Alberto Rios, the inaugural Poet Laureate of Arizona, will talk about his 13th book of poetry, “A Small Story about the Sky,” which focuses on stories that unfold along the Mexico-US border.
TED SIMONS: Arizona's poet laureate Alberto Rios is out with his 13th collection of poems. The new book is titled "A Small Story About the Sky," and focuses on images and memories of people and places along the U.S.-Mexico border. Here now is Alberto Rios. Good to see you again.
ALBERTO RIOS: Thanks for having me back.
TED SIMONS: Congratulations on the new book. These really are something. Did these poems come to you differently than past poems?
ALBERTO RIOS: I think they did. This book was made as a different book to start with. It was a book originally of my own poems and they still are my poems but they have been affected by being poet laureate. They now have something called poems of public purpose, which are poems I felt compelled to write as I've been on this journey.
TED SIMONS: Are they different kinds of poems? Do I recognize the metaphors when composing these poems any easier, any more -- any --
ALBERTO RIOS: They are more publicly intended.
TED SIMONS: Interesting. Okay.
ALBERTO RIOS: So I think where I can write to the personal me in so many poems, in this particular case I he wasn't writing my poems, I was writing poems that had to have a different kind of impact. It's writing from the outside in, rather than the inside out.
TED SIMONS: Interesting. But still, you are still writing poetry, still kind of dancing around the topic and metaphors here and symbolism there. Right?
ALBERTO RIOS: None of that changes. I don't want to make it an inadequate or minor kind of work. I think I'm been able to elevate the discourse, public and private, into something I think is worthy.
TED SIMONS: Did you learn something writing these poems?
ALBERTO RIOS: I did, a lot. One of the best things I learned is we can't just speak for ourselves, we sometimes have to lend our voices to those who cannot speak. The baker might bake a loaf of bread and I get to eat that bread, I am doing that. When I write now, it's like baking that loaf of bread for somebody.
TED SIMONS: Interesting way to put it. The border is an equation in search of an equals sign. Explain, please.
ALBERTO RIOS: Well that, comes out of a long series of one-line ideas, conceptualizations of the border. I grew up on the border, I grew up in Nogales. A line like that is an equation in search of an equals sign. The border itself, the fence is not an equals sign. It suggests something is less than as opposed to equal to. And I think that is a statement of that.
TED SIMONS: When you write this kind of poetry now, and you know, images and metaphors become statements in certain ways, do you have to watch yourself? I don't want to be taught a lesson here, I want to read poetry.
ALBERTO RIOS: I don't think so, I don't think I've ever suffered that. I'm not out I don't think to write a pedagogical kind of work, I'm not out to give an essay or a lecture. I think I have a lot of fun with the imagery. In that fun there's going to be an intent, a lesson, but not in the way I think you would get in school. I don't talk or write in red ink. I write and have fun when I write. I think if I wouldn't want to hear it, I'm not going say it.
TED SIMONS: Do all of your images have meaning? Some of the images are very visid. The one line, appear cots are eggs laid in trees by invisible golden hens. I love the fact that they are invisible golden hens, by the way. Does that have a meaning? Is it just a metaphor? Is that just a beautiful image?
ALBERTO RIOS: It's meant to be purely just a visual association. It's leading us to something we wouldn't have been led to had we just been sitting on the couch. In the sense that it has direction, a composite intent. It's going to take us somewhere.
TED SIMONS: Indeed, another line was gnats, sneezes still flying around. You're always moving in a direction with these things, aren't you?
ALBERTO RIOS: And it's funny. I use a particular form, I'm fond of this. This came out of doing public work, called a gregoria. You've been repeating these, they are really meant to be one-line poems. Even though they are in this particular book put next to others, they are nevertheless meant to be one-line efforts. The gnats being a sneeze still flying around --
TED SIMONS: It's perfect.
ALBERTO RIOS: That's all we want to know.
TED SIMONS: Those are one lines. My favorite poem in the book, it's a short poem, I want you to read it right now. When you're done I'll have some questions on it. This was how the sky was made. Go ahead and read this for you, if you would.
ALBERTO RIOS: How the sky is made. We have camped out, eaten, filled ourselves, told the best stories we know, and gotten tired. All of us sleepy, we doused the fire and watch as so much of it gets up, those sparks and bits and chuffs of smoke, they suddenly if wearily rise to make the sky. Go to their second jobs as stars in the night. Smoke wandering to work as clouds on the horizon of the next day. We let them go. We ourselves, so weary, get ready for the hard work of sleep, in which next days are found.
TED SIMONS: Why did that poem come from? That is gorgeous. Where did that poem come from?
ALBERTO RIOS: Much like the idea of gnats, the idea that sparks rise is just one of those moments, if you've ever been camping, you lift it up, often against a night sky. It simply told itself to me. Those sparks are what stars are.
TED SIMONS: And the smoke becomes the clouds. But again, sparks become. Smoke becomes. We go to sleep. Everything's moving forward.
ALBERTO RIOS: That's a good observation. I think that's very important to me. It all goes forward to make something. What that thing that's being made is ultimately it's hard to say, but it is moving us from where we are to what we're thinking, feeling or imagining.
TED SIMONS: Right, Yes.
ALBERTO RIOS: We cannot be static after having read one of these lines.
TED SIMONS: How do you know when a poem like that or any of your poems, how do you know when it's finished?
ALBERTO RIOS: You don't. It's one of those things that haunts you as a writer. There's an old saying amongst writers that novels or poems or anything else are never finished, they are simply abandoned. I don't think that's necessarily accurate. I know I could keep going, I could write more, do more. You have to have a big picture view of this. I will write more and more about that poem, it just won't in called that poem. But the idea, the metaphors, all of that action, it'll find its way.
