Arizona's First Poet Laureate Alberto Rios on His New Title

On August 19, Governor Jan Brewer named writer Alberto Rios the state's first Poet Laureate.

According to the press release from the governor's office, the official purpose of the position is "to commemorate Arizona literary artists whose work and service best represent Arizona's values, independence and unique Western history and culture." The unofficial purpose is to give Arizonans something about their home state to be really, truly proud of.

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A Regents' Professor at Arizona State University and a graduate of the University of Arizona, Rios was born in the border town of Nogales, Arizona. He writes about growing up there in his memoir, Capirotada. He's also the author of several collections of poetry, including "Dangerous Shirt" (2009) and "The Smallest Muscle in the Human Body" (2002), which was nominated for the National Book Award.

Rios has received a slew of prizes for his writing, including six Pushcart Prizes in both poetry and fiction, the Arizona Governor's Arts Award and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. He is also - and this doesn't always come with the territory - one of the nicer people you will meet. The day after he was named Poet Laureate, he was kind enough to answer some of our questions via email.

What do you think your child self would say to the news that you have been named Arizona's first Poet Laureate? "This is better than a bike!" All things when I was younger were measured by comparison to my bike, and most came up short. My bike took me everywhere, and gave me personal freedom, and let me cycle through anything. Curiously, I suppose that's what poetry ended up letting me do just as much. I miss the feel of the handlebars, though. 

Did you ever consider becoming anything other than a poet, and if so, what? I considered becoming many things, but I was just always a poet.  It wasn't something I had to become, I think, strange as that might sound.  I got degrees in English and psychology. I went to law school for not quite a year. When I was thinking things through at that point, I realized I could do it--I could do all sorts of things--but I wasn't sure I wanted to do it. That was a moment of reckoning. What I have always understood about my decision then is that I did not quit law school; I had quit writing, and it was time to go back. That's when I got my MFA in creative writing and never looked back. Well, until my son just became an attorney. Psychology and law, however, were all about writing as something to understand. Being the author -- the doer -- of that writing was simply the next step for me, and exciting.

Until now, Arizona was one of only eight states without a poet laureate. What do you think took us so long, and how might finally having a poet laureate change things? Of late, language has been a difficult issue in this state. Not so very long ago, however, people were called to poetry -- regardless of language or culture or anything else. Sometimes it was in music, sometimes in grandparents' stories, sometimes on the page. It wasn't simply homework, and it wasn't about language being a problem. It would be something to think that language might be on its way to offering solutions again, and poetry--language in its best suit of clothes--at the forefront of that effort.

As a quick aside, I have such a curious memory coming from the time when I was quite young, too young. I was being looked after by my uncle, who was not altogether comfortable with babysitting. My aunts were all busy and my parents, I hope, had done something like go to the movies, a rare treat. My uncle sat me at the dining room table, made me some Ovaltine, then opened a book. I know I was not yet in first grade, and opening a book meant the start of something pretty good. Four or 5, however old I was, my uncle began reading, "Half a league, half a league, / Half a league onward," the beginning lines of "The Charge of the Light Brigade." My uncle, born in Mexico, reading Alfred Lord Tennyson in English, to a little boy in the United States, and, and...the list of strange things about that recitation goes on. But I remember it -- not the words of the poem, but the moment, and simply that it was a poem, different from anything else I had ever heard. And my uncle's eyebrows were in the mix, going up at the dramatic parts. 

The bill establishing a poet laureate post for the state of Arizona specifies that the poet laureate "will pursue a major literary project over the course of the appointment term." Do you know what that major project will be, and, if yes, can you fill us in? If not, how will you go about determining what major literary project to undertake? I have no lack of ideas regarding a major project, but the most important first thing I can do is to listen to people, and try to evolve something from that listening. I don't know what the project will be, yet, but I'm ready for it. Like the lines for a good poem, I'll know the moment, I think.

How do you think teaching poetry at ASU has helped prepare you for the role of poet laureate?  Teaching at ASU has helped me in that I am always, always having to explain and articulate everything. The conversations are both mundane and rarified, but rarely predictable.  There are no givens in a classroom, and being able to talk about poems all the time is a constant instructional not to my students but to me. Having to effectively redefine what a poem is faces me each time I pick one up.   

And finally, now that you have been selected as poet laureate of Arizona, do you get to wear anything special, like a crown, or a fancy hat, or special shoes? I hear the former pope's red shoes are available. Waiting for the eBay notice.

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