Sharing his vision through verse
Poet laureate finalist from Davis wants to use the position to inspire creativity in children
Francisco X. Alarcón looks around his house and his gaze settles on a Native American portrait on his wall. Then he folds his hands and a smile takes over his entire face as Alarcón speaks in revelatory tones about how educating and promoting poetry to the youth of California could be what being the California poet laureate is all about.
Inspiring young minds toward poetry has been a lifelong quest for Alarcón—a 48-year-old Davis resident with dark hair slicked back into a ponytail and a white button-up shirt—even before he became one of three finalists to become the state’s first poet laureate. The winner will be announced later this month.
Alarcón says that California education is lacking in the area of arts. He says there is more emphasis on computers and technology, and that all the creative programs have gone right out the window of importance. Alarcón believes that by promoting poetry, by carrying the title of poet laureate, he can advocate for more private and public funding for art and literacy education. More funding, he says, will get the creative juices flowing again in our public and private schools.
“What I didn’t realize, until my nieces and nephews were born, is the talent and brightness that young minds exhibit,” says Alarcón. With his nieces and nephews at heart, he doesn’t want them to “miss out” on what art and poetry can do for young creative minds.
Suddenly, Alarcón jumps up from the couch and abruptly runs to his briefcase. He fumbles around with the zipper and practically turns the whole thing upside down. Out come books of poetry for children, including Laughing Tomatoes and Other Spring Poems, which comes crashing onto the table among a variety of Mexico travel books. He flips open the brightly illustrated pages and says there is tremendous need to teach children poetry. For Alarcón, if he becomes poet laureate, it means he can only strengthen his true mission of teaching poetry to children.
“I was so lucky as a child to be introduced to poetry through the songs of my ancestors,” says Alarcón.
Poems started to emerge from his hands when, as a 13-year-old, he would sit with his grandma in Guadalajara, Mexico, and record her poems to retrieve the memory of her family. It was very important for Alarcón to feel the history of words through the words of his grandmother. Soon Alarcón realized his passion for writing, continuing to exercise the creativity of words through thoughts or poems.
For Alarcón, to write is to be alive. It is the lifeline with his past and to his future. He doesn’t have a favorite place or time to write. In fact, it just comes at him at any given moment, and when it does, he goes with it. He can go many months with a dry spell, then all of a sudden an enormous need courses through his veins to write. He writes and writes and doesn’t stop until he is satisfied.
Reaching for his book, Laughing Tomatoes and Other Spring Poems, Alarcón says with a warm look of pride and satisfaction that his nieces and nephews gave him the inspiration to write a book of poems for children in both English and Spanish.
Alarcón gets out of his comfortable seated position, nestled deeply into the couch, and comes to the edge of his seat, staring at blocks of Oaxacan chocolate on the glass coffee table. He takes a deep breath and says that he has no intention of promoting himself for the poet laureate title. In fact, he didn’t even apply for it. A group of writers, Writers of the New Sun, nominated him into the pot of nearly 55 poets.
Alarcón has been the recipient of the Danforth Fellowship, the Fulbright Fellowship, the California Arts Council Poetry Fellowship, and has also published 10 volumes of poetry, and several textbooks for teaching Spanish. He hopes this position will facilitate his greatest accomplishments.
“When I heard I was one of the finalists, I was, well, worried that it would be a ‘protocol’ position,” says Alarcón, adding that he now understands the position will be more than a figurehead. He hopes to raise money from private and public sectors for promoting the educational funds for poetry.
“Promoting and educating people of all ages is what we look for in a poet laureate, and Alarcón has demonstrated commitment in both of these areas,” says Adam Gottlieb, director of communications for California Arts Council.
Ray Tatar, literature coordinator for the California Arts Council, says that Alarcón has a great sense of community leadership, and that is one of the criteria the panel of 20 had been looking for.
“Alarcón does not just sit home and write. He is out in the cmunity teaching, promoting and advocating literature,” says Tatar. “He expands his teaching to children as well as people of all ages.”
Tatar says that Governor Gray Davis will make the final decision regarding the three finalists for poet laureate, and, even though the governor is not a poet, any one of the three finalists will be more than qualified for the job.
“What is boils down to,” Tatar says, “is a shared vision between the governor and his final pick.”
Advice of a Mother
By Francisco X. Alarcón
yet I see
it hurts to see
you this way
and your time
with those things