The Blood of a Poet

The queen mother: Joe Wilson Jr. and Kathryn Gagnon in Luis Alfaro's Straight as a Line

LUIS ALFARO TELLS this story of how he became a poet: Sometime in the late 1960s, he and his brother were sitting in the living room of their house in the run-down Pico-Union section of Los Angeles. They were eating Ruffles potato chips, Alfaro recalls, and drinking chocolate milk. The CBS Sunday Night Movie, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, was playing on television, but their parents were out--his mother, a born-again Christian, to a prayer meeting; his father, a former migrant field worker and labor organizer, to the racetrack. All at once a man came stumbling out of the bar on the corner with a broken pool cue stuck through his belly. As Alfaro and his brother watched from the living-room window, the man fell down on the sidewalk in front of their house and died. And that, Alfaro says, is the moment he became a poet. "It was opera. It was theater. It was amazing: ugly, but also extraordinary. I knew my life would never be ordinary again."

And so it wasn't. The old cholos on the corner became a gaggle of colorful and mysterious clowns. Gang fights, omnipresent in Pico-Union, were like operatic tragedies played out in the streets. In his first foray into the world of words, Alfaro penned a small ode, called "Real Stories from Pico and Union," to the man who'd started him on the road to poetry. His teacher, mortified by the morbid subject, suspended him for two days (although his family encouraged his writing; to them, he says, becoming a poet was as much a sacred calling as the priesthood). Years later, when he had become a successful artist, he returned to the corner of Pico and Union, and, dressed in a black slip, appeared in the PBS documentary, The United States of Poetry, doing what he calls "drive-by poems."

In addition to poetry and performance art, Alfaro began experimenting with theater, and in 1998 he won the National Hispanic Playwriting Competition. His latest play, Straight as a Line, is making its area premiere this evening under the direction of Laurie Carlos and featuring veteran local actors Kathryn Gagnon and Joe Wilson Jr. It is a comedy about a drag queen and his mother, Alfaro explains, but like all his work, it deals obliquely with darker issues, and especially the notion of exile inherent to growing up Latino and poor in L.A. ("We didn't cross the border," he says. "The border crossed us.")

Alfaro composed much of the play while mourning the loss of a friend and fellow poet who'd died of AIDS. "It was a meditation on grief and sorrow," he says. "I was on this book tour, selling his book, and at the same time dealing with these issues of death. In the end it's a comedy, though. It's about things we find funny in our language and bodies."

Alfaro also focuses much attention on his own body, which has been described by reviewers as "Rubenesque," and "porcine." In one performance piece, for instance, he eats an entire box of Twinkies onstage, and watches the audience's reaction turn from laughter, to horror, to anger. In another, he drinks an entire bottle of tequila and tries to read a new poem while his speech slurs. The lesson, he explains, is that our bodies--these fragile shells--are never truly our own. It is the same lesson he himself learned on Pico and Union some 30 years ago, watching a stranger bleed on the sidewalk: In the eye of a poet, nothing is ordinary.

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