Arizona’s Poet Laureate

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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 discusses his appointment and his poetry.

Ted Simons: Coming up next on "Arizona Horizon" -- we'll speak with Alberto Rios about his new role as Arizona's first ever poet laureate.

Narrator: And author Jana Bommersbach talks about her latest literary effort, this one a children's book. Those stories next on "Arizona Horizon." "Arizona Horizon" made possible by contributions from the friends of , members of your Arizona PBS station. Thank you. >

Ted Simons: Good evening. Welcome to "Arizona Horizon." I'm Ted Simons. ASU Regis professor Alberto Rios was recently named inaugural poet laureate, a position state lawmakers created to honor Arizona's centennial. He's a native of Nogales and author of numerous books of poetry and short stories. We welcome Alberto Rios to "Arizona Horizon."

Alberto Rios: This is the place to be.

Ted Simons: Congratulations. Now, congratulations, right? This is a good thing.

Alberto Rios: Work, work, work.

Ted Simons: what does a poet laureate do?

That's a good question. It's yet to be invented but everyone seems to think it means more work. [laughter]

Ted Simons: Then congratulations in quotations there. Getting advice from others? We're 43rd state to have one?

Alberto Rios: That's about right. I have gotten advice. If you're in the field you'll meet everybody who is doing these sorts of things. I know probably most of the poets laureate out there. I'm getting a little bit of advice, mostly don't do everything.

Ted Simons: I would imagine that would be it. The governor's office's quote was you represent Arizona's values and independence and uniquely western culture.

Alberto Rios: I believe it, to the extent I think that's what my life has been. I grew up on the border. I have a really important Arizona story that I think I have lived. My father was born in Mexico, my mother in England. I grew up on the border. It was quite a mix of ideas, a mix of languages, a mix of foods, 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 part of that independence, that western sensibility comes out of that.

Ted Simons: when did you start writing poetry?

Alberto Rios: When did I start writing. I don't know that you are ever writing something but it had 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 daydreaming. This was the 1950's. My parents were hauled in to school. Yet I know now that I think that was the beginning of it. As a second grader you can't write a novel, really. But you can think one. Say you're being taught about explorers, what do you think you want to do as a second grader? You want to 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. What you can do is put that big thing, that excitement, somewhere. Second graders, first graders, they are all bouncing around on account of sugar or bad manners, whatever it is. We don't think maybe they are excited because they have just learned something, which is how I think I reacted to what I was doing there.

Ted Simons: When were you able to put that excitement into the form of the short story, especially poetry? Poetry is very different. I think kids think of poetry and song lyrics and rap lyrics and those sorts of things, but when did you say, this is it. This makes sense to me. I can express myself with this.
Alberto Rios: It was a dangerous route. It was the back of my notebook starting 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 in trouble. You're looking for trouble. No going around T. you're going to make a spit wad, write a note to somebody. I started writing things and I don't have wording for it. It didn't have a word in the back of my notebook. It was because of the front of my notebook. We think of poetry as a stayed homework oriented sort of thing, things we memorize, things that are dead in the water. That's not what poetry is for me at all. It's totally uninvented yet. It doesn't exist. It's what I encounter and what I'm going to make. I think there's a very different feeling about it. As I started to write things in the backs of my notebooks, words, phrases, I don't know why I did that. So I couldn't show it to anybody. Therefore, it was mine. I couldn't show it to a teacher because I wasn't doing it for homework or itwould have been in the front. I couldn't show it to my parents because that's the law of being a kid, and I cooperate show my friends because they weren't doing that. It grew into things that later became poems.

Ted Simons: when did you start showing them to people and when did you realize that when people saw these things they thought you were pretty good?

Alberto Rios: I don't know that anybody makes that leap immediately because people don't know what to make of poems. You get a poem shared with you. I'm not sure we know how to respond. When we listen to a great song we go, that's great. You listen to a great poem, you go, huh. You don't have a vocabulary for sharing intimate things with each other in that way. In words. I think I started doing this in high school showing it a little bit, but high school writing is high school writing. No getting around it. Mine was no different. I think it was in college. I know for sure that my formal training when I had to start showing it to people came my Junior year. I went to U of A, coming out of Nogales. For me Nogales was not really a college prep experience. I got through my first two years at U of A, and those were set. You didn't have any choices.

Junior year, that was the year computers came to universities. What that meant if you were a student is for the first time, you could pre-register. 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 in the world that summer was looking for, every other college student, the mythical, easiest courses we could find. We knew how to do it. I'm reading through of all places English department, which I had been through freshman English and hated it like everybody. That was ridiculous, but then I got to what was called English 9, which is unheard of today. "Introduction to poetry writing. Blah blah blah". Didn't mean anything to me at the moment. "Blah blah blah" at the end it said, no final. Oh, man!

Ted Simons: A winner.

Alberto Rios: Sign me up. So I tricked myself I think that way. English introduction to fiction writing I signed up. No final. But it was the great trick of academia, the great trick of learning that says whatever the enticement is, come and try it and I did and I started showing things then.

