Tony Alcántara has been writing poetry for 10 years, publishing poetry under his legal name – José Antonio Alcántara.
Known to friends as Tony, he explained: “When I first started writing poetry, I wanted to use my legal name, José, instead of Tony, because I was in that valley. I wanted others to see that people with a name like mine can do things” – like become a published poet.
Growing up in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, Alcántara first came to Carbondale in 1997 as a student at the University of Colorado at Boulder, a member of the second cohort of the Roaring Fork Teacher Education Project (RFTEP) in Woody Creek.
He already had degrees in forestry and biology, but teaching RFTEP students landed him a temporary teaching position at Roaring Fork High School (RFHS). Alcántara recalled, “I held the position of science teacher and I cannot say that I did a very good job.” After finishing the school year, he returned to Boulder and worked in construction.
In the following years, Alcántara taught in Colombia, Costa Rica and back in Boulder. But, 2008 would usher in his return to the Roaring Fork Valley with teaching positions at RFHS and Basalt High School.
And as he got more involved in writing poetry, he discovered what many creatives face: a tug of war between perfecting his craft and working full time. As well as teaching, he worked as a baker, commercial fisherman, studio photographer and even postman in Carbondale – all to balance his creative calling with the economic realities of life in the beloved Roaring Fork Valley.
About four years ago he submitted a manuscript for the Patricia Bibby First Book Award. Although he did not win the award, California publisher Tebot Bach told Alcántara that he wanted to publish his first book of poetry. “The Bitten Word” was released in 2021, but with delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, it was not available for purchase until January 2022.
Inspiration for a poem may come from reading the work of another poet. He and his friend and fellow poet, Matt Day, who lives in Wyoming, share poems. He explained that Day had a poem with the phrase “things that can break us”. Alcántara shared, “I liked that line, so I started drawing inspiration from it.”
The first line of his poem “Windfall,” which appeared in the April 2022 issue of Ploughshares, a prestigious literary journal, reads: “Objects heavy enough to break us hang from the thinnest thread.”
While the poem is about a boon – unexpected good fortune – it is also about vulnerability.
On a recent trip to Honduras to visit his father and reunite with his family, he explained that he really enjoyed reconnecting with his loved ones but hadn’t written a single poem. He describes the need for solitude to create: “I know I’m definitely doing the right thing. [working as a poet]but most of the time it’s a solitary business, most of the time I sit alone writing and if I don’t do that, I don’t write.
In October, Alcántara will participate in his first artist residency awarded by the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. He will live in a community with other writers and visual artists in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. He is convinced that “new writings will come because I am in a new setting”.
Since October he’s been traveling and writing — living on the beach in Texas and camping in Missouri — and recently returned to Carbondale. Alcántara’s nomadic lifestyle favors his writing productivity because, he says, “I can’t write unless I have time to be away”, whether sitting by a river or during an off-road mountain hike.
Alcántara is currently working on a second book of poetry and applying for writers’ residencies across the country. He thinks he has structured his life so that he can dedicate time and space to writing poetry. “Most of the time the motivation is to simplify life and not have more and more distractions.”
He admits that in many of his attempts at writing, he tries to better understand our individual and collective existence. “Poetry is an aspiration, and part of the process is trying to write a better world.” Alcántara added, “You can leave the reader in a place where things can get redeemingly better.”
By Jose Antonio Alcantara
I run my hand along the surface
and feel a softness like volcanic glass.
Granite comes straight from India,
but when I look closely, I see nebulae.
I see galaxies. I see little black suns
orbited by small black planets,
and on the planets, deep black holes,
hollowed out by broken black bodies.
And I see the black bodies lifting black stones,
and stones polished in black blood,
and polished by black bone
with the softness of volcanic glass.
And on the counter I put bread, apples, cheese,
green olives, and those little swords
we use to stab the olives, so we can lift them
in your mouth without getting your hands dirty.