In the churn of procedural, ho-hum, controversial and sometimes downright silly pieces of Arizona legislation (like when we became the second in the nation to adopt a State Gun, the Colt Single Action Revolver), the state senators and representatives of Arizona did something many of the state’s literari applauded in 2012. They passed and then-Gov. Jan Brewer signed into law S.B. 1348. This created the first-ever Arizona Poet Laureate.
Brewer did another great deed when she appointed Alberto Álvaro Ríos the state’s inaugural poet laureate in 2013. Not only is Ríos a wildly talented writer who pens heart-stopping and sometimes funny and sometimes daring poems, he also has strong ties to the state, as he grew up along the Arizona-Mexico border near Nogales.
Ríos’ father was from Mexico and his mother was from England, and his heritage and upbringing has led to a cross-national voice that is rare and beautiful. The state’s poet laureate role is one of literary ambassadorship, but the presence of Ríos—appointed for two years to the end of 2015, and who recently accepted a second term that goes to the end of 2017—brings a great cultural diplomacy as well.
The esteemed poet has published 10 works of poetry, including his latest, A Small Story About the Sky. He also has three collections of short stories, including The Iguana Killer: Twelve Stories of the Heart. It’s considered a classic piece of Chicano literature and has won several awards. And Ríos was nominated for the National Book Award in 2002 for his poetry collection, The Smallest Muscle in the Human Body.
It feels right to have Ríos as the headliner for the Northern Arizona Book Festival’s relaunch this week and weekend. His presence and blessing on the event as the state’s preeminent poet makes the proceedings all the richer as the event returns from a two-year hiatus. Catch Ríos at the Orpheum Theater, 15 W. Aspen, on Fri, Sept. 11 at the “Return of the Writer Reading,” which also features Chelsea Burden, Emma Canning, Nicole Walker and Shonto Begay. It runs from 7–9 p.m. Admission is $10. Learn more at www.nazbookfest.org/wp.
Ríos spoke with me over the phone to talk about poetry, inspiration, family history, and his planned visit to Flagstaff. We also talked about Huckleberry Hound.
Seth Muller: I want to jump right in with a poetry question. One of my all-time favorite poems of yours is ‘Refugio’s Hair.’ I love that it’s a fable but also appears to be a narrative poem based on an actual event—and it has the harrowing scene when a man named Uncle Carlos puts Refugio bareback on a runaway horse with a baby in her arms. That image always haunts me. So, can you speak about the background of this poem? Is this a true family story? Did that really happen?
Alberto Ríos: This particular poem came out of a shock of a family story about my uncle, Carlos. If you had a family in Mexico, somewhere there is a family ranch and a farm. And my Uncle Carlos was at that ranch. It was a fruiting ranch and we would go visit him. As a kid, it was like visiting the Garden of Eden. He’d say to us, ‘You boys just climb up in the trees and get whatever you want.’ And when we were done we’d have fruit juice running down our mouths … I loved those visits and remember thinking he was such a great guy. And he’s referenced in some of my earlier poems. I held him in reverence. Then, I was home a number of years ago and my father got a phone call. And he just blanched and we had this short conversation. He said, ‘You probably don’t remember my Uncle Carlos, but he just died.’ And I was shocked. ‘Of course I remember Uncle Carlos!’ But I realized I never voiced anything about him out loud. So I was struck by how much my father didn’t know about how much I remembered Uncle Carlos.
I was talking to my Aunt Norma and I said, ‘Isn’t it sad about Uncle Carlos?’ And she said, ‘It isn’t sad. It isn’t sad at all! He was the meanest man who ever lived!’ So then she tells me this story that became ‘Refugio’s Hair.’ The story I tell is mostly how I remember it, but there’s a little bit of culture play here, where the hair takes on a life of its own. In English, you would say, ‘I dropped a glass. I did it.’ A focus on the I and the me. In Spanish, that same moment would be rendered in a different way, like ‘The glass, it fell from me.’ Maybe I dropped it. Maybe it wanted to fall. It suggests the possibility of the inherent life in things. So, in the poem, the hair came alive.
Family lore and your connections to family come up often in your poems. Can you talk about some of the other poems inspired by your family members or your connection to them?
