Tony Alcántara has been writing poetry for the last 10 years, publishing poetry under his legal name — José Antonio Alcántara.
Known to friends as Tony, he explained, “When I started writing poetry, I wanted to use my legal name, José, instead of Tony, because I was in this Valley. I wanted others to see that people who have 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 University of Colorado Boulder student who was 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 RFTEP student teaching garnered him a temporary teaching position at Roaring Fork High School (RFHS). Alcántara recalled, “I filled in as a science teacher, and I can’t say I did a very good job.” After completing the school year, he returned to Boulder and worked in construction.
The following years would find Alcántara teaching 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 became more involved with writing poetry, he discovered what many creative individuals face: a tug-of-war between honing your craft versus a full-time job. Besides teaching, he worked as a baker, commercial fisherman, studio photographer and even as a mail carrier in Carbondale — all to strike a balance between his creative calling and the economic realities of living in the spendy Roaring Fork Valley.
About four years ago, he submitted a manuscript for the Patricia Bibby First Book Award. While he didn’t win the award, the California-based publisher, Tebot Bach, told Alcántara they wanted to publish his first poetry book. “The Bitten World,” was published in 2021, but with delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, it wasn’t available for purchase until January 2022.
Inspiration for a poem can come from reading another poet’s work. He and his friend and fellow poet, Matt Daly, who lives in Wyoming, share poems. He explained that Daly has a poem with the line “things that can break us.” Alcántara shared, “I liked that line, so I started riffing off of that.”
The opening line of his poem “Windfall,” which appeared in the April 2022 issue of Ploughshares, a prestigious literary journal, is: “Objects heavy enough to break us hang from the thinnest of threads.”
While the poem is about a windfall — a piece of unexpected good fortune — it is also about vulnerability.
On a recent trip to Honduras to visit his father and reunite with family, he explained that he thoroughly enjoyed reconnecting with loved ones but didn’t write 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 mostly it’s a lonely business, mostly I’m off sitting by myself writing and if I don’t do that, I don’t write.”
In October, Alcántara will participate in his first artists’ residency awarded by the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. He will be living in a community with other writers and visual artists in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. He is confident that “new writing will come because I’m in a new setting.”
Since October, he’s been traveling and writing — living on the beach in Texas and camping in Missouri — and recently returning to Carbondale. Alcántara’s nomadic lifestyle fosters his writing productivity because, he said, “I can’t write unless I have time to be off by myself,” whether that’s seated on a riverbank or off-trail mountain hiking.
Alcántara is currently working on a second poetry book and is applying for writers’ residencies across the country. He believes he has structured his life in a way to be able to dedicate time and headspace to writing poetry. “Mostly, the drive is to simplify life and not have more and more distractions.”
He admits that in many of his writing attempts, he is trying to better understand our individual and collective existence. “Poetry is aspirational, and part of the process is trying to write a better world into existence.” Alcántara added, “You can leave the reader in a place where things can be better in a redemptive way.”
By José Antonio Alcántara
I run my hand along the surface
and feel a smoothness like volcanic glass.
The granite comes all the way from India,
but when I look closely, I see nebulae.
I see galaxies. I see little black suns
orbited by little black planets,
and on the planets, deep black holes,
dug by broken black bodies.
And I see the black bodies heaving black stones,
and the stones burnished in black blood,
and buffed by black bone
to the smoothness of volcanic glass.
And on the counter I lay bread, apples, cheese,
green olives, and those little swords
we use to stab the olives, so we can lift them
to our mouths without dirtying our hands.