“The Artist Citizen”
THE ARTIST CITIZEN: AN INTERVIEW WITH ALBERTO ALVARO RIOS
Equinox: Writings for a New Culture. 1:1. Fall 1992. 163-179.
Alberto Álvaro Ríos is one of the leading figures in Chicano letters, and one of the finest poets writing in the Southwest. His work is warm, generous and compassionate. He explores the material, spiritual, and psychological complexities of a people whose hearts and minds are shaped by two languages, two cultures, two conflicting ways of living in the world. He is currently a professor of Creative Writing at Arizona State University. He was born and raised in Nogales, Arizona, and he attended the University of Arizona where he earned his B.A. in English and Creative Writing, an M.A. in Psychology, and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing. He has won numerous awards including the Walt Whitman Poetry Award for his first book of poems, an N.E.A. fellowship, and a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation. His book of short stories The Iguana Killer won the Western States Book Award. He has recently completed a novel, and is currently at work on an opera, and on his memoirs where he is exploring what it was like to grow up along the Mexico-Arizona border.
To begin with, why don’t you just tell me something about your background—your parents, your childhood, brothers and sisters, parents, school, marriage, etc.?
I was born in Nogales, on the Mexican border in 1952. My father was born in Tapachula, Chiapas, Mexico. My mother was born in Warrington, Lancashire, England. I look a lot more like my mother; I don’t look like my father. My father is very dark, my mother is very light, and so I grew up with this sort of light skin.
And did they call you güero?
Yeah, they called me güero. You know what they ended up calling me? You know, it’s very interesting because I was in this dilemma: physical appearance versus cultural context. Alberto is my father’s name, and I was a junior—so my name translated to “Albertito,” which my grandmother immediately made into “Betito,” and which my Aunt thereupon shortened into “Tito.” So I grew up actually being called “Tito.” My friends around here have always called me that. In some ways I’ve never outgrown that name, which I think is probably a good thing. I think keeping that name is, in some ways, a mark of community, in the sense that you earn not only your adulthood, but you retain something of the roots of your childhood and merge them, and can make them work together. Anyway, my parents met in England.
What was your father doing in England?
My father is a very interesting . . . wait, let me go back a little bit farther than that. My grandfather, Margarito, was married to my grandmother, Refugio. Anyway, my grandfather fought in the Mexican Revolution on the side of Alvaro Obregon, and this is essentially why we had family on all borders. My father, born in Tapachula, on the border of Guatemala, and my father’s sister living in Nogales. They were on opposite sides of the Republic—of Mexico—so that in case Obregon’s side lost and something terrible happened, they could jump across the border. In fact, my father’s given name was Alvaro Alberto. My grandfather was one of Obregon’s right hand men, and one of the things that Obregon was going to do was christen my father (my grandfather and grandmother were naming him after Obregon). My grandmother was already pregnant when Obregon was going to come down to Tapachula, but he was assassinated, so everything got thrown up in the air. The family—there are lots of stories of movement and travel—and, well, the revolution went on forever—it hasn’t stopped— but it’s as if every side is losing. So you can come up with names like PRI—Partido Revolucionario Institucional [institutionalized Revolutionary Party]—which doesn’t make any sense. The People’s Institutional Revolutionary Party? But that’s the reality of Mexico. So, as far as my family, things turned out all right. My grandfather ended up in San Luis Potosí. He was on the Supreme Court. He was a lawyer—licenciado—and he was a very stern man.
So you come from a long line of politicos?
Oh, very much so. You know, it turns out—I just learned this recently—that my grandfather on my mother’s side was an English communist. So, it’s quite interesting. He was a worker in the North of England, an industrial engineer, and a communist. I always thought that would happen on my father’s side of the family, but here it goes, this sort of radical posture in my ancestors from England.
