Arizona’s first poet laureate balances cultures and finds connections among dividing lines.
Alberto Álvaro Rios stood before a small gathering of South Phoenicians at South Mountain Community Library, preparing to read a poem they wrote together.
To honor its one-year anniversary in 2012, the library had asked locals to submit phrases, images and memories about South Phoenix – to contribute a verse, Walt Whitman might say, to the powerful play. As Rios had sewed the snatches together, the emerging ode surprised him. It wasn’t patched with the area’s history of segregation and violence. “‘Baseline Blooms,’” he says, “turned out to be a pastoral, gentle, quiet poem. And this was the community writing itself.”
As he announced the contributors’ names, asking them to stand beside him for the reading, “this little 10-year-old pip-squeak guy” walked up, Rios says. He shook his hand, then read the next name: It was the boy’s mother. The incident “helped me to understand that this is how [poetry] ought to work,” Rios says. “They’re going to be [in the poem] forever, two generations.”
Perhaps the state’s best-known poet, Rios has dedicated his life to distilling Arizona into verse. His 14 books of poetry and prose are populated with border-dwellers, and his style is as clean and surprising as rain in the desert, infusing life into the most poetically barren places: Tuesday leftovers, a Ford fender, newspapers. He penned former Governor Janet Napolitano’s inaugural poems. For the last five years, he has also hosted the PBS television show Books & Co. This January, he was named a chancellor of the American Academy of Poets. His words are etched like lyrical petroglyphs around the state – Tempe Town Lake, the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, and soon, the border wall.
So it’s fitting that, in August 2013, Rios was named Arizona’s first poet laureate. “For more than four decades,” Governor Jan Brewer announced, “[Rios’] poetry and literary works have touched our communities and kept Arizona’s culture and heritage alive.” Through his new “poems of public purpose,” Rios hopes to connect Arizona’s people, environment and cultures like lines in a poem, like the cultures connected within him.
Rios was born in 1952 in Nogales, Arizona, to a father from Mexico and a mother from England. “My parents are – were – are a great love story,” Rios says. “They are two ways to look at something. They are from two worlds apart, and together they triangulate toward a third, which is me... I don’t think they compromised how they each viewed the world. So what was great was that there was never one answer to anything, and that left it to me to decide what my answer would be.”
The mid-century Nogaleses were as much a hodgepodge of cultures as the prune- and peanut-studded bread pudding that lends its name to Rios’ memoir, Capirotada. Then, the border was a chain-link fence, watched over by frequently napping guards and thrown open during holidays, when the citizens poured together in a massive parade. Rios’ great-aunts assumed they were living in Nogales, Sonora, until the fence was built after World War I. Then they discovered their house was in Arizona. Did that suddenly make them American? In that time and place, the answer didn’t matter. “The places in between places/ they are like little countries/ themselves,” Rios writes in the poem “Day of the Refugios.”
He recalls the day everything changed: when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The border was sealed for the first time, separating families who worked or went to school on opposite sides. To Rios, the day-long closure marked a communal loss of innocence and began the twin towns’ painful peeling away from each other.
As a youngster, Rios was sociable but realized he saw the world differently than most children. Never exposed to poetry, he didn’t know how to define his secret, spontaneous jottings in the back of his notebook. (Only in high school, when he read the poetry collection Coney Island of the Mind by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, did he discover that “what I was doing was connected to what other people might be doing.”) He got in trouble for daydreaming in class. He struggled with language: Spanish was spoken in his home but forbidden in school. For a while, he lost the ability to communicate with his Mexican grandmother. Speaking Spanish, he says, was dangerous.
Danger is a recurring motif in his writings. The imagination is dangerous. The back of his notebook was dangerous. Arizona’s answerless cultural questions are dangerous. “Danger is what you do every time you set out to write a poem,” he says. “Nobody’s written these words before.”
But make no mistake: Rios is not a brooding writer. He is a poet with laugh lines. His fountain of gray hair belies his youthfulness. “Childhood I still live. I feel fully resident in that place,” he says in his office at ASU, where he is a Regent’s Professor of English. When he learns something new, he still gets as excited as he did the day his Nogales teacher taught him the mythology of weekday names, and he led his grade school gang – the Vikings of America – in hammer-throwing to celebrate Thor’s Day. As he tells the story, he swivels in his chair, energy simmering from his feet, rising to his expressive hands, and bursting like firecrackers in his voice. The mythology, he says, connected him to the centuries. Again, connection.
Today, Rios’ cultural duality coexists inside him as peacefully as the pages of a bilingual book. He didn’t lose his Spanish so much as temporarily misplace it; he writes mostly in English but translates some of his poems. His inheritance from his parents and that little country in between places, he says, is understanding there are a hundred ways of looking at things. The perspective serves him well in a state “where language has always been an issue,” he notes. In the Arizona Legislature’s decision to honor a bicultural man as poet laureate, “[language] was again being made an issue, but more in the form of a solution.”
Through his two-year poet laureate position – which entails public readings, writing invocations for events, and an as-yet-undecided major literary project – he hopes to shift perspectives: “Public art should move you from where you’re standing to what you’re thinking... You are not where you were, but you haven’t moved.”
He cites as an example one of his inscriptions etched near Tempe Town Lake: To visit the river quickly, cut an onion. “You have this thing that connects you with water,” he explains. “You’re looking at water, but you’re also offering some water in that exchange, and there’s a kind of communion in the moment. I think that’s public art at its best, and I think it’s what these poems of public purpose are trying to do: connect us.”
When Mexican President Vicente Fox visited Arizona in 2003, then-Governor Janet Napolitano commissioned Alberto Rios to write a poem for the occasion. On November 3, the diminutive poet stood next to the beanpole president in front of 3,000 people gathered at Phoenix Civic Plaza. Rios had written “Border Lines” in English and Spanish and read each stanza, back and forth, in the two languages. “A weight carried by two weighs only half as much,” it begins. “The border is what joins us, not what separates us,” it concludes.
“[Fox] turns to me,” Rios recalls, “and he shakes my hand and he says, ‘I like the poem.’ And I said, ‘I do too.’ He laughed. And I said [in Spanish], ‘But you know, the work is up to you.’ And he says, ‘You’re right.’”
This year, that poem will be permanently featured on the new, fortified border wall at Nogales, for thousands of crossers to read each day.