Interview with AZ Poet Laureate Alberto Ríos
Poetry by Kennan King
We often read pretty poems with delicate rhyme and cunning meter, but how often do we experience poetry that makes us feel something?
When was the last time a poem made you cry, or prompted a chuckle, or brought you a memory of a smell from a childhood?
Alberto Ríos has dedicated his life to the creation of poetry that makes people feel. The Arizona Poet Laureate has published several books of poetry that do just that, and for him the key ingredient is authenticity. Ríos is an authentic writer, and he breathes an intimate piece of himself into everything he writes.
He is authentic as a person as well. I got a taste of this over the phone, when it became clear that for him the principle goes far beyond the words he writes. Getting in touch took just one phone call and a handful of emails, with no mediator, just his ASU faculty contacts.
He often releases his latest collection of poems by traveling the country, going to smaller poetry readings, visiting schools and speaking at colleges. He says his goal is to “speak the arts, anywhere, anytime, and with anyone.” Through small events and interactions he makes a big influence. He explains that big events eventually end, but working small is much harder, because it continues perpetually, a fitting thought for a master at fitting massive impact into a very few words.
Ríos is an authentic artist, easy to talk with, and his poems are just as personable. Between speaking with him and reading him I knew I was talking with the same person, and I realized it’s because he deeply cares about reaching people in a lasting and effective way. He says he discovered long ago that poetry was the best medium for him to do that.
He explained that his greatest challenge is not writing a great poem, but communicating art to others. “Say it, and I will understand it. Say it well, and I will feel it,” he says. This mantra defines his art, language becoming a pathway to feeling. “A dictionary is efficient, but a poem is effective.” Drawing from decades of life experience and a childhood in a multicultural Nogales family, Ríos crafts poems that effectively create a shared understanding of what his experiences have taught.
He writes with the intention of crafting something tangible, almost musical. But if he doesn't “feel it,” he doesn't expect others to, either. If what he's writing give hims that “snap” though, that “aha” moment, then he knows someone else will connect with it. Poetry nearly always leads him to those revelations. For Ríos, it offers freedom, the ability to explore anything and run with an idea in any direction.
The breadth of his expression is a breath of fresh air cultivated over a lifetime. An element of that expression appears in what many have identified as a third language in his writing.
His poetry is non-rhyming, often employing unique cadences, about vignettes of his childhood or desert imagery. Having grown up speaking Spanish and English, rhyme carries very little value for him. “Language rhymes, but poetry surprises.” His third language triangulates influences from both tongues, giving his poems a magical, ethereal sense. They're at once strikingly familiar and utterly new.
For Ríos, authenticity is a lifestyle. I asked him, “If interviewers could ask one question more often, what would it be?” He said, “Do I mean it?” Does he mean what he writes? Does he mean what he speaks about?” His answer: yes, he absolutely means it. His poetry carries such weight because it draws on real emotions, a real life, and a passion for authentic art. What’s more, he still loves it, “because it’s mysterious, surprising, and challenging.” Ríos believes that the poetic impulse is inherent in the human spirit. For him poetry “is not relegated to language, but is living.”
A living thing affects people. Ríos understands this, and it was through someone he affected that I discovered him. His poetry has real consequences for people, and that is the focus of his work. The accolades are nice, but he is more concerned with writing great poetry that is so authentic it can't not empathize, impact, and cause someone to touch that poetic impulse deep within.
There are a lot of articles about him that point up his achievements, like any online biography. But Alberto Ríos pursues the highest calling any poet can aspire to. He is authentic, his poetry is alive, and he has lived a life of testimony to the power of an honest artist. Through his authenticity, his culture is better understood, his experiences are shared, and those who maybe felt alone now know that someone else has felt as they have. That's the power of poetry: the power of authenticity.
Alberto Ríos: The Cities Inside of Us
We live in secret cities
And we travel unmapped roads.
We speak words between us that we recognize
But which cannot be looked up.
They are our words.
They come from very far inside our mouths.
You and I, we are the secret citizens of the city
Inside us, and inside us
There go all the cars we have driven
And seen, there are all the people
We know and have known, there
Are all the places that are
But which used to be as well.
This is where
They did not disappear.
We each take a piece
Through the eye and through the ear.
It's loud inside us, in there, and when we speak
In the outside world
We have to hope that some of that sound
Does not come out, that an arm
Not reach out
In place of the tongue.
Kennan King is a student at Grand Canyon University currently pursuing a Bachelors degree in Communications with the hope of working in public relations.