WRITING ON THE EDGE
An Interview with Alberto Álvaro Ríos.
By Leslie A. Wootten.
Bloomsbury Review. 16:1. Jan/Feb 1996. 11—. Cover photo/featured.
Alberto Ríos is the author of seven books and chapbooks of poetry and two collections of short stories. His books of poems include, most recently, Teodoro Luna’s Two Kisses, published by W.W. Norton, along with The Lime Orchard Woman, The Warrington Poems, Five Indiscretions, and Whispering to Fool the Wind. His two collections of short stories are, most recently, Pig Cookies, published by Chronicle Books, and The Iguana Killer. He is the recent recipient of the Arizona Governor’s Arts Award, and other honors include fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, the Walt Whitman Award, the Western States Book Award for Fiction, five Pushcart Prizes in both poetry and fiction, and inclusion in The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, as well as over one hundred other national and international literary anthologies. His work is regularly taught and translated, and has been adapted to both classical and popular music. Ríos is presently Regents’ Professor of English at Arizona State University.
This interview was conducted on June 13, 1995 in Chandler, Arizona at the home Ríos shares with his wife, Lupita, and son, Joaquin.
Before we talk about your writing, maybe we could begin by addressing the toolbox. What do you write with? Pencil and paper, computer, or...?
Sure, let’s start there. As unromantic as it sounds, I use a computer. I’ve never been afraid of technology, and I don’t ever make the mistake of equating technology with what I do. Technology is a tool, just as a pencil is a tool, and I don’t let tools define my work. I write most comfortably with a computer now, but if I am in a place that has only a pencil or a pen or a typewriter, I use those things. It’s what I am writing, not what I am writing with, that matters. I’m fearless and not at all intimidated when it comes to technology, so the computer is a comfortable place for me to be. Somebody once expressed mock concern about this, saying that writing on the computer might be a mistake for writers because it is the difference between writing in rock and writing in light. I never thought about a pencil’s relationship to rock (graphite), or a computer’s relationship to light, but these two dynamics are interesting to contemplate.
A computer also has the capacity to be a writer’s worst enemy (I am cautioning myself as much as anyone else here) because it is so easy to use, always pushing us forward, saying don’t worry about anything because we can fix it later. It says don’t worry about spelling because we’ll spell check later, don’t stop, just keep going. The computer discourages us from staying where we are, and staying where we are is the natural province of a poet. In this way, the computer is anti-poetic. It goes against the grain of what a poet ought to be doing, which is staying still, spending time with the moment, before moving on. We have to be wary of the ease with which we can move on with a computer, but beyond that, I know it helps me.
Does that wariness ever get in your way as you compose a poem?
Oh, it does, but not any more than other things that invariably get in the way. It is simply one thing in a litany of things that obstruct any poem and any poet. It is, as I like to say, in the realm of good problems because the computer ultimately helps. I am aware of the computer’s dark side - not only is it tenuous to write in light, but we have to be careful of how much trust we place in technology in general. But, all things considered, I don’t stop to think about it much anymore. I thought a great deal about computers when I began writing with them, just like I thought a great deal about electric typewriters, manual typewriters, and pencils when I began writing with them. I had to adjust to each one of those tools, learning a physically different kind of writing each time.
How is your writing different using a computer than it was before?
Technological tools such as the computer are not what makes the difference in my writing. While such tools do affect the physical act of writing, I don’t believe they ultimately influence the mental processes that go into it.
Do you sit down to write because you have an image or an idea that presses to be written or because the clock says it is time to begin writing?
It’s somewhere between those two. More, I would say choice “A.” While I usually do have an image when I begin, I don’t know where it fits or what it is going to become. I don’t know if it will be at the beginning, in the middle or at the end of a piece, and that notion of not knowing where the image will fit is exciting and part of what compels me to write the image down in the first place.
“Image” is the best word for what I begin with. “Idea” is too large a notion. I don’t start with an agenda, just a few words. When I was younger, I started with one word, maybe two. Now, I usually start with more than that. I start with an image, and I do what I call going “inside” the image. I think we too often use images as we use words, without spending much time with them. So, going inside an image, not simply away from it, is a direction I like to go. I have discovered many of my best poems there.
