The Flapper Press Poetry Café: The Poetry of Elaine Alarcon-Totten

Updated: Feb 3

By Annie Klier Newcomer:



The Flapper Press Café presents the work of poets from around the globe. This week, we feature the poetry of one of my dear friends and classmates, Elaine Alarcon-Totten!


Elaine’s work has appeared in Solo, Orbis, Spillway, The TOPANGA Messenger, The Canyon Chronicle, The Denver Quarterly, Askew, Flapper Press, and Blue Light Press. She has graduate degrees in Creative Writing from the University of Denver. Born in Maryland, raised in Minnesota, educated in Colorado, and escaped to California, Elaine is happy to live by water in a temperate climate with sweet evening winds.


Orbis is a beautiful global publication out of Great Britain.

(Carole Baldock editor—carolebaldock@hotmail.com for submissions)


Elaine's poem ("Letter to Harry Clarke") was selected by the Orbis readers as a co-first-prize winner with another member of our Key West Cigar Poetry Workshop, Brooke Herter James.


 

AN: Elaine, it has been eighteen months since we first met in Billy Collins' Workshop in Key West. I don't think that I have asked you this before, but what brought you to poetry? Why do you write?


Elaine Alarcon-Totten, poet

E: I’m not sure how it started. I was a liar. When I first learned to write, I read a little story I liked so well in school I copied it out and told my mother that I had written it. "The road unwinds like a spool of thread,” it went. Years later, I really thought I had written it and had it framed. But recently I was thinking about it, how I was too young at the time to be writing figures of speech, so I Googled it and wouldn’t you know—it wasn’t original after all! Then, after reading the Diary of Anne Frank, like a lot of adolescent girls, I started a diary. I began writing poetry at about the same time, silly stuff. I’d hop on my bike and go down to the river at dusk and write some poem. Later, I won a state contest for a poem I wrote about a sunset, seen from the roof of our house. I still like to write about water and sunsets!

Later, I enrolled in a creative writing program at the University of Denver to focus on

poetry, but I soon became frustrated with the form. It seemed too short for the narratives

I wanted to tell. I began writing more fiction after that. Then earning a living intruded,

and all I had time for was poetry, which I could do quickly but I really did not even have

time to work at it seriously. This went on for many years in a horrible cocoon, as I had

no time for anything else but living!

I love all forms of writing (except technical writing!), but poetry interests me because it lends itself to the moment and to nuance. And you can write such nuggets about any topic. Even a flea!


AN: Elaine, what do you hope people will come away with after reading your poems?


E: I hope they will enjoy my work. I hope it will touch them in some way so that they

keep coming back for more.


AN: Elaine, when I heard you read in our workshop in Key West, I knew that I was listening to a poet who possessed magical word powers. I believe that you have the ability to be a significant poet in our time. Thank you for stopping by The Flapper Press Poetry Café!

 

I wrote this poem for a young woman in my English class. She was always crying in class. I suspected but never had proof that she was being abused. Then the unthinkable happened. She was murdered, along with her brother (also one of my students), her mother, and grandmother. They were all strangled and their home burned. All because her mother was in a feud with another family over the right-of-way of a driveway between their two motels! Fortunately the criminals were caught.


Tulsi


“I was named for tea,” you said

at sixteen and you laughed,

a lark’s fluting,

the wind’s susurration in the banana tree

belying your tears in my classroom.


You said a man was bothering you

and then you denied it

and your best friend denied it too.

“No one is bothering Tulsi,” she said.

“Trust me.”


Still, you lingered

after class head bowed in sorrow

before skittering away from enormity.

The man your brother? Your father? Your uncle?

Someone else behind that implacable door

you feared to open?


I waited for a thread

to unravel your misery,

to see its warp and weft.

For something to give authorities.


Instead, you stood up,

threw off your toxic mantle

and chirped as you went out the door

for the last time,

“Have a nice weekend, Miss!”

Your words froze my blood

with foreboding.


Sunday morning my phone rang:

you, your brother, your mother

and your grandmother

were murdered and your house torched,

while your best friend waited on the computer

when you said,

“Just a minute; someone’s at the door.”


