Arizona Poet Alberto Rios on His Creative Philosophy

Arizona's first Poet Laureate Alberto Rios.
Arizona's first Poet Laureate Alberto Rios.
Evie Carpenter

Every other year, New Times puts the spotlight on Phoenix's creative forces — painters, dancers, designers, and actors. Leading up to the release of Best of Phoenix, we're taking a closer look at 100 more. Welcome to the 2016 edition of 100 Creatives. Up today is 4. Alberto Álvaro Ríos.

Alberto Álvaro Ríos has the great gift of perspective.

Born in Nogales, Arizona, the state's inaugural Poet Laureate and a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets has devoted his life to "writing about cultures and borders of all sorts since the late '60s," he says. As a writer, arts advocate, poet, teacher who has been with Arizona State University since 1982, and the host of the PBS program Books & Co., Ríos has honed his craft through consistency and practice. The accolades — and there have been many, including the Walt Whitman Award in Poetry and the Latino Literary Hall of Fame Award — have followed

"The great secret is that it has been one day after another, each an adventure, each bringing a gift," he says. "The writer Graham Greene is said to have written exactly 500 words a day and no more — though by the end of his career,  he was one of the most prodigious writers of the 20th century. "

Ríos believes in that magic. "Work, then work again," he says. "Miraculously, it adds up, so long as it has in fact been done."

Now 64 and based in Chandler, he has found the Valley to be a remarkable place where life thrives against the odds. "Operating in the realm of the seemingly impossible makes Phoenix an abiding and continuing act of the imagination," he says.

And it's with support from the City's Office of Arts and Culture, alongside the National Endowment for the Arts, that Ríos has embarked on his latest project. "I have started a big public art project in Phoenix South — the communities south of central Phoenix," he says. "In this project, I am finding small ways to fundamentally reimagine and reinvent public art for writers and artists of all sorts and to think about culture, place, and voice."

In his own work, the writer recently has completed two fiction manuscripts and is working on a new book of poems. Given his sprawling creative output, it seems there's plenty more to come.

"A phrase I always offer my students is: Nothing so important and nothing at all unimportant," he says. "Write to the best moment, no matter the stakes, and the work will take care of itself."

I came to Phoenix in the early '80s with a body full of scared bones. This place seemed so different from me at a core level. Growing up in Arizona outside of Phoenix, this place felt like being swallowed into the belly of the beast, in so many ways the opposite of how I grew up. It was urban, conservative, hot, gridlocked, big. I’ve since changed my mind about a few things. It’s still a beast, but I’ve come to appreciate the energy of living in its shadow.

I make art because I think. I imagine, I change, I experiment, I erase. Somewhere in second grade, I found that daydreaming was a superpower. It was a vast place inside my small head that was invisible, capable of anything, full of music and words and scents and agitations, and active. I make art because it has made me, filled me, and occasionally some of it spills out of my mouth. Well, something like that.

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I’m most productive when I least expect to be. I would like to be able to plan for the six o’clock Muse, but it rarely happens that way. Instead, I just try to hang on to whatever whispers to me. This is a difficult sound to hear, but it’s there if I listen.

My inspiration wall is full of gray matter. I don’t have a wall in my office that I can look to for comfort or that I can even see — everything physically around me in in some slow form of chaos and disarray. The inspiration happens when I see the wall anyway, even if nobody else does, or can.

I’ve learned most from teaching. It has been an extension of thinking, and so much occurs without prior planning. It is word forged in the moment. Tristan Tzara, leader of the Dada movement in the early part of the last century, said this wonderful thing that has always stayed with me, something to the effect that thought occurs in the mouth. We want to believe that we think through everything and know what’s what, but the moment makes us.

Good work should always move a person from where they’re standing to what they’re thinking or feeling.

The Phoenix creative scene could use more shade — that is, a great umbrella of palpable encouragement.

The 2016 Creatives so far:

100. Nicole Olson
99. Andrew Pielage
98. Jessica Rowe
97. Danny Neumann
96. Beth Cato
95. Jessie Balli
94. Ron May
93. Leonor Aispuro
92. Sarah Waite
91. Christina "Xappa" Franco
90. Christian Adame
89. Tara Sharpe
88. Patricia Sannit
87. Brian Klein
86. Dennita Sewell
85. Garth Johnson
84. Charissa Lucille
83. Ryan Downey
82. Samantha Thompson
81. Cherie Buck-Hutchison
80. Freddie Paull
79. Jennifer Campbell
78. Dwayne Hartford
77. Shaliyah Ben
76. Kym Ventola
75. Matthew Watkins
74. Tom Budzak
73. Rachel Egboro
72. Rosemary Close
71. Ally Haynes-Hamblen
70. Alex Ozers
69. Fawn DeViney
68. Laura Dragon
67. Stephanie Neiheisel
66. Michael Lanier
65. Jessica Rajko
64. Velma Kee Craig
63. Oliver Hibert
62. Joya Scott
61. Raji Ganesan
60. Ashlee Molina
59. Myrlin Hepworth
58. Amy Ettinger
57. Sheila Grinell
56. Forrest Solis
55. Mary Meyer
54. Robert Hoekman Jr.
53. Joan Waters
52. Gabriela Muñoz
51. ColorOrgy
50. Liz Magura
49. Anita and Sam Means
48. Liz Ann Hewett
47. Tiffany Fairall
46. Vanessa Davidson
45. Michelle Dock
44. Nia Witherspoon
43. Monique Sandoval
42. Nayon Iovino
41. Daniel Davisson
40. Andrew King
39. Michelle Moyer
38. Jimmy Nguyen
37. Tiffany Lopez
36. Kristin Bauer
35. Donna Isaac
34. Douglas Miles
33. Sierra Joy
32. Francisco Flores
31. Amy Robinson
30. Julio Cesar Morales
29. Duane Daniels
28. Kelsey Pinckney
27. Ben Smith
26. Rembrandt Quiballo
25. Corinne Geertsen
24. Tess Mosko Scherer
23. Slawomir Wozniak
22. Elly Finzer
21. Josh Brizuela
20. Amy K. Nichols
19. Angela Johnson
18. Grant Vetter
17. Michelle and Melanie Craven
16. Erick Biez
15. Leah Marche
14. Lisa Von Hoffner
13. Amada Cruz
12. Amber Robins
11. Xandriss
10. Steven Tepper
9. Bentley Calverley
8. Lisa Olson
7. Eric Torres
6. Genevieve Rice 
5. Kathleen Trott


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