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: Yes. I think it suffers no good definition, so I'm always every time I pick up a poem if I'm in the classroom trying to explicate a poem or talk to a student about a poem I have to reinvent what the strength of poetry is even though it has centuries of discourse behind it. I have to reinvent it in that moment and say it all over again in my own words each time. Whatever definition I'm going to give you now, I think it's anything worth remembering, for example, and the impulse is when you're walking down street and you turn to somebody and say, did you see that? It's a poetic impulse. That was worth you seeing it, not just me, and I wish you had.

Ted Simons: In that respect I was reading some of the things you have written about poetry. You emphasize the moment more than the narrative. The narrative is fiction. Is it a series -- is poetry a series of moments that work together, that don't work together?

Alberto Rios: Both. It depends on the kind of poem you're trying to write. We talk about and I specifically talk about what I call integrity of the line. If every line is good, you don't need to worry about the entirety. This is an old idea. When people open up the Bible and point to a single line and take instruction from that for the rest of the day, it actually began before the Bible. It began with the works of Virgil, where people would open up this book of poems, put their finger on a line, not on a poem but on a line, and that was the test. If it isn't good wherever I point, it's not a good poem. So when students ask me, professor Rios, where should the best line in the poem be, the journalists students say it has to be the hook line, the first line. Others, the last line, "I awoke from a dream." My answer is the best line better be the one that I'm reading. It's an impossible standard and why would we want any other?

Ted Simons: With that in mind, do you emphasize rhyme? Do you emphasize meter, syllables? When you write a poem do you sit down and write, this is going to be about this and it's going to be about that long or do you wait for the Muse? What happens?

Alberto Rios: I get led by some words, by some incitement, whatever it might be, but all those things, meter and crime and all those things which people think aren't in use today, that's not true. Writers are using those things all the time including in traditional ways. But it's just like a basketball player who shoots the basket over and over again so you stop thinking about it. I think I'm at a point now where it's not what I think about. I Don't think about the tools I'm going to use to make the poem, I just start to be led and I can bring to bear all of the things that I have worked on in the writing of it and so you're going to want to know how do you write a poem. It's like defining poetry. It's different every time. If it weren't I would be scared.

Ted Simons: are there times the line looks like it's too long or too short?

Alberto Rios: There's a visual element and we're tricked by that. Oddly enough, a line, we think of story lines. How long is a story line? How long is a novel? You see a novel and you're looking at it and actually the container, the book, is terrible in that you're reading the line and you get to the ends of the page and thunk, you hit a brick wall, you fall down, you're dazed. Next line, you hit the wall again, you fall down. It's a terrible way to read a novel, to read a story. A story line is probably two miles long, half an inch high and fits straight into the ear. It's really an elegant idea. A book is a terrible container for it. Now, a poem, those lines, we're still circumscribed by the book Too on which 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 ten syllables. Ten feet long. There's something about the cadence of English, different languages work differently, so there's something about how long does it take to say one thing, Or one thing about one thing? A poetic line is a pretty good measure of that.

Ted Simons: If poets and critics see brilliance in a particular poem, but most people who read it don't see that brilliance there, is that a good poem?

Alberto Rios: It's an excellent question. What I think is there's a failure to communicate somewhere. It's not the poem's fault necessarily, we're not talking to each other about what it is that thrills us, what matters, what makes something great. So very often what critics will see is the juxtaposition of things that have never gone together before. They might be totally mundane. But those two words or two ideas have simply 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. The conversation needs to be opened up.

Ted Simons: A couple of quotes from you, the first "is place no tricks on the the leader and exact no requirements". The second, if you have to tell your reader to "keep reading twill all make sense in the future, you're not writing poetry, you're writing prose."

Alberto Rios: Right.
Ted Simons: if I'm reading something and the words are juxtaposing all over the page, I'm being required to do something there, aren't I?

Alberto Rios: You're required to get a different poem. You don't have to like it all. We have a very generic sensibility of poetry being one sublime thing. It's not true. You like some foods and not others. That's okay.

Ted Simons: how do I 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 over bearing way a poem will often show me what's important about it, so when I read it I often put it in the mouth. It's a oral tradition all. I read it and I try to listen to it. I don't try to say what it's trying to do. I try to listens to -- listen to what it's sharing with me.

Ted Simons: if it wants you to take avenue A, and internally you find yourself on avenue B, so be it?

Alberto Rios: So be it. And sometimes you take a wrong turn. But that's also you as a creative respondent. It's making me think of another poem and I'm going to write something because of T. sometimes it's a trigger because of That.

Ted Simons: I could go on forever with this kind of stuff. You're poet laureate, charged with going out into Arizona and what? Make people -- what? [laughter] Expose people to poetry and things they may not be familiar with?

Alberto Rios: To the best parts of language. Language in this state, really in the country has been so problematized but languages are not problems, languages are solutions. The best of language, poetry, has something to offer simply and innately because of that. It's going to say something to someone else, and if someone else can hear that, if it's conversation, it's what I call kitchen table conversation, we'll be better off. I think I have a lot to say about that.

Ted Simons: good. Can't wait to hear you say more. It's good to have you here.

Alberto Rios: I appreciate it.

Alberto Rios:Poet Laureate, Arizona;

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