Do you write every day?
I don’t write according to a schedule that says I must sit down and begin writing every morning at eight or every evening at four. If I was prisoner to the passion of doing anything every day, I would be scared of the thing, and writing does not scare me. It is something that is in me, but is also a visitor in me. Writing visits and it goes away. I don’t worry about whether writing will return. It simply does.
Would you say, then, that you sit down to write when the mood strikes you?
No. In fact, I often sit down to write when I don’t necessarily want to because some images are so insistent, they won’t let me do anything else. At those times, I am compelled to write even if I would rather not. There are circumstances when I can’t immediately respond to an image, but I don’t worry about forgetting the image because a good image stays and that is part of what defines it.
You don’t jot images down as they occur to you?
I don’t need to, but I know I am invariably better off when I do.
Are images more likely to come to you at any particular time of day - say early morning or late night?
A funny thing about me is that I often write in the afternoon, which is an odd time for writing. I am as lethargic as other people are then, but if I can just get started, something magical happens. The lethargy turns into a curious energy, and I enter a world of tiredness that is more like dreaming than writing. Maybe I am fooled into thinking I can’t possibly write in such a state, and the thought alone frees my mind, which, in turn, allows me to write with relative ease.
You write poetry as well as fiction. How do you know when you begin whether something will be a poem or a story?
I look for different signs, like trackers might. One of the notions that best describes a poem is lateral movement. Unlike plot-driven prose, a poem is not in a hurry to move forward. It moves laterally rather than narratively, staying with a moment longer, saying ten things about a moment rather than swiftly incorporating it into a larger picture. The moment, in a sense, becomes its own story. It’s like inverting a sock and investigating the inside that no one ever sees. It’s not just admiring a dressed-up image as it glides by the window. It’s getting inside, exploring what is there, studying the things that hold it together. A poem does not use an image merely as a link to get somewhere else. It goes inside the image to understand what is there.
A good example of lateral movement can be found in Pig Cookies, your most recently published collection of short stories.
Yes, and if we are being true to my definitions, those are not stories at all, but very long poems. I think the collection will live or die by that strategy. It is a risk because the pieces certainly look like stories. They are called stories, and they are shaped like stories, but rather than being narratively-driven, they share the poetic notion of lateral movement, that poetic imperative of “staying with the moment.” The book has novel-like features, as well, because characters and images recur from story to story. In a curious way, recurring images and characters in a novel fit into the poetic domain of lateral movement. Novels, of course, do not usually spend as much time as these stories do exploring the full range of an image, and poems do not usually have the look and feel of prose. By fusing poetic and prose imperatives together, Pig Cookies ventures into uncharted literary terrain.
Did these stories begin as images?
Most of the stories grew out of key images that appear in the first or second paragraph. Although I began with an image, I did not have a conceptualization of the whole story in my mind. Instead of moving linearly, I searched for narrative within the image. It was like going inside a cave to discover what is there. I lingered inside of a paragraph and a page as opposed to moving swiftly forward from one paragraph and page to the next.
You have said you try to find movement in the moment rather than imposing movement on it.
Absolutely. I can make all kinds of things move, but I want to know what moves me. I am more interested in that.
Some of the characters in Pig Cookies live also in your earlier works - Lázaro Luna, for example.
Yes, a community of characters exists in my work. Lázaro Luna poems, for example, can be found early on. Some of those early poems have become stories and some of the stories have, in turn, evolved into poems. I do not use characters or images simply to move a piece along. For example, if I give a character life, I have an allegiance to that character. If I bring an image to light, I have birthed something I cannot simply abandon. I know there is a reason characters and images come into being even if I am not immediately conscious of what that reason is. I trust the context for their existence will eventually become clear to me. Along those lines, I encourage my students to lie when they write because I don’t believe we can really write lies. Lies, like any inventions of the mind, spring out of some basic inner truths inside of us.
This is a funny revelation in a way because I am not a good inventor and I have a really terrible memory. What I am always doing then is remembering badly, and that, in itself, generates its own kind of sensibility and strange connection to the truth.
Its own life?
