Poetry News

A Lesson in Mentorship and Generosity: Francisco X. Alarcón, 1954-2016

By Harriet Staff


At Letras Latinas, Francisco Aragón writes about the life, work, and friendship of Francisco X. Alarcón, who we've been told died this morning after a battle with cancer. Aragón, as he was coming into his own as a poet, describes how Alarcón acted as a mentor to him, for his work as a poet, editor, and translator. Their friendship solidified during the writing and translating of De Amor Oscuro/Of Dark Love, which Aragón describes as "a bilingual collection of homoerotic sonnets and line drawings that saw the light of publication after I moved to Spain." More:

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).

Alarcón was a mentor to many poets over the years and an important force in poetry. Earlier in the week Letras Latinas posted the collaborative poem "Cuando el Pueblo" in Alarcón's honor. The long list of contributors speaks to the broad and profound impact of Alarcón's poetry and presence in the [email protected] poetry community. As Aragón notes:

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.

Head to Letras Latinas to read Aragón's tribute in full. Then, please read the collaborative poem "Cuando el Pueblo." Audio of the poem read by Aragón can be found here.

Originally Published: January 15th, 2016