But to get back to my father. As I said, my grandfather was very stern My father didn’t get along in the household too well—it was a very big family—and so he ran away from home at about fourteen, and he came to Nogales, where his aunts were living. At this time they had ended up on the Nogales, Arizona, side, but that’s the nature of how borders happen. You draw a line, and some people end up on one side—and some on the other. So my grandfather came to live with his aunts, and went to high school a little while when he came. It was working out fine, but he had no money. His aunts took him in, but he had to earn his keep—that’s the way things were. He decided to join the army. This was about the end of World War II. Now keep in mind that he was only fourteen—way too young. He went through basic training or boot camp, but they found out he was too young through whatever form of record keeping they had. So, they threw him out of the army and sent him back to Mexico. Remember his name was Alvaro Alberto—well, they kicked him back to Mexico—but he just came right back across the border, changed his name around to Alberto Alvaro, and joined the Air Force—still way too young. He went through boot camp and went through the whole thing again, and by the time records caught up with him he had already come of age, had earned a high school diploma in the service, had taught himself English, and had been decorated in the Berlin Airlift. So they didn’t do anything to him, except—here’s where it gets, I think, very interesting—he was a paratrooping medic. My mother was a nurse. She went to nursing school in Warrington, her hometown—there was a big Air Force base there, and that’s where my father was stationed. There was a party, you know, I don’t know: it was cold, the night was long, I don’t even want to know about it, you know—there you go—
You don’t want to know that your parents had sex.
I can’t even say it—are you kidding? I’m sure it’s not true. At any rate, they went out, and got engaged. They went together for two years while my father was completing his tour of duty (this is now during the Korean conflict). So they were all set to get married in England, and they had everything they were required by law to do—they had evidence of domicile, they had rented a house, a dress ordered, a cake. And something like two weeks before my father was to be discharged, his commanding officer transferred him—lo mandaron—they sent him back to the states.
My father’s very dark, my mother’s very light. They frowned on this kind of marriage, so they sent him back home—even though they knew that he was about to be married. All my father had time to do was say to my mother, “Here’s some money. I’m going to be discharged in such and such a place. I love you—I hope you’ll come.” And all my mother could do was hope that he wasn’t a liar. My mother had never been away from home her whole life—up there in England, in the industrial northwest—not more than to go up to Blackpool on a train. But she left. She left her family. She got on a boat, and went across the country by herself. You know, this kind of heroic stuff, we just don’t understand it anymore—we don’t see it anymore. You can call someone on the phone, or whatever, but she had to go on trust, which is a kind of blind and wonderful thing. My father met her, and then they got married, and then they went to Guaymas for their honeymoon. And my mother, who had only been to Blackpool on vacation, had never known anything like the sunlight in Mexico. She goes out in her swimming suit with her English skin and goes right out onto the beach, and within ten minutes she almost died. This is true. She got sun poisoning. She just burned. So she spent her honeymoon in a Christ-like manner. You know, she didn’t go back to England for twenty-seven years because we didn’t have money, and she had kids—I have a brother—
There’s only two of you?
Yeah, but she couldn’t go back home for twenty-seven years. That’s the way it was. So for me, I grew up around my father’s extended family and around Mexico and Spanish. For me, my mother’s whole half of the family was almost quintessentially the stuff of fairy tales. Fairy tales, anyway, seemed to take place in an Anglo—an English kind of environment with castles, and all that kind of stuff. So for her being able to tell me stories first hand about— about snow for example—well this was the stuff of fairy tales, so I had that sensibility about them—they weren’t real. They weren’t real, but they were there, nonetheless, and my mother was evidence of possibility. She was tangible evidence of possibility that there was who-knows-what out there in the world.
It sounds like your parents had a wonderful imagination.
Well, they did. Just from the beginning—they were forced to come up with this life for themselves. And my mother contributed so much to all this life; it was wonderful. I remember we lived in town, and we moved outside of town. Before we moved, we had lived just in Nogales on Rodriguez Street behind the Catholic Church.
Where you were an altar boy.
Yes, I was—as you know from one of the poems. We moved a little bit north of town into what I always thought was a wonderful neighborhood. Let me tell you this wonderful story here: my parents were building this wonderful house, which they really couldn’t afford. It’s very curious that they were able to even move in. But she got to choose the colors of the paint for the walls, and all the workers were all Mexicanos, and my mother wanted to learn Spanish—she was trying—but she didn’t have it down yet. When they asked her what color she wanted to have for the kitchen she wanted to paint it a bright yellow kitchen for the fifties, so she said “limón.” The next day the walls were bright green, because they painted them “limón,” and that’s exactly what the walls looked like—limes. And my mother didn’t make them repaint the walls. She left it that way as a lesson to us about language, about understanding, and about trying, how you can’t be afraid. I somehow think of that kitchen as a classroom. We had to live with the results of that miscommunication; it was a good thing. An awful color, but a good thing. That neighborhood, I thought, was kind of weird, and I still wonder how my parents could afford it. I always thought what a great neighborhood I grew up in because the people across the street were a Mexican and Japanese couple, and down the street there was a couple that was Mexican and Swedish, and all this sort of stuff. And you know it wasn’t until about three years ago that I heard the term, “war bride neighborhood.” It occurred to me: isn’t it curious that we were all living together? It took me a while to figure out that—
But you were invisible to each other?
