Latin studies professor named San Francisco poet laureate
2 August 2012
El Tecolote (USA)
Alejandro Murguía mingles with the crowd after being named poet laureate, on July 26. Photo: Shane Menez
Thursday evening, at the city’s third international poetry festival, Mayor Edwin Lee mounted a tiny stage in Kerouac Alley to name Alejandro Murguía poet laureate of San Francisco.
“I don’t have much time to read poetry these days, but I will say I prefer it to reading the transcripts of my own Q&A sessions!” he joked, before growing serious. This year’s poet laureate selection ought to “reflect the richness of the literary scene,” he said. The choice of Murguía does just that.
Murgía, 62, a professor of Latino/Latina studies at San Francisco State, is the author of many books of poetry, including: “Southern Front,” “This War Called Love” and a new collection called “Native Tongue.” He has also written a memoir called “The Medicine of Memory,” a discursive reflection on his 1970s work in the Mission District on behalf of the Nicaraguan Solidarity movement.
People crowded into the alley at both ends to watch Murgía accept the award; others peered down from upstairs windows and staircases, from which laundry was hanging. Most of the audience had donned thick hats and coats as protection against the brisk weather; Murguía sported a gray suit and matching fedora, a light blue shirt and an exuberant maroon tie with large white flowers. He seemed at ease in front of the crowd, quipping: “When Mayor Lee called me asking if I would accept the honor, my first thought was ‘Does it come with free parking?’”
But of course, for Murguía, the award is not a question of individual perks. “This is not just for me, but also for the community—the Mission District and Latino poets,” he said. “Poetry is like bread, it is for the people.” He went on to thank his early publishers, city librarian Luis Herrera (also present), his wife and his daughter Marisol, before signing off with a friendly “Namaste … In Lak’ech,” the Mayan daily greeting reaffirming the equality of yourself and the other.
Murguía’s career has been a constant reworking of the themes of language, tradition, poetry, violence and romantic love in the Latino community. His poems are intense and direct, the economy of their language allowing various first-person narrators to express themselves in gorgeous vernacular. “Years later the memories still arouse / the sassy diction of your walk … your black seamed stockings / flowed like crazy punctuation,” he writes in “Detalles.”
In his capacity as poet laureate, Murguía plans to deliver an inaugural address this fall and attend the city’s LitQuake as well as working further to strengthen opportunities for young poets in his role as director of the Mission Cultural Center.
The festival was organized with the help of San Francisco Friends of the Public Library, and was presented by Jack Hirschman, a former SF poet laureate and much loved character in the city’s literary scene. A rousing song in Yiddish, two understated solos by Jonathan Richman of seminal ‘70s band The Modern Lovers and a saxophone performance followed Murguía’s award presentation.
Kerouac Alley, the event venue, was specially chosen—the 60-foot stretch connecting Grant Avenue in Chinatown with Columbus Avenue in North Beach used to be a cut-through for garbage trucks, but was renovated in 2007 on the recommendation of poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. With streetlights, a giant mural and poetry-inscribed plaques, it has transformed from its humble origins into a landmark in beat history. (Kerouac, its namesake, was a frequent visitor to the City Lights bookstore at one corner, and the Vesuvius bar on the other.)
Murguía is conscious of this history, and has a strong sense of writing as a demanding but distinguished profession. To cheers in Spanish and English, he explained his life’s work: “To me, the most honorable title is not doctor, mayor or president, but poeta.”