TED SIMONS: Yeah. I know musicians are afraid if they can't remember the melody of what they wrote the next day, they can't remember, they still are worried it's gone forever.
ALBERTO RIOS: I don't think it ever goes. So many writers are really writing one idea. They are looking at all of these facets of it, around and around, and it's enough.
TED SIMONS: How do you know how to start a poem?
ALBERTO RIOS: Sometimes many poems are imagined into being, kneaded into being. Sometimes they are offered to you by something that just makes you think twice. Suddenly I turn around and see something, hear something, smell something. In that moment, when I get a smell of rosemary, in that moment something happens to me. Can I make that into words? Not always, sometimes I just want to eat it but sometimes I want to write that.
TED SIMONS: And sometimes, I noticed you had a poem in there about Phil Curtis. The painter whose works are at the Phoenix Art Museum.
ALBERTO RIOS: Who's actually on the cover.
TED SIMONS: I was going to say, the cover -- that is Phil Curtis? That looks like Phil, kind of surrealism sort of thing. You could stand there looking at a painting and a poem hits you, correct?
ALBERTO RIOS: Absolutely true. I think that's an age-old process that writers, artists of all sorts have always shared. You moved.
TED SIMONS: We just had you read a poem aloud. Should poems always hold up if read aloud?
ALBERTO RIOS: No, they don't. So much of the best work is much too dense to be read effectively out loud. The human mind can't move fast enough to take that all in. To read a poem on the page is to serve it. You need to spend a little time with it and reading aloud is so performative in this day and age, we don't have time for taking time.
TED SIMONS: Right. We've all taken classes, poetry, English, whatever, we we've looked at work and gone, I have no idea what I'm reading, I can't find the meter. Can poetry still be too impenetrable?
ALBERTO RIOS: Absolutely, so much of it is. For me, as well, there's no getting around it. I always recognize, even if I can't enter a poem, it helps me to understand if I don't know what I'm reading in that first line, it's telling me to read it some other way. Don't read it in the regular way I'm used to reading. I've got to listen for cadence, pure sonics maybe, listen for only rhyme or lack of rhyme. It's telling me that it's not something I'm used to. It's okay to say some poems just don't work, it's perfectly okay. But I don't want to be the one who simply gives up because I can't get the first part of it or get it on first read.
TED SIMONS: Interesting.
ALBERTO RIOS: I think there's more there. The human mind doesn't let us write something that is inconsequential. So a poem, that has gotten to the page, somebody has seen something there. I want to look for that, too.
TED SIMONS: But if it's too dense for me, it's too dense for me.
ALBERTO RIOS: Then there's nothing wrong with that.
TED SIMONS: If it's too light for you, then there you go.
ALBERTO RIOS: There's a lot of choice. I don't think there's anything at all wrong with that, it's not a monolith. We tend to think about that and teach it that way, you've got like the all or there's something wrong with you. But that's not accurate in the least.
TED SIMONS: When you read poetry and you get emails in response, do you ever go, I didn't think of that, or I'll be doggoned.
ALBERTO RIOS: Language is like that, it sometimes tricks us into letting it work on the page and start playing. Somebody else is going to be responsive to that in a way I didn't understand I was an instrument to. It's just there and somebody else will pick up on it. I think it's exciting when it does that. However, it doesn't mean I don't have the job of writing a poem that I think makes sense on my terms. That somebody else can see it a different way, that's great. But I think it's one of the hallmarks of an early writer, where I heard a first year student saying, it's okay with me if you don't understand it. Then why did you show it to me? Of course I need to understand it. I've got that first responsibility to make a poem, that poem can be multiples, it can extend out. I think it's just exciting.
TED SIMONS: As far as your favorites, who?
ALBERTO RIOS: I'm going to say something that's surprising. My favorite poets are not poets in the traditional sense of going to a book of poems. I reason I say that, if I go to a book of poems, that's where the stuff is. There's no discovery to be made. I love it and read it and I'm instructed and he had fide by it but it's not for me, the place to make a discovery. If I turn around and look at a campfire and those sparks, I need to find it somewhere that it isn't. The inspiration often comes for mere, I would say for example my favorite poet is Gabrielle Garcia Marquez, a fiction writer because when I'm reading that work, I find moments in there that are simply extraordinary and it's not where I expected to find it. I expected it to be plot moving me from A to Z. Something suddenly stands up and stops me and I'm saying, that's almost illegal in fiction, you're not as opposed to stop. That's something I want to pay attention to.
TED SIMONS: People ascending to heaven, butterflies falling from the sky.
ALBERTO RIOS: Incidentally, perfect, magical realism, she's ascending into the sky, and she's been washing sheets with the ladies of the village. Hard to come by. As she's ascending, it's a miracle for her but one of the ladies yells up to her, drop the sheet! Perfect.
TED SIMONS: Amazing book. Last question. We've got about a minute left here. Poetry's place in society. Is there a place for poetry in society?
ALBERTO RIOS: I think there is. One of the distinctions I use when I'm traveling around is say it and I will understand it. Say it well and I will feel it. That difference I think is crucial. It explains the humanities but says something about us as human beings. You've got all the words in the world and all you have is a dictionary. A dictionary is efficient but a poem is effective.
TED SIMONS: These poems are more than effective a beautiful collection, a beautiful book. Thank you, and congratulations on a wonderful work.
ALBERTO RIOS: Thank you.
TED SIMONS: Wednesday on Arizona Horizon, a new report that looks at the state's future in a variety of ways on Wednesday. That's on the next "Arizona Horizon." That's it for now, I'm Ted Simons, thank you so much for joining us. You have a great evening.
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Alberto Rios: Inaugural Poet Laureate of Arizona