Chandler author busy as state’s poet laureate - SanTan Sun News SanTan Sun News

Chandler author busy as state’s poet laureate

July 27th, 2020 development
Chandler author busy as state’s poet laureate

By Srianthi Perera

If someone had told Alberto Alvaro Rios when he was a teenager growing up in a borderland community that he would become Arizona’s first poet laureate, his response would have been mirth.

“Ironically, I did not actually read much poetry as a teenager. I was too busy living it,” Rios said. “I did not come to poetry from reading; I came to it as a constant act of my own discovery.”

When he did start reading poetry, he sensed something of his own voyage in those words. That serendipitous discovery has propelled his life’s work and platform.

The Chandler resident, who also directs the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing at Arizona State University, has published 12 poetry collections, three collections of short stories and a memoir – all sandwiched between hundreds of poems in national and international journals and anthologies.

The most recent poetry collection, published by Copper Canyon Press in May, is titled “Not Go Away Is My Name,” and a first novel, titled A Good Map of All Things,” published by University of Arizona Press, is due out in the fall.

Like much of his work, both were inspired by growing up in the American part of Nogales and hailing from a family that has been in the region of northern Mexico/southern Arizona for many generations.

He also straddles cultures: his mother is from Lancashire, England, and his father is from Chiapas, Mexico.

“What is important about that is understanding how community is generational as well as geographic, and community is what has given me so much of my work,” Rios said.

To him, place is far more than a mapped entity.

“For me, it is animals, desert, rain, wild plants, and so much more, things you have to walk among and through, things you have to taste and run from, things you have to respect and understand intimately,” he said.

Of his latest work, some contain experiences while others are imagined. However, they could only have been imagined by someone who has gone through the experiences of growing up between cultures and languages, he said.

“I think the border is the most American place in America because it is a place where you have to choose or you get to choose every day,” he said. “That’s the premise of America.”

Rios wonders at the choices available to Americans.

“In most of the world, there’s no ‘or,’ you get what you get or do what you do. Growing up on the border, you have to choose every day. What word am I going to say when I’m looking at a pen: Am I going to say pen or am I going to say blue mark? And what am I going to think of, when I think of the color blue: Am I going to think of an American blue or the inexplicable blue that you see in houses that are painted in Mexico?” he said.

Those on the border get to choose “all the time, every day” and that extends to languages.

“Even in choosing, you’re not choosing one thing or the other, sometimes you’re choosing both simultaneously. That’s exciting. I find it thrilling. I think that’s the essence of the border; it’s choice. It’s not limiting in any way,” he added.

The duality nurtured his poetry.

“Now when I sit down and I look at words, I know there’s always more than one way to say something, there’s more than one way to look at it and more than one way to think about it. And I think that is the essence of what being a poet is,” he said.

“A Good Map of All Things” has a similar theme and the story takes place just south of the border, in northern Sonora.

“It’s a compendium of all the small towns that I grew up either visiting or hearing about or my great aunts lived in,” he said. “There is no one main character; the town itself is the character. Everybody comes in and they tell their story, creating again their own community. There’s no one way to describe their community. Everybody has their version.”

Rios values the lifelong experience that makes us singular as authors and poets.

“We each, every one of us as human beings, have an innately particular story to tell,” he said.

Which is what he’s nurturing at the Piper Center.

“As a poet, I see my directorship of the Piper Center as a chance to let dreams be realized. It isn’t so different from what I talk about as poet laureate,” he said. “Hoping that what I bring to the table is strong, responsible, imaginative thinking, I get to shepherd both the center and my readers in positive, magical directions.

“Some of those directions are publication, of course, but everything stems from actualizations of the self. This is where the electricity is.”

Rios was appointed Arizona’s inaugural poet laureate by Governor Jan Brewer in 2013. He has organized several literal events and done outreach in rural areas, but he thinks of his tenure as “the poetry of a thousand encounters.”

“That is, I don’t think poetry happens only at a big event,” he said. “For me, it has to happen every time I speak, everywhere I go, and with everyone I meet. It is a life lived, not simply a role served. To that end, it is now more like poetry of ten thousand encounters.”

Rios expects that the next poet laureate would be appointed soon. But for him, the work of his designation was second nature even before the title and he would continue it.

“In that sense, it is definitely a lifelong role,” he said.

He knows that his work is well received, if judging by the many correspondences that arrive.

“Who they are, however, is a mystery to me—the correspondences are far and wide, from all over the world.  But while who they are is a mystery, that they exist is not,” Rios said.

“I always try to remember that. I am speaking to somebody. There is always someone you’re in conversation with at the other side of the kitchen table.”

He will continue to enrich the world with his words. But not everyone chooses to pick up a poetry collection at the end of a long day. Does he have some parting words to entice a reader?

“Poems can be exhausting, on the one hand, if you are reading to study and analyze. But I also think they can dazzle just as read, just as entertainment, letting the language do its magical work,” Rios said.

“There is no one way to do this, and a poem never provides just one experience. The best advice is to prepare for—and expect—surprise. And, expect a poem to be different every time you read it.”


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