Professor begins life as SF's poet laureate

Being San Francisco's poet laureate comes with a host of honors and official duties, but Alejandro Murguia wanted to know about perks.

A photo of SF State Professor of Latina/Latino Studies Alejandro Murguia.

SF State Professor of Latina/Latino Studies Alejandro Murguia has been named the poet laureate of San Francisco.

"My first thought was, does this come with free parking?" joked the SF State professor of Latina/Latino studies, who San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee tapped in July to become the city's sixth poet laureate. Laughs aside, Murguia said he is grateful for the honor of representing and serving his city.

"When Mayor Lee called me about two days before the announcement and asked if I would be the next poet laureate, I told him I would accept this on behalf of the entire community, not just myself," he said.

The poet laureate's official duties include giving an inaugural address at the San Francisco Public Library, participating in poetry events throughout the city and giving a reading at LitQuake, an annual literary festival. The two-year post comes with a $5,000 stipend.

To be nominated to the position, poets must be San Francisco residents and have a substantial body of work including at least one full-length book or CD or 20 published poems in established print or online publications over the past five years. Murguia was nominated by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the City's first poet laureate and the founder and publisher of City Lights Books.

Murguia, who has taught at SF State for more than 20 years, says his goal as poet laureate is to bring poetry to a wider audience. A common myth about poetry, he said, is that most people cannot comprehend it. But good poets use language and rhythms that ordinary people can understand, he added. It's the type of poetry he himself tries to write.

"Perhaps because of my Latin American background, it seems that poetry is more effective when it comes from the language and the voice of everyday people," Murguia said. "If poets were to make more of an effort to reach everyday people, poetry would gain a wider audience."

Since being named to the post, Murguia has kept busy participating in a number of community poetry events. In addition to his official duties, he hopes to create a children's poetry festival. He says young people begin writing poetry very early but do not have an outlet for their work or an environment in which to develop their skills. He also hopes to start an international poetry festival with San Francisco's sister city, Barcelona, and have plaques placed in the Mission District to mark the location of important literary events.

His own poetry, he says, is about people with whom he feels solidarity or neighborhoods in which he has lived. Murguia moved to San Francisco in the 1970s from Los Angeles, in part because of a literary scene that was thriving and seeing an increase in the number of writers of color.

"San Francisco is one of the great literary cities, not just in the country but perhaps the world," Murguia said. "One of my goals as poet laureate is for more people to understand and appreciate literature and poetry."

Murguia is a two-time winner of the American Book Award and the author of "This War Called Love: Nine Stories, Southern Front"; "Volcan: Poems from Central America"; and a memoir, "The Medicine of Memory: A Mexica Clan in California." He is also the founder of the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts. At SF State, he teaches courses on creative writing, Latina and Latino literature and introduction to Latina and Latino studies.

-- Jonathan Morales