 

In graduate school, I focused on the Modern Period of English and American literature, as well as Creative Writing. Then my husband and I went to Tunisia for several months. On our return I happened upon a book by Paul Bowles, the expatriate American writer and composer from the Modern Period who was living in Morocco. I fell in love with his work. In 1995, I went to Mexico on a little grant to find the pyramid he wrote about in my favorite story, “The Circular Valley.” Based on what he told me, I found it in Tepotzotlán, about 50 miles from Mexico City. I stayed in a lovely little bed and breakfast with an adjoining balcony. In the next room, a woman was always crying. When she was not crying, she was listening to the CD “Chant.” She and her husband were having marital problems.


Tepotzotlán, SMU Libraries Digital Collections on Visualhunt

Once in Tepotzotlán

For Paul Bowles


Once in Tepotzotlán

I slept in a blue house

that was wrapped in sadness,

a present from the gods.

A gallery of birds swam in the wind

and the peacock

screamed in the trees

as the adjacent room

throbbed with a woman’s weeping.


All afternoon

I sat on the long balcony

overlooking the orchards

entranced by the green light

and the black walls

of the circular valley

while sobs mixed with Gregorian chants

from the next room

penetrated the paper walls

and washed over my solitude,

as if I myself were an atom of sorrow

absorbed in prayer,

until, finally, the woman’s husband

arrived from the capital,

summoned as if from a bottle,

a genie in a crisp dapper suit,

not at all a stricken bird

like his wife,

to coo in her ear

solemnities of cricket song.

Alone at night in my own blue room,

snug amid cool sheets

I was troubled from slumber

by another song

wooing me awake

like some unseen giant cicada

hidden in the walls,

some prehistoric insect

whose sudden atavistic nocturne

unleashed the moorings of my bed,

casting me headlong

into the ferment of dream and desire,

sea anemones fingering my body.


Outside my room

the banana plants

clattered in the wind at the balcony’s edge

and the hooves of riderless horses

walking down below in the dark lane

under the black trees

under the black moon

like lace shadows

passing behind thought

punctuated the hour.

 

Because of my work on Paul Bowles, I ended up finding my way to Lorca. (Bowles had written the libretto for the American premiere of YERMA at Denver University in 1958.) I had always liked Lorca’s poetry, but now I was much more serious about his work. I went to Spain to learn more about his milieu. I love dance, so I saw as much Flamenco dance as I could. The following poem is about one of the venues where I saw a Flamenco show in Granada.


Trip Advisor: Flamenco Show at Le Chien Andalou


Below the hills of Granada’s gypsy quarter

on the river Darrow, in this tiny cave

named for Bunuel and Dali’s film — see above —

black sounds gush from the old throat

of the gitano on stage,

his scorched voice wailing of love and disaster,

trolling the urgent guitar and the dancer’s feet

battering heart beats on the wooden floor.


In this popular venue

where I drink sangria companionably

with fellow tourists,

how is it the owner

has chosen to extol tragedy

with its title — see above —

when Bunuel hated gypsies,

not to mention Lorca’s GYPSY BALLADS

and Dali rarely if ever came to Granada,

painting head after severed head of Lorca,

his first beloved?


What is the point of this misnomer

when the moon laughs at shadows,

a horn slipping through the pocket of night,

an ivory button half in, half out, ready to undo time?

Is it to commemorate Lorca?


Nearby on the cathedral plaza

a cadre of men practice rising and walking

with their concrete roof that will carry the saint

during Semana Santa, while teenage

boys practice a smaller version,

pure theater,

like Dali and Bunuel’s dream — see above —

which caused such anguish to Lorca

with its sliced eye ball,

and a man on a bicycle attired in woman’s clothing

sneered at by women

that Lorca cried out, “I am the Chien Andalou!”

And to add further horror,

a bullet pierced that man,

mocking the shot at Viznar where Lorca fell

like so many others of the Republic.


Ghosts haunt this cozy venue

where dancers no longer use castanets

and death is brokered from money.

 

Flapper Press Poetry Café.

Presenting a wide range of poetry with a mission to promote a love and understanding of poetry for all. We welcome submissions for compelling poetry and look forward to publishing and supporting your creative endeavors. Submissions may also be considered for the Pushcart Prize.


Submission Guidelines:

1. Share at least three (3) poems

2. Include a short bio of 50–100 words, written in the third person.

(Plus any website and links.)

3. Share a brief backstory on each submitted poem

4. Submit an Author's photo and any images you want to include with the poems

5. Send all submissions and questions to: info@flapperpress.com

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