters, or rather, recalling these encounters, can, therefore, lead to insights that perhaps Herrera wasn’t cognizant of at the time. Perhaps some lessons are not learned when they are being lived; perhaps they are learned when memory summons them decades later.
Let’s pause for some editorial context: “Walking (Tenochitlan, DF) with Francisco X. Alarcón, 1978” is the first poem in, Soñadores: We Came to Dream (CantoHondo/DeepSong Books, 2016) edited by Odilia Galván Rodríguez—a commissioned anthology—an homage, if you will, to the late Francisco X. Alarcón, who died on January 15, 2015 at the age of 61. We can imagine, therefore, Herrera taking this occasion to perhaps finally commit to a poem that walk in 1978 with his beloved poet friend.
Further in the text, Alarcón and Herrera go on to meet with a Gustavo Saenz:
in his neat bluish coat—
Francisco makes a deal
let’s publish a Chicana and Chicano edition of El Suplemento Literario
that we’ll edit for El Excelsior—What do you think Juan Felipe
la hacemos I say.
we walk on we move we rap we eat
Up until now, what I’ve been calling “encounters” have been the mentioning of particular names and their connection with some form of literary activity as this encuentro with Gustavo Saenz bears out. The “encounter” that follows, however, breaks this pattern.
In fact, it’s the poem’s crescendo: It’s days after their walk and Herrera and Alarcón find themselves at “Editorial Katún here’s a/book on the life of Augustin Lara I think I’ll get it for Alejandro/Murguía…”
This “encounter” with the late Murguía stands out, first of all, because it’s not a literal one like the others; it takes place in the poet’s mind and heart. How Herrera describes him, how Herrera perceives Murguía’s project, how Herrera concludes the “encounter” by pondering the implications of Murguía’s project and vision—all of these things are the elements that make up the heart of the poem:
serrucho face his dark
melancholy jagged wooly skin his metaphysical attempt to stitch
everything that has been cut open back together again—that
cannot be stitched back together again like we are Azteca
Humpty Dumpties in the Promised Land Francisco I say
wait a minute—stop
why don’t you write about your life ok?
why don’t you write about your love alone world when
you come to Mexico by yourself that intensity that night
after night on fire why don’t you write about your
real stuff (Why don’t I)
Which brings us back to the poem’s first encounter—with Elias Nandino. Herrera had designated him not only as “El Doctor poeta,” but also as “El Doctor poeta/de canciones de amor oscuro (my emphasis). This is no accident.
Elias Nandino was a crucial role model for the 24-year-old Alarcón. A renowned poet often associated with the poetic group called “Los Contemporáneos,” Nandino would have been 78 years old in 1978. In him, Alarcón got to know a distinguished man of letters who lived his life as an openly gay man in Mexico City. Alarcón had recounted to me many times what a transformative role Nandino had played in his life—providing him with a model on how to assume his own identity as an openly gay Chicano poet in the early 1980s.
Juan Felipe Herrera, in effect, is adding another layer to this particular swath of both Alarcón’s and his own literary biography. He seems to be suggesting that one of the results of their time together in Mexico City in 1978 was the resolve to take on, as subject matter, their particular “truths.” It’s as if, until this moment, Herrera’s and Alarcón’s literary aspirations lacked, perhaps, some focus. But after 1978 and after—in Herrera’s case, it seems—his pointed reflection on the ambition of Alejandro Murguía’s literary vocation (“his metaphysical attempt to stitch/everything that has been cut open back together again”), Herrera has an epiphany of sorts (“wait a minute—stop”), one he shares with Alarcón in a kind of advice-giving way (“why don’t you write about…?”), though he also implicates himself (“(Why don’t I)”).
Herrera, with his mention of Nandino’s “amor oscuro” at the beginning of the poem, and his mention of Alarcón’s “love alone world” with its “intensity” and “fire”—in short, his “real stuff”—seems to be urging Alarcón not to mute those aspects of himself that may not have been acceptable in the Chicano literary canon of the time. There’s a certain poetic justice in this thought: one of the “real” and enduring subjects of Juan Felipe Herrera’s oeuvre has been the Chicano Movement and its communities. It’s heartening, therefore, to see that in 1978 Herrera fully embraced the notion of his fellow poet friend not mincing or parsing his words when it came to writing about being an openly gay Chicano poet.
Part of Francisco X. Alarcón’s legacy was having adopted Elias Nandino’s unapologetic stance, where homoeroticism was concerned. One of the results was that Alarcón, in turn, became a mentor and role model to the next generation of gay Chicano/Latino poets, including, for the example, the poets he convened and introduced in the spring of 2002 in New Orleans at the AWP reading, “Boca a Boca,” which included Rigoberto González, the late Rane Arroyo, Eduardo C. Corral, and myself.
Juan Felipe Herrera’s poem, entering its homestretch, mentions Francisco X. Alarcón by name (“Francisco”) no less than three times—in the last 15 lines of this 75+ line piece:
Francisco keeps walking
wave to Francisco who stays I’ll see you later when our
paths cross again…
Francisco dissolves in the multiple audiences
First: the image of our main character perennially (“keeps”) putting one foot in front of the other forefronts the piece’s multiple manifestations of “migration.”
Second: the piece’s use of the imperative (“wave to Francisco”) accentuates the poem’s invitation to, literally, participate (“wave…”) in what I’m going to call the poem’s storyscape. But it also insinuates the following: in 1978 Herrera is taking leave of Francisco and anticipates seeing him back at Stanford University, where they met (“I got/to head back to Stanford somehow”). And yet: Juan Felipe Herrera has written this poem after Alarcón has died. I don’t know his views on the so-called “afterlife,” but one may read into this passage that Herrera is aware that he, too, will one day join the realm that Elias Nandino, Ernesto Trejo, Alejandro Murguía and, most recently, Alarcón, currently occupies (“I’ll see you later…”). Becoming one with our muertos.
Third: given the circumstances of this poem’s composition, this passage prompts one to ponder how Francisco X. Alarcón lives on, not only in his work but also in the lives of those of us who loved him—his “multiple audiences.”
In the end, “Walking (Tenochitlan, DF) with Francisco X. Alarcón, 1978” becomes its own “quadrant of consciousness”—a work that invites us to an archaeological dig of letters, each of us embarking on our respective interior journeys, interior migrations.
December 2016, Torquay, U.K.
December 2016, Torquay, U.K.
Soñadores: We Came to Dream, Odilia Galván Rodríguez, ed., CantoHondo/DeepSong Books, 2016.
Francisco Aragón is the son of Nicaraguan immigrants. He is the author of, Puerta del Sol (2005) and, Glow of Our Sweat (2010), as well as editor of, The Wind Shifts: New Latino Poetry (2007). He has work forthcoming in Wandering Song: Central American Writing in the United States (2017). In 2003, he joined the University of Notre Dame’s Institute for Latino Studies(ILS), where he founded Letras Latinas—a member of The Poetry Coalition. Since 2013, in addition to directing Letras Latinas, he teaches a course on Latino poetry on campus in the fall, and a poetry writing workshop in Washington, D.C. in the spring, where Letras Latinas often collaborates with local institutions, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Library of Congress. He is a native of San Francisco, CA.
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