Yes, we were invisible to each other—but not to the town. And isn’t it curious that we were all living outside of town? It took me a while to figure that out. I’m not sure if anybody did this on purpose, or by design, but there we were, you know? Very interesting.
And you went to school there in Nogales?
Oh yeah. I went all the way from first grade to .... you know my first language was kind of a mix—as you would imagine growing up around my father’s family—my father and my mother. It was a mix of very sharp and correct Spanish and a very sharp and correct English. This leaves you with a mess—a kind of good-tasting soup. You start using whatever words will get you dinner. It was wonderful, really, at least in the fifties—wonderful, that is, until first grade. One of the first things we were told when we got to first grade was: “You can’t speak Spanish.” We all looked around at each other and we all raised our hands and said, “Seguro que sí—of course we can speak Spanish—just listen.” The answer, of course, “That’s not what we mean. You’re not to speak Spanish. If you do, we’re going to swat you.” And some of us got hit for speaking Spanish. We wore that rule physically. We internalized it in our bodies. The thing is we were taught to respect, to listen to our teachers. The term ‘maestro” in Spanish is a term of respect. And if you get hit for speaking Spanish, then Spanish must be bad. When you get to second grade, you get a little smarter, you can draw out the equation a little more: Spanish is bad. People who speak Spanish, then, must be bad. So we learned a kind of—I don’t think we could have articulated it back then—a kind of shame. We learned an embarrassment, at the very least about our parents. You can imagine—our P.T.A. meetings—well, we didn’t have any. You see, we loved our parents. Our way of taking care of them—because we were suddenly put in that position—was not to take the notes home. We threw them away. They were in English, anyway, who cared? We knew that if our parents came to school—and they’d come if they saw a note because they were good parents—one of the first things they’d do is open their mouths to speak—and if they did, they’d speak Spanish, and if they did that, they’d get swatted. It was our way of taking care of them and making our world all right.
It’s funny, by junior high I couldn’t speak Spanish anymore—which is to say, I didn’t want to. I was embarrassed. I had learned everything I was supposed to learn. I was a good student. It wasn’t until my later years of high school and the beginning of college that I relearned my Spanish. You know I wasn’t relearning the language—I had the language; I was relearning my attitude toward it. That’s something a whole generation of me’s carry with us. As kids, when you learn to deal with the world, a lot of what you learn is physical, not just mental—so that you learn balance. For example when you learn how to ride a bike, you learn that if you lean to the right, you fall over—and you get hurt. So you learn not to do that. And you know how you never forget how to ride a bike, well, if we were learning how to behave in school, and you know you’re going to get hit for speaking Spanish, then you learn very quickly not to lean that way because you don’t want to get hurt. And, in a physical way, you learn a kind of balance. This has affected so many of us in such a mental and physical way.
So were you always obsessed with language?
You talk about community—here’s where it comes in. A lot of what community means, a lot of what community is, is memory, is remembering. You think about the stories your grandparents tell—well, they’re remembering community—and they’re creating it—passing something from generation to generation. When you assault language, when you take away language, you’re assaulting community. What a crime that is. What I think now my responsibility to community, in many ways is, one of the big reasons I have chosen to stay in Arizona is that I’m here to remember that, and talk about it, and tell people it happened. A lot of Arizona is run by people who didn’t grow up here, and don’t know anything about it.
Oh, yeah, Arizona is full of snowbirds.
Absolutely. Now I’m at the total other end of the educational spectrum as a professor, and the great irony—this gets a big laugh except that we know it’s not funny—is that we got hit for speaking Spanish at school and now, in graduate school, I have to require a second language of my students before they can graduate, as a mark of intelligence. There’s something wrong.
Language has such a big role to play in our lives, on so many different levels.... One of the things I think a great deal about is that time period when I thought I couldn’t speak Spanish, and this is where I use the term artist-citizen in some ways. I remember going to eat at my grandmother’s to eat lunch—once a week or something. My grandmother doesn’t speak English, and I thought I didn’t speak Spanish, so we had a problem. Only when you have a grandmother and a grandson together you don’t have a problem. You can call it anything you want, but it’s not a problem—it’s a joy. What we ended up doing was inventing for ourselves a third language that wouldn’t embarrass either one of us—a smarter language, a language spoken by people who have something to say to each other. It’s very simple, and I think everyone would recognize it: it was simply that she would cook, and I would eat. And that’s how we talked. Also, it was very physical. It tasted good. She was happy to cook for me, and I was happy to eat. I don’t think we recognized it for what it was at the time. But it mattered. That’s how we knew each other; that’s how we remember each other, in some way that we probably can’t articulate very well. She’s in the hospital now; she’s not going to get out. If I had to think of how she remembered me, I think it would be by how she cooked for me.
