With its current poet laureate, SF's literary scene is enjoying a poesía en español renaissance
But poesía en español is hardly a new phenomenon in San Francisco. By 1959, the beatniks were already looking to the south when Chilean poet Gonzalo Rojas visited City Lights Bookstore to invite several of them to the First Encounter of Writers of the Americas at the Universidad de Concepción. In 1966, Pablo Neruda's UC Berkeley reading packed the house, with prominent poets and writers (including Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Mario Vargas Llosa, Allen Ginsberg, and Fernando Alegría) in attendance. That night, many ended up at Alegría's home, and it was a meeting of two different languages with one common denominator: poetry. It was also a historic gathering "of profoundly different movements, the counterculture of the Beats a contrast to the aspirations of Western acclaim of the Latin Americans," writes author Deborah Cohn, who details the many points of intersection between Latinos and Beat poets since the 1950s in her 2012 book The Latin American Literary Boom and US Nationalism During the Cold War.
And what about those purists alarmed by the Spanglish? "It is ridiculous! Both languages are enriching themselves from each other," insists Alarcón. Adds Argueta, "Sometimes newcomers are bothered; they see it as an insult. You can call it bilingualism or Chicanismo, but for me it doesn't denigrate the language — it embellishes the language."
Late Sacramento laureate Montoya, one of California's most celebrated poets, mixed English and Spanish with ease. In 1969, he wrote El Louie; along with Corky Gonzales' 1967 I'm Joaquin, it became one of Chicano poetry's most famous works. Maximizing the natural rhythms of the languages, words intertwine in a ravishing dance. The poet crosses back and forth between English and his mother tongue, emerging with the language of California.
Which brings us to San Francisco, 2014: el poeta de las corbatas brillantes, the poet of the glittering ties, and the first Latino appointed as the city's Poet Laureate, Alejandro Murguía. As part of its San Francisco Poet Laureate series, City Lights has just published Stray Poems, a collection of bilingual poems written on napkins, matchboxes, parking tickets and wrinkled pieces of paper over the past 12 years. He'll celebrate its release at a reading next week, appropriately enough at the very bookstore where Rojas first met the Beats. *
Feb. 5, 7pm, free
City Lights Bookstore
261 Columbus, SF