Arizona’s Inaugural Poet Laureate

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The Arizona Commission on the Arts in partnership with the Office of the Governor announced that celebrated poet and Arizona State University Regents’ Professor Alberto Rios has been named the first Poet Laureate for Arizona. Professor Rios talks about the appointment.

José Cárdenas: It's a special honor for an ASU professor. The Arizona Commission on the Arts in partnership with the office of the Governor announced that celebrated poet and Arizona State University Regents' professor Alberto Ríos has been named the first poet laureate for Arizona. He is the host of "Books & Company," a program where writers come on the show to discuss their work. Joining me now is Arizona's inaugural poet laureate Professor Alberto Ríos. You are not simply the inaugural poet laureate. You were the inaugural guest for the show that you now host.

Alberto Ríos: "Books & Company." That's true. That's quite a while back. I was the very first guest.

José Cárdenas: We have a picture, well, the picture we have, I don't think you were 12. Unless you had a beard when you were 12.

Alberto Ríos: Oh, my goodness.

José Cárdenas: It's been a long and storied career for you here in Arizona. Give us kind of a thumbnail sketch of your background and how you came to be the writer that you are.

Alberto Ríos: Well, you know, it's an Arizona story, not one you hear too much today. I was born in Nogales. My father was born on the border of Guatemala in Mexico. My mother was born in England and she was what I later learned was a war bride. They came to live in Nogales. It's a long and quite wonderful story. And it's hard to imagine my mother, very liked, very diminutive, living in that town.

José Cárdenas: With an English accent.

Alberto Ríos: She was the English nurse. She was a nurse. But she did. And she gave me something that I later came to see was very simple. It was perspective. I grew up with a lot of languages, a lot of cultures, really. There's border culture along with literal English culture and Mexican culture, American culture, and border culture. It helped me to see from the very beginning that there was always going to be more than one way to look at something.

José Cárdenas: And when you talk about the very beginning, you weren't talking about you at a real young age, not what you claim to be in that picture. But you started writing as a youngster.

Alberto Ríos: Yeah. I can remember when my first act of writing was recognizable to me. But it had nothing to do with putting pen to paper. It was second grade and I got in trouble. I had committed the egregious sin of daydreaming. My parents were called in. And --

José Cárdenas: That was a sin?

Alberto Ríos: That was a sin in second grade. We are all in trouble, I hope. But my parents were called in. And they were sitting in the little second grader chairs listening to the teacher explain. He's very good student and whatever but he daydreams. Class had great big windows, and I did. Well, my parents, I thought I was in a lot of trouble. And I thought maybe, no dinner for me, or I would get -- it was the days of the belt and all that sort of stuff. I didn't know what was in store for me as -- I was a second grader. And you have all of these kinds of reasoning that sounds silly now but as a second grader you only have second grader reasoning. I thought I was in trouble. My parents listened. They said he's been daydreaming. Yes. They took me home. I was alone in the back seat of the car. And in the 50's, those back seats were huge. My brother wasn't with me. I thought, I was being castigated. They take me home. We watch some TV. They had one of the first TVs in the neighborhood so everybody would come. And I thought I was going to be excluded from that. No "Laurel and Hardy" for me. They let me watch TV. We went to bed. I thought I was going to have bad dreams, whatever. My parents never raised it as an issue. And when I came to see later is, they were giving me one of the great gifts in my life. You figure it out. You decide. We know it's in you to understand that what you did was not wrong. They didn't have to tell me.

José Cárdenas: So it wasn't "Laurel and hardy" but you end up being the poet laureate. You are the first one for Arizona. What are your obligations?

Alberto Ríos: The obligations are pro forma. I have to give some readings, do some things around the state. Visit rural and urban communities, kind of do everything there is to do regarding poetry, which is impossible. But I love that challenge. It's a good challenge. And I also am supposed to come up with a major literary thing. Nobody can kind of come to grips with that. But I am ready for that. I don't want to impose what I think ought to be done. I think there are a lot of great ideas for what Arizona might do with language.

José Cárdenas: And you just had an experience recently that maybe could be the kind of thing that you might do. And something you didn't you did in south Phoenix.

Alberto Ríos: In the south Phoenix community library. I did some various things. I have got some poems in the shade trellises. The sun comes through and projects these poems on to the people or the ground. Along with that we did something that was pretty innovative. We did a community poem in which we advertised only within the community for people to send in some lines, some thoughts, some words, some language regarding having grown up in south Phoenix. No rules. I didn't know what we would get.

José Cárdenas: And then you put it all together?

Alberto Ríos: I put it all together in a poem. Had our day. The poem was put in a broadside. It's permanently on the wall of the library. And when we were reading it that day, I had not met any of the writers, didn't know who they were. They were there. I started to call them one by one to come up and stand behind me as I read this poem. First gentleman comes up, a woman comes up, third or fourth person in, I call the name. And it's like this 10-year-old kid. And I said, you wrote that? He said, yeah, I'm a writer. I said, excellent! Glad to meet you. We shook hands. It was like a Disney moment and it would seem to not get better than that. He stood behind me but the next name I called was his mother. And I thought, that's a community poem. And that's going to be forever there on that wall. Those two people from two generations, single family. It's a story worth telling separate from the poem.

José Cárdenas: And it's a great story. Thank you so much for sharing it with us. Congratulations again on the great honor and thanks for joining us tonight.

Alberto Ríos: It was a pleasure.

Alberto Rios:Regents' Professor, Arizona State University;

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