Arizona State University Regent’s Professor Alberto Rios has been named the state’s inaugural poet laureate. The appointment was made by Governor Jan Brewer’s office and the Arizona Commission on the Arts. Rios will discuss his new appointment and his poetry.
Ted Simons: Good evening, and welcome to "Arizona Horizon," I'm Ted Simons. State lawmakers passed legislation last year honoring Arizona's centennial by creating the position of State Poet Laureate. Last week ASU regent's professor Alberto Rios was named Arizona's inaugural poet laureate. Rios is a native of Nogales and the award-winning author of numerous books of poetry and short stories. Welcome to "Arizona Horizon."
Alberto Rios: I'm so pleased to be here. This is the place to be!
Ted Simons: And congratulations, right? This is a good thing.
Alberto Rios: Work, work, work.
Ted Simons: What does a poet laureate do?
Alberto Rios: That's an excellent question. It is yet to be invented. Everybody seems to think it means more work.
Ted Simons: Then congratulations in quotations there. I think we're the 43rd state to have one?
Alberto Rios: That's about right.
Ted Simons: Have you heard anything? Gotten anything?
Alberto Rios: If you're in the field you meet people who do these sorts of things. I know most of the poets laureate out there. I'm getting a little advice, mostly don't do everything.
Ted Simons: The Governor's office, the quote was you represent Arizona's values, independence, and uniquely western culture. What are your thoughts when you hear something like that?
Alberto Rios: I believe it. I believe it to the extent that is what my life's been. I grew up on the border. I have an intrinsic really important Arizona story I think I've lived. My father was born in Mexico, my mother was born in England. It was a mix of ideas, languages, foods, different things in the refrigerator. Sorting that all out is part of what I think made me a writer, and part of what made me an Arizonan and that independence and Western sensibility comes out of that.
Ted Simons: When did you start writing poetry?
Alberto Rios: When did I start writing something? It has very little to do with putting pen to paper, it had to do with getting in trouble. It was second grade and I was busted for the egregious crime of day-dreaming. This was the 1950's, that was a big deal, my parents were hauled into school. Yet I know now, I think that was the beginning of it. As a second grader you can't write a novel really, but you can think one. If you're taught about being -- let's say you're being taught about explorers, what do you think you want to do as a second grader? You want to go out and be an explorer, but you can't even walk across the street without somebody holding your hand, which puts a crimp in your explorer style. But you have to put that big thing, that excitement somewhere. I think too often we think kids, second graders, first graders, they are all bouncing around on sugar or bad manners or whatever it is. We don't think they may be excited because they just learned something. Which in retrospect I think is how I reacted to what I was doing there.
Ted Simons: When were you able to put that excitement into the form of, be it short stories, but especially poetry? Poetry is very different. I think kids kind of think of poetry as song lyrics and rap lyrics these days. But when did you say, this makes sense to me, I can express myself with this?
Alberto Rios: Well, it was a dangerous route. It was the back of my notebook starting in maybe junior high, high school. You're supposed to be doing what you're supposed to be doing at the front of your notebook. When you go to the back, you're looking for trouble, no getting around it. You're going make a spit wad, write a note to somebody. Well, I started writing things and I don't have wording for it. It didn't have a word in the back of my notebook. And it was because in the front of my notebook -- we think of poetry today as kind of a staid, homework oriented thing, things that we memorize and that are kind of dead in the water. It's totally uninvented yet, it's what I've encountered or what I'm going to make. Not what I've written or what others have written. I started to write things in the back of my notebooks, words, phrases, I don't know why I did that. I couldn't show it to anybody. And therefore it was mine. I couldn't show it to a teacher because I wasn't doing it for homework, it would have been in the front. I couldn't show it to my parents because that's the law of being a kid. I couldn't show it to my friends because I was pretty sure they weren't doing that. I think that's where it started for me. They grew into things that later became poems.
Ted Simons: When did you start to show them to people? When did you realize when people saw these things they thought you were pretty good?
Alberto Rios: I don't know that anybody makes that leap immediately. People don't know what to make of poems. You get a poem shared with you. I'm not sure we're trained, or we know how to respond. We listen to a great song, that's great. You listen to a great poem and go, huh. You don't have a vocabulary for sharing intimate things with each other in that way, in words. So I think I started sharing this in High School, started sharing it a little bit. High school writing was high school writing, no getting around it, mine was no different. I think I was in college and I knew my formal training came my junior year. I went to U of A after coming out of Nogales. Nogales was not a college prep experience. I just really went to 13th grade and that saved me. I got through my first two years at U of A. Those years were set, you didn't really have any choices. Junior year, that was the year computers came to universities. It meant for the first time you could preregister. So me and the other two people that had gone to college were in my bedroom that summer, reading the college catalog looking for what everybody else that summer was looking here, the mythical, easiest courses we could find. We knew how to do this. I'd been through freshman English and hated it. Then I got English 9, which is unheard of today, introduction to poetry writing. Blah, blah, blah, didn't really mean anything to me at the moment. Blah, blah, blah, blah, at the end it said no final. Oh, man, sign me up. A winner. I tricked myself I think that way. English 10, introduction to fiction writing, I signed up for that, too, no final. But it's the great trick of academia, of learning, whatever the enticement is, just come and try it, and I did.