Yes. I tell many family stories, but I get them miserably wrong. I am a terrible journalist, but that terribleness frees me to remember the stories and tell them the way they make sense to me. Picasso was right when he said, “Art is the lie that tells the truth.” The facts may be wrong, but the truth is there. That kind of freedom generates new ideas, new truths. Apollinaire said that when humans wanted to reinvent the leg, they invented the wheel. Not being limited by the constraints of photographically reproducing something leads to greater truths. The wheel is an improvement over the leg, providing a more efficient sense of movement. A good writer, then, invents wheels instead of recreating legs.
And, of course, in real life family stories vary with each telling to fit the needs of the moment.
Yes, that’s in the realm of folk tradition. Those varying stories are probably truer than the so-called “objective” truths of journalists and photographers. After all, journalists selectively present the facts and photographers focus their camera lens only on the truths they choose to convey.
Speaking of lenses, would you comment on the binocular image you often use when discussing your writing.
Binoculars remind us that there are different ways of seeing. When we hold binocular lenses up to our eyes, we begin to understand what we are looking at simply because we can see it more clearly. This ties into the poetic notion of spending time with an image and exploring rather than moving swiftly past what we see.
I grew up with a kind of binocular vision in the border town of Nogales, Arizona. Growing up with a Mexican father and an English mother on the U.S.A./Mexico border taught me early in life that there are different ways of seeing depending on cultural perspective. Growing up bilingual, I also learned early on that there are at least two, and maybe ten or twenty, names for any one thing.
Auden once said, “Poems are not finished; they are abandoned.”
Please comment on that.
We could easily take that caution too blithely. It doesn’t mean we haven’t worked the poems a great deal before abandoning them; it doesn’t mean we haven’t nurtured the poems into maturity, like the children we raise, before we let them go. Yes, perhaps we do abandon poems, but not too easily and not too quickly. We abandon poems only after we’ve made them strong enough to go out into the world and have a life of their own.
‘Abandon’ doesn’t seem like a word you would normally embrace.
No, but it is a fine word if we, as writers, understand its depth and the responsibility it invokes.
How do you know when a piece is finished?
I don’t really think in terms of a piece being finished. That stems from my notion of lateral, as opposed to narrative, movement. Unlike narratives which move linearly from beginning to end, lateral movement flows in many different directions. In my work, characters and images keep coming back in various ways. That reality gives me a kind of grace, freeing me from feeling I have to say all there is to say about a thing in one poem or story because I know I can come back to it again and again at different times, in different ways. Poems and stories may eventually be abandoned, but characters and images that live in them are never finished.
How important is it for you to have a second reader?
It is crucial. I think most writers need some reader responsiveness to tell them if they have said what they think they’ve said. Clarity is important, and an early reader’s reaction can reveal whether clarity is being achieved. Students sometimes expect to reach a point where they can judge their own writing without any reader input, but I don’t think that ever truly happens. We live, as our characters live, in communities. One of our goals as writers is to write so that our work can eventually go out into the community. Second reader responses help us see how far a piece has come and how much further it has to go before it can stand on its own.
At what point do you have a second reader look at a piece? Do you wait until it is fairly finished?
“Fairly finished” is a fine phrase, and I do wait until a piece is to that point before having someone else read it. Fortunately, after many years of writing and learning what I have to do, my “fairly finished” point happens fairly quickly in the evolution of a piece.
In García-Márquez’s novel, Autumn of the Patriarch, there’s a moment when the Patriarch says, “If it’s not true now, it will be in time.” Please comment on that statement.
I find that phrase very appealing. It reminds me of something I hope I said, but which might have come from one of the surrealists: “Thought occurs in the mouth.” The amazing truth of that curious phrase has haunted me for a long time. The very act of naming something gives it life and endows it with a certain irrevocable truth. Such a notion is exciting because it emphasizes the infinite viability of discovery and invention.
Please address the notion of invention and discovery in terms of your own writing.
