Updated: Sep 2, 2022
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—email@example.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?
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.
“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.
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
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.
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.
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,
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.
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