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Best of Phoenix 2015: Arizona's First Poet Laureate, Alberto Ríos Has Published Acclaimed Books

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I've lived in the desert in its different incarnations, from high to low desert, all my life. And though my addresses have been cities, I have often lived a good distance outside of them. In Nogales, I was four miles north of town. In Florence, I was seven miles south, and so on. Now that I've been in Chandler for a good while, the city has grown all around me, but when I first moved here, I was bounded by sheep fields, now long gone. I was also bounded by the Chandler of my childhood, when I can remember coming to this little farming community with a neighborhood friend's father on a lark one summer. He decided we should all get in the car and come to look at the jet that used to be featured in the town square. Ruralism is something I've experienced all my life — periphery, edge, liminality. For me, I think, this existence has taken on the names "desert" and "border."

The writer Jorge Luis Borges is credited as being concerned with the "character of unreality in all literature." When we talk about the desert, we are talking about water. Water is unreal in the desert, and yet it is exactly what makes the desert the desert. Too much water, too little, this level, that sprinkler, an oasis, a mirage, a thunderstorm, a dust storm — the desert is so often all about water. When will it come, when was it last seen, have you drunk enough today? The desert is defined by its other. This has led me, so often, in my writing. To see what cannot be seen. To allow for something that does not seem to be there. For me, the desert has never been a great emptiness — quite the opposite. I have, in all my work, tried to see what is not easily seen. The desert has given me this proving ground.

The desert has given me substance, made me see consequence. There is a sound in the southern Sonoran Desert: When it's so dry but the first rain comes, the first raindrop hitting a mesquite pod making a curious clicking sound at first, but then so many raindrops on so many dry mesquite pods, they make a maracas sound, a music, the desert in full song on a dark afternoon. There's a poetic quality to moments like that, of course, but they are the stuff of the desert, part of its everyday, its quotidian reality. It is quiet, to be sure — the desert rarely yells. But in that quietude, there is, simply said, much. While I don't write about the desert all the time, I am at the same time reasonably surprised at myself to see how much I do, indeed, venture in that direction.

Here's a funny thing: My last name, Ríos, means, of course, rivers. My mother's unmarried name was Fogg. I come from moisture. The great irony of living in the desert has always helped me to reach for bigger answers, and to see them wherever I look — including the desert.

In this way, seeing deeply and listening to the desert, conceptualizing it in different ways, and simply including it in my work has helped me to tell its story — not that it needed me. But I think there have been a few moments where I've been able to point at some things in my writing and say, look, this is where we live and this is what sometimes happens. And further, suggesting that this is how it connects to us all.

The desert, in this way — having what seems to be an invisible presence — has come to find presence in my work. Sometimes, this is culturalism. I've often said that science may be our best way of understanding the world, but it may not be our best way of living in it. To save room for the invisible, the quiet, the barely seen — this is my work. Like the desert, it has enough room for what we know and what we can only imagine.

We speak about the desert generally in loud terms — even using the word "desert" puts a spin on things, turns the discourse toward whatever we bring to the term. The simple truth is, I didn't grow up in the desert, really — I didn't have that term, yet. I hadn't placed myself in the world or in the universe yet, so that "desert" was something from school books. I grew up in a place that had an arroyo across the highway and hills in every other direction, fronted by Gold Hill, which was an annual trek. This place, this time, this life was a kind of simplicity that I miss. It was hot, it was cold, it was rainy. We didn't have any kind of air conditioning or cooling or ceiling fans, but we lived in an adobe house. We took the world as it came. "Breeze" meant something to me lying in my underwear on a stifling, August night with all the windows open. We solved as best we could whatever needed to be solved, then moved on.

Would the tarantulas show up this year? We didn't know, so we waited to find out. — as told to Robrt L. Pela

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela

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