Discovery and invention in my writing can be compared to the notion of thought occurring in the mouth. In writing, as in conversation, we invariably end up saying much more than we thought we were going to say because we are influenced by the moment and what it demands. For example, we can’t anticipate ahead of time what verbal turns we’ll have to take to ask someone out on a date or to insult someone if we feel they deserve it. Everything we say springs from a true place inside of us, but how and exactly what we say is influenced by the moment we face as well as the community in which we live. We are constantly making discoveries, inventing as we go along, to accommodate ourselves, our friends and family and the community of which we are a part.
You once said you write towards something by moving away from it. Please speak to that notion.
That is one way I approach something I am writing about. For example, I want to explore all facets of an image, so while I may move away from it, I will also move toward it as well as sideways and backwards from it. I want to understand the dynamic range of a thing and that requires a variety of approaches.
What about not being able to recall a word for something at the moment we need it?
Forgetting a word is one of the best things that can happen to me as a writer. It forces me to explain what I mean, and invariably, the detailed explanation I resort to is stronger than the shorthand word I thought I wanted. It’s that poetic notion of lateral movement, of spending time with a moment to fully understand and experience it. Too often, we use words like we use cars. We know how to make a car go fast, but we don’t know anything about it. When the car breaks down, we are helpless; we don’t know how to fix it because we have not spent any time exploring the intricacies of the car itself. When we use words like we use cars - as nothing more than vehicles to get somewhere in a hurry - we open ourselves up to being stranded. As with cars, the more we know about words, the further we can go with them. The slingshot is a good metaphor for what we, as writers, can do when we take time to explore and understand the intricacies of language. The more tension we create as we pull back on our slingshots, the further our marbles travel when the tension is released. If we let go of our slingshots before we’ve built up enough tension, our marbles drop like dead weight at our feet; if we take our time and get the tension just right, our marbles soar. As we approach the 21st Century, we should be holding the slingshot steady, letting the tension build; unfortunately, I think we have let the tension slacken in our rushed attempt to get ahead.
Are you referring to writers in general?
Yes. I am making a hasty, but I think ultimately useful, generalization about the composing process. We really do need to keep the slingshot metaphor--again--in mind as we write, all of us. That marble or pea in the slingshot, that’s a real way to understand what we’re up to in all of this.
An exercise you have assigned in your writing classes is to write about something without naming it.
Yes, yes, yes. Calling something by its name is too often a terrible shorthand that leads us to believe we are done with it. If we must recreate a thing with our own words, we contribute and become part of the thing itself. When we begin using words to build rather than simply to name, we become worthy inhabitants of the world as opposed to passengers on a free ride.
Another exercise you have assigned is to write about the opposite of a thing.
Yes, it’s a good writing exercise. I don’t think we can truly know something unless we also know its opposite. Kafka’s Metamorphosis is a good example of what I mean. When the beginning of that piece is read aloud, audiences invariably burst into laughter because the image of a human transformed into a huge and helpless insect is as hilarious as it is desperate.
Similarly, without the exception to the rule, how can we understand, or appreciate, the rule itself? Octavio Paz has observed that Carnival week serves a very important function because it makes us appreciate why we don’t live the wild and decadent life all year long.
You have talked about offering a seminar where students themselves devise the reading list by naming their favorite literary work. What would your favorite be?
That is a difficult question to answer, of course, but I would undoubtedly choose Gabriel García-Márquez’s, One Hundred Years of Solitude. Having said that, I could be just as happy with Mercè Rodoreda’s The Time of the Doves, Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum, or García-Márquez’s, Love in the Time of Cholera. I guess these choices point to a resounding vote for García-Márquez, but they are all good choices, as far as I am concerned, because each one explores new territory on the literary page.
Do you ever read a book twice?
Very rarely. I want to remember the book wrong. I want to remember the book the way I think I read it, to experience the gifts I think I got. In a way, my reading list has its own life; it is a mixture of what the books actually say and what they have said to me.
You have won many awards for your published works. Does that have any effect on your writing momentum? Does it inhibit you in any way?
No because it is the work itself, not me, that wins the awards. It would be silly to say I don’t enjoy receiving the awards because I do, but the awards are for past, not current, writing. Consequently, the awards are relevant to what I have done, not to what I am doing or will do.
Do you ever have writer’s block?