What I want to talk about here, too, is that I recognize my life through binoculars—using two lenses to see something more closely—to view things outside of the realm of words because words only represent something. In some ways it forces you toward a better understanding of interchange—and that’s what community is in many ways—people who can listen to the language of meaning: what do you mean not how you say it—it’s not about how you say it. What do you mean? What do you want? What do you want for dinner? It’s simple that way. That reduces everything down to a basic foundation, (and I don’t mean to demean that whole sense civilization; there’s a lot more to a day than eating), but I think it starts there. It’s important that people first hear each other. We talk about how we speak, but we don’t talk about what language we listen in. And I think that’s crucial—I really do. There’s something that happens, interestingly enough, in the deaf community— people who speak ASL (American Sign Language). I was on a committee recently and I learned a very interesting fact: deaf people are very impatient. They hate it when people apologize for not being able to sign very well. They could care less. They don’t have time to listen to an apology. By the time you’ve got this apology down on your hand, you’ve wasted the time you had to communicate. This makes a lot of sense to me.
When did you become aware of the fact that you wanted to write all of these stories down?
I don’t know that I was ever aware of it in any big sort of way, but I know it was something that I was organically doing. I think my first experience with writing, of course, had nothing to do with the page—that’s not what writing is—that’s a transitory physical manifestation of it, but writing is something else. Somebody asked me recently “When did you start writing?’ and you’re tempted to think about when you put your pencil to the paper. But as I thought about it, I think writing began when my second grade teacher busted me.
Busted for what?
Well, my parents got called in and everything. Here’s the strange thing: I was a good student. I was doing well. But, OK, we had a window in my classroom, and I had been caught daydreaming—whatever that meant. I think now that it’s very easy to see what that meant. It wasn’t escaping from work—I was doing the work. I was thinking. I was imagining. I don’t know what I was doing, but I think it was the right thing. And, I’m actually very glad she called my parents in—I’m very glad that a lot of attention was called to that or I wouldn’t remember it as vividly as I do. In some ways, I had a smart teacher, whether she knew it or not. She made a marker for that moment which has been very valuable to me in my life, especially in my life as a writer. You know, back then I didn’t know that to call it, but I was writing.
I would write in the backs of notebooks. I would do my homework in the front. You know, when you want to pass a note in class, you always tear it out from the back—you have to, because that’s where the clean sheets are. And you know right away that’s where they are. There’s something about that energy of going to the back to do something illicit—not what you ought to be doing—but to do something illicit and wonderful and full of energy— either you pull it out of the back or you put it in the back. Anyway, writing in the back of all those notebooks, writing down words and phrases—it was something I couldn’t explain. I just knew it was things that wouldn’t go away. There was no place for me to take these things. I didn’t know what they were. Maybe I could have taken them to the English teacher. Or maybe to the Spanish teacher—the language teacher—but it didn’t look like anything we were studying. How do you explain just phrases—I had no coherent explanation that I had received in my education up to then. It certainly wasn’t poetry. Poems were these great finished elegant beasts, and this wasn’t that. A lot of it was messy and sloppy. I couldn’t show it to a science teacher. If I couldn’t show it to a teacher, I couldn’t show it to my friends—that would he even worse, because they didn’t understand somebody who wrote without it being an assignment, and they had interesting names for people who would do that- -even more interesting names for guys who would do that. And particularly salient and interesting names for guys who would write something that might be poetry. But none of that mattered—it didn’t have anything to do with me—those names. And so I knew that what I had in my notebook had nothing to do with them. They weren’t listening. And so I had nothing to show them. And I certainly couldn’t show it to my parents—because that’s the law. You just don’t. So what ended up happening was a kind of intense freedom. If I couldn’t show it to anybody, then I wasn’t writing it for anybody except me. And that taught me something that has been one of the most valuable lessons to me as a writer. That’s what it’s about. I have a version of this in junior high school—during the same time frame—where a friend of mine said (this is in one of the stories)—we would get home after school, put our stuff away, and go across the highway to the arroyo and when we would go down there, we discovered a little piece of magic. What we would do down there is to yell at the top of our lungs every dirty word we could think of. I’d think: The world is going to end, or I don’t know what I’d think. Nothing happened. There was nobody there to catch you. There was nobody there to tell you that you couldn’t. And I remember never feeling quite so great as in those moments. Powerful. And the back of my notebook was sort of the same thing. There it was. It was like that arroyo. I could shout anything I wanted, as loud as I wanted, in any combination I wanted. And it wasn’t for anybody except me—in some way. I think that was me teaching me—which is how we all ultimately learn.