Ted Simons: With that in mind give us a definition, what is poetry and, for you, has that definition changed over the years?
Alberto Rios: Yeah, I think it's tough for a good definition. Everytime I pick up a poem, if I'm in the classroom trying to talk to a student about a poem, I'm forced to reinvent the meaning and what the strength in poetry is. Even though it's got centuries of discourse behind it, I've got to reinvent it again in that moment and say it all over again in my own words each time. So whatever definition I give you now -- and I think it's anything worth remembering, for example. And the impulse is when you're walking down the street and you say, hey, did you see that? It's a poetic impulse, and I want to remember that. It was worth you seeing it, not just me, and I wish you had.
Ted Simons: In that respect I was reading some things you have written about poetry. You emphasize the moment more than you do the narrative. Is poetry a series of moments that work together or don't work together?
Alberto Rios: Both. It depends on the kind of poem you're trying to write. We talk a lot about integrity of the line. That, if every line is good, you don't need to worry about the entirety. This is an old idea. People point to a single line of the Bible and take instruction from that for the day, or whatever. Before the Bible it began with the works of Virgil, where people would open up a book of poems and put their finger on a line, not a poem, and that was the test. If it isn't good wherever I point, it's not a good poem. When students asked me, "Professor Rios, where is the best line of the poem?" You know, Journalism students say, "It's got to be the hook line, the first line!" Science Fiction students say, "No, it's got to be the last line." No, the best line in the poem better be the line I'm reading. It's an impossible standard and why would we want any other?
Ted Simons: With that in mind, how do you write a poem? Do you emphasize rhyme? Do you emphasize meter? Syllables? When you write a poem do you write, this one's going to be about this and about that long? Or do you wait for the muse? What happens?
Alberto Rios: I get led. I get led by some words, some incitement, whatever it might be. All those things, meter and rhyme which people think are not in use today, writers are using those things all the time including traditional ways. It's just like a basketball player who shoots the basket over and over and over again so that you stop thinking about it. I think I'm at a point where it's not what I think about. I don't think about the tools I'm going use to make a poem. I just start to be led and I can bring to barer all the things I worked on in the writing of it. And you're going to want to know how do you write a poem? And it's just like defining poetry, I'm not exaggerating, it's different every time. If it weren't, I'd be scared.
Ted Simons: Are there times where the line looks too long or the line looks too small?
Alberto Rios: There's a visual election. We think of story line, how long is a novel? You see a novel and you're looking at it and the container, the book is official, you get to the wall, you fall down one, you're -- that's a terrible way to read prose, to read a story. A storyline is probably two miles long, half an inch high and fits straight into the ear. It's really an elegant idea. And the book is an occasional box to judge it from. I think too often that's how we end up writing things, it looks like a poem. But I think there is something to the idea that a regular line is about 10 syllables long. Different languages work differently, the cadence. There's something about, how long does it take to say one thing or one thing about one thing, and a poetic line is a pretty good measure of that.
Ted Simons: Where poets see the brilliance in the poem. But if most people don't see the brilliance there. Is that a good poem?
Alberto Rios: That's an excellent question. There's a failure to communicate somewhere. We're not talking about what it is that matters, what makes something great. Very often critics will see the juxtaposition of things that have never together before. But those two words or ideas have never gone together before. A reader who is not used to that is just reading the regularity of those words has no way to decipher that. So I think the conversation needs to be opened up.
Ted Simons: And yet, a couple of quotes from you. The first one is, "Play no tricks on the reader and exact no requirements." The the second one is, "If you have to tell your reader just keep reading, it'll make sense in the future, you're not writing poetry, you're writing prose."
Alberto Rios: Right.
Ted Simons: So if I'm reading something and they are juxtapositioning all over the page and I'm not getting it. I'm being required to do something there, aren't I?
Alberto Rios: Well, you're being required to get a different poem. You don't have to like it all and we have a very generic sensibility about poetry. It's like food, you like some foods and don't like other foods and it's okay.
Ted Simons: How best do you approach a poem?
Alberto Rios: With an open mind. I want to be taught by the poem how to read it. If I don't bring myself to it in an overbearing way, a poem will often be able to show me what's important about it. So when I read it, I often put it in the mouth and I read it and a try to listen to it, I don't try to say what it's trying to do, I try to listen to what it will share with me.
Ted Simons: If it wants you to take it to Avenue A and read it aloud, and internally you find yourself on Avenue B, so be it?
Alberto Rios: Sometimes you take a wrong turn but that's also you as a creative respondent. Sometimes it's going to make me think of another poem. Sometimes it's a trigger for that.
Ted Simons: The last question here, you're the poet laureate now. You're charged to expose people to poetry and things they may not be familiar with?
Alberto Rios: To the best parts of language. Language in this state and in this part of the country has really been problematized. But languages aren't problems, languages are solutions. And the best of language has something to offer simply and innately because of that. It's going to say something to someone else. If someone else can hear that, if it's a kitchen table conversation, we'll going to be better off.
Ted Simons: Well, good, we can't wait to hear you say more. Good to have you here, thank you so much for joining us.
Alberto Rios: I appreciate it.
Alberto Rios:Regent's Professor, Arizona State University;