I have devised ways to deal with what we think of as “writer’s block.” For example, if I walk up to a metaphorical block wall, I don’t let it keep me from writing. I may jump the wall, dig under it, move around it; I might even turn and go the other way, but I will keep writing. I don’t become frustrated or impatient because I know the wall ultimately leads to movement even if it isn’t the movement I expected. My journey will take longer as I explore new territory, but the discoveries I make will be well worth the detour.
Do you think about audience when you write?
Not enough, I’m sure, but I have come to believe that an audience and I are more alike than we are different. Consequently, if I am delighted by something I have written, I know that at least a portion of my audience will be delighted by it as well. What I share with an audience does not have to be perfect, but it must be something I am not ashamed to send out into the world.
You speak to a wide variety of people. Does what you say to a creative writing student differ from what you say to a military cadet or a H.U.D. employee?
No, and that intrigues me. The pace might vary, and I may add or delete something, but the substance doesn’t change from group to group. The fact that it doesn’t have to change is exciting to me.
The message must have a universality to it. What is the message?
I don’t know that there’s anything so overt, or finished, nothing so polished that you’d want to call it a message. And the word message sounds didactic anyway, which is not at all what I would want to talk about. That said, there are some things to look for, some things to find that create, if not a message, a fabric. A good example might be that our first language isn’t Spanish or English or anything with a name like that; it is the language of listening. This is something I’ve learned and tried to put into my work, in one fashion or another. The way my grandmother and I communicated without words--that’s what I mean. When I was a young boy, I went to my grandmother’s house for lunch every week. I was absolutely reticent about speaking Spanish and she spoke no English, which might seem like a problem. But a grandmother and a grandson in a kitchen for lunch is not a problem. She cooked and I ate. That is how we talked. It might not have been the best language, but it was the language of the moment and it worked. I remember our vocabulary with great fondness, and it still tastes good. I think many people, regardless of who they are and what they know, understand this kind of language. And this kind of fabric for the making of poems and literature in general.
What would you have been in life if you were not a writer and teacher?
I could have been a lawyer - in fact, I went to law school for a year before I decided to get a graduate degree in literature and creative writing. In its most innocent set of clothes, law revolves around the Golden Rule, treating others as we want to be treated, and I could see myself in that helping kind of arena. Unfortunately, the real world isn’t so tidy and law often slips away from its altruistic ideals, but I do think the heart of what law is about is what I liked and still do.
I think you made a good career choice.
So do I. After all, there are many ways to help make the world a better place. I speak often about the importance of being what we might usefully call an “artist-citizen” in the community.
Do you have any regrets about your writing?
Sure. I worry that I am a lazy writer who could write a great deal more than I do. In Letters to a Young Poet, however, Rilke says art is not measured by the time taken to create it. No one will judge a piece by the ten minutes or ten years that went into it. What is important is the piece itself. I encourage my students to embrace this notion, and I try to stay true to it myself.
Do you think you can get to know writers, as people, by reading their work?
To assume that would be to assume you can know a person by the clothes they wear on a particular day.
D.H. Lawrence once cautioned against believing what artists say because the only place they speak the truth is in their art.
That ties in to what I said earlier about encouraging my students to write lies because I don’t think it is possible. Everything we write emanates from some conscious or unconscious truth inside of us. What we write does not characterize us as people, but it does speak a certain truth about us even if we don’t understand where it comes from or why. The important thing is to follow the “lie that tells the truth” because it can lead us on a wild and wonderful adventure. I’m amazed when I look back at some of my poems because I have no idea where they came from, how I wrote them, what they even mean. All I know is that by staying true to a particular moment and following where it leads, we open ourselves to exciting new places.
If only one piece of your writing could survive for future generations to read, which one would you choose?
It’s a good thing I can’t answer that question because if I was sure I had already written that particular piece, I’d probably stop writing.
It’s unfair to impose that kind of selection process on any artist, isn’t it?
Well, as Picasso says, if we look at a green parrot and don’t also see the green salad, we diminish the parrot. In the same way, if we look at one poem or one stage of a writer’s career, we diminish the artist.
Interviewer Leslie Wootten is a writer and graduate student at Arizona State University, Tempe Arizona.