I have a poem in my collection, The Smallest Muscle in the Human Body, and it’s a mediation in a number of parts on dying and death. And it has one part that I think of as a very resonant moment before I talk about my father dying. I write in there, ‘The reason you can’t lose weight later on in life is simple enough/It’s because of how so many people you know have died,/And that you carry a little of each of them with you.’ And I feel that’s true when it comes to family. You carry them with you in some way. And so I’ve written a lot about family … I also have another poem about my grandmother called ‘Day of the Refugios.’ That day (the Saint’s Day of people named Refugio) also happens to be the Fourth of July. So, there were always fireworks. It was confusing to me because I thought, ‘Wow, everyone must really love my grandmother.’
I have to ask, too, what is the smallest muscle in the human body and what does it have to do with poetry?
The smallest muscle in the human body is the stapeius, and it’s in the ear. It’s the only muscle that doesn’t have blood vessels. It just couldn’t take it. I have a poem in the book where I write, ‘The ear is so sensitive that the body, if it heard its own pulse,/Would be devastated by the amplification of its own sound.’
Along with family and interesting human-body references, your poems often reflect your love of language itself. In the poem ‘That Thing,’ you start off: ‘No word rhymes with silence, or tries to./No word wants to visit that furtive backyard garden.’ It’s interesting to read the way you personify and explore words. Can you talk about how your interest in language itself informs your poems?
There is the great poster that is based off an image by artist René Magritte, and it has a painting of a pipe and the words ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe'. French for ‘This is not a pipe.’ So, what it says is that the image of the pipe is not the thing, but also the word pipe is not the thing. When I think about that notion, it weighs on me quite a bit. The words themselves are not the thing. They are simply words. So, I explore them quite often as their own entities. What are they trying to tell us? Where are they trying to lead us? To think about it that way also means the words themselves might have agency. They might act on their own and have power that way.
I find that those ‘what are words up to’ poems have a sense of humor to them, as well. Can you share what you see as the importance of using humor in poetry?
I am a fan of everything being present in poems, everything we can do and feel, and that includes humor. I never shy away from it. It’s a natural part of who I am, so it’s part of my voice. I’m not afraid of humor. I think it lends something to the complexity of voice. I think absurdism and humor give us time to smile and laugh out loud.
You are a poet who is fluent in two languages, English and Spanish. In what ways has being bilingual influenced your poetry and your voice?
I think that idea of moving from the ‘I’ as the center of everything is a big part of it … I mentioned my grandmother’s Saint’s Day poem. We celebrated her birthday on that day. What happens in Latin American often, in general, people celebrated your Saint’s Day. Your birthday, that one day you were born, separates you from people, while the Saint’s Day connects you … There’s also this wonderful idea of how much we are related to each other (in Latino culture and in the language). There’s a wonderful word, Tocayo. This is someone that has the same first name you do. Having the same first name is perceived as a kind of relationship, almost like cousins … Another thing about the Spanish language is that it’s engendered. And this suggests that the world is alive with itself. So, I think that influences what I do as well. It gives me license to understand the possible.
I saw you at the Tucson Festival of Books in 2014 and you told a story about Huckleberry Hound that I loved, because you talked about how you came to own a certain color. Can you share that story here?
So, in 1960, I had saved enough box tops and sent away enough to become a member of the Huckleberry Hound Club. I was 8 years old at the time. One day, I got a big envelope in the mail with my name on it. I got it. It was for me. This was mine. A signet ring came out of the envelope, and it was from the Huckleberry Hound Club. And then I found these 8x10 glossies of the gang and there, among them, was Huckleberry Hound. And he was blue! I grew up with a black-and-white television. So, I did not know that he was blue. Maybe if I grew up in the South and I knew what a huckleberry was, I might have figured it out. But I didn’t know. Suddenly, I saw the world differently, and in an extreme way. It shocked me. And I owned it. I owned the color blue.
With that memory in mind, I wonder if you know of a moment in your life that you decided you wanted to be a poet? What was going on or what changed?
I just always did it. It was probably one of things I always did. I know I can date it back to the second grade. For me, poetry has nothing to do with pencil and paper. It has to do with imagination. I was a good student and I would finish early and I would look out the windows. And one day I was caught in the egregious act of daydreaming. The teacher called my parents in and everything. But my parents, they never brought it up again. They didn’t react to me getting in trouble. Nothing … I always liked listening to stories and I liked thinking about them. So, if you get told of the story of Coronado, if you get told the story about this explorer, you want to explore and think about exploring. In the second grade, you can’t even cross the street without holding someone’s hand, but you can explore in your imagination. And I always loved that.