When Mayor Ed Lee asked Alejandro Murguía in 2012 if he would agree to become San Francisco’s sixth Poet Laureate, the first Latino poet to hold the position, Murguía’s first answer was, “Only in the name of my community.” His follow-up was to ask whether the honor came with a free parking permit.
Both responses indicate something essential about Murguía’s poetics, their origin and milieu. Growing up in San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood amid the influx of refugees from war-torn Central America during the 1960s and ’70s, Murguía began reading his poems in Mission cafés and working-class bars where the clientele was not shy about booing a poet if they couldn’t hold the room’s attention. Partly as a way of bringing his audience into his poetry through humor, and partly stemming from a commitment to a new identity politics taking shape at this time in the southwest, Murguía forged a poetic voice that speaks in solidarity with some of America’s poorest and most vulnerable residents. At the same time it draws from a unique exuberance that characterizes the American poetic tradition from Whitman to Williams and Ginsberg. In Murguía’s own words, his work emerged from a time when “Latin America fused to the history of San Francisco, and vice versa – San Francisco fused to the history of Latin America.”
In Stray Poems (2013), the sixth volume of the San Francisco Poet Laureate Series, published by the City Lights Foundation imprint, these twin aspects of Murguía’s work – its serious political commitments and its clever playfulness – are on full display. The brief, haiku-like “Tequila Song” boils these qualities down to aphoristic essentials:
If you drink enough tequila
you will become an honorary Mexican
and may be stopped for identification
as does “City Scapes”:
They look like maples leaves
But they’re glass shards
Frozen on the sidewalk
while “Shadows in the Mirror” employs direct address and the layering of “old” and “new” world imagery to implicate every reader in the great migration to el norte:
Across Texas desert you carried
Ingots of sweat, and your family
Through New Mexican winters, & Arizona
Gila monsters and saguaro
Sons like adobe
Rooms filled with wine, grown from
Sand, heat, and the alluvial seasons
That formed traces on your face
Recalling arroyos where you raised
Yourself in the burnt air mountains
Of Chihuahua, in the mythic past of Tarahumara
Clouds and caravans for cities of gold
For a closer look at Murguía’s influences, check out Volcán (1983), the City Lights anthology of Central American poets that he edited alongside Barbara Paschke. A number of poets featured in that volume, like Roque Dalton and Roberto Vargas, receive more detailed discussion in Murguía’s inaugural address as Poet Laureate, which is republished as a preface in Stray Poems. The address itself makes for fascinating reading as a kind of recuperative literary history tracing the influence of Central American poetry on contemporary Latino/a American poets.
Murguía is also an accomplished writer of fiction, and his short story “The Other Barrio,” published in the anthology San Francisco Noir, was recently optioned for film – the circumstances of which Murguía discusses here:
This War Called Love (2002) is Murguía’s American Book Award-winning collection of short stories with City Lights. Its tales are vivid recreations of Latino street life, with settings that swing between San Francisco and Mexico City, where Murguía lived for a number of years. As Ishmael Reed put it, This War Called Love “returned the short story to the people.” His story “O Frendas” is particularly prescient about the gentrification currently wreaking havoc on Mission bohemia and the neighborhood’s deep cultural traditions:
The fiesta is rocking by the time I arrive dressed as a campesino calavera, authentic in huaraches and smoking a Delicado. At the door of her storefront loft, La Betsy greets me with a kiss, the white ostrich feather in her floppy hat tickling my nose. She is dressed as a calavera catrina, an elegant lady skeleton, with a green feather boa draped serpent-like around her shoulders and a big purple hat right out of a Diego Rivera mural. La Betsy and I finally gave up loving each other and now we’re just friends. We’re better friends than we were lovers. This Day of the Dead fiesta is also Betsy’s going away party. Like everyone else I know her rent’s been raised and now she is looking to the East Bay. Everything’s changing in La Mission, murals destroyed, cheap housing gone, you’d think City Planning was out to kill this barrio.
La Betsy presses a foil-wrapped skeleton candy into my hands and then, with an imperious wave at the fiesta, she says, “Make yourself at home, Mundo. There’s enough bones here to make any dog happy.”
For more on Murguía, visit these links:
“Alejandro Murguía sees poetry in S.F.” via SF Gate.