When I went to college after I graduated from high school, I never thought about writing again, because they never told us you could he a writer—no sense that there was such a vocation, that there were writers who were alive. We didn’t know that kind of stuff. So I didn’t think about it. I went to the University of Arizona. It’s just like what happened to everybody else: I just became whatever my advisor was. You know, they ask you what your major is, but they don’t explain what a major is to begin with. My major? What’s my major? I don’t know. You want to answer something like: My father was a Sergeant. They ask you, and you get quiet. So you get assigned an advisor, and of course, an advisor can talk best about what he or she does. They can’t talk about the University in general, and so you get excited about what they do, and so that’s what you become—I became a political science major because that’s what my advisor was. It happened to everybody else I know— they became whatever their advisor was. Very interesting. I went through my first two years like that. Then a very curious thing happened in my junior year: technology. To register in those days, you had to go from department to department—even teacher to teacher- -to get your little class cards. When I was going into my junior year, the University got computerized and we could pre-register for the first time. So that summer, my friends and I were doing what probably everybody else in the whole country was doing: we were studying the course manual—reading it from beginning to end (probably the most reading we’d ever done) because we were looking for the easiest courses we could find. Suddenly, there was no advisor in front of you telling you what you should take, what you shouldn’t take. We got a little bit of responsibility and, of course, we squandered it. What else were we going to do—we hadn’t been taught any other way, really, and we were looking for the easiest courses we could find. Up to then, school had always come at me—sort of like a tennis player: the ball comes at you and you hit it back. It’s not a great mystery how you play school, right? You looked in the biology book, you looked in the index, you found where the answer was, and you gave it back to them. You got asked a question in algebra—well, you looked in the back at all the answers, and then you’d write a bunch of stuff that made it come out to that. You get asked to do a report on Thomas Jefferson you went to the encyclopedia and you copied it just like everybody else. It was no great mystery. So it made sense that we would be looking for the easy classes, and I found them. I found the two easiest classes, I think, in the whole manual. I knew it the first moment I saw them: Introduction to Fiction Writing and Introduction to Poetry Writing. Remember, this was the late sixties and early seventies, and I thought, “Oh, geez, this sounds great!” And then I read in the manual the magic words: “No final.” Oh man! I thought, I just hope I can get in—I’m sure everybody’s going to sign up for this. Nobody really did—I mean, I got in, and they were truly the easiest courses I ever had for the first month. We were doing just what I imagined we’d be doing. We were reading poems and kicking back and saying “Oh, that’s really groovy” or whatever we would say back then.
Everything came to a screeching halt when the teacher said: “Go write one.” My mechanism, my framework for how to play school fell apart. Now, I had learned the word, “plagiarism.” I couldn’t go copy a poem. I couldn’t get one out of a book. Instead of school coming at me, for the first time in my life, I recognized it had to come out of me. (I don’t think I articulated it at the moment, but it was an epiphany nonetheless). I’d never experienced that, and I didn’t know what to do with it. So I went home, and the first poem I wrote I wrote in Spanish because I knew they weren’t going to understand it.
Well, very classic defensiveness. Very smart way to do it. I knew that I was in a place that scared to me to death, suddenly. And it’s where I wanted to be. It was a good kind of scared. So I changed my major and got a degree in literature and writing. And then, I looked around and said, now show me which line I get in for the job. And then they said, “An English degree—it’s, uhh, good for so many things.” “Name one,” I said. “Well, we try not to be that specific.” So I said, “Forget about it—this is crazy. I had fun, thanks, I’m outta here.” Then I decided I was going to go to law school and get rich. You know, as I said earlier, I had had some family in law—my grandfather, my father also—and I thought, “I’m going to go to law school.” So I show up at the law school and I said, “Sign me up.’ They said, “Sign you up? Well, let’s see here, we don’t seem to have any record on you. Where are your LSAT scores? Where are your letters of recommendation?” And I said, “Well, you never told me,” and they said, “So what?” I thought, forget about it. I recognized, of course (or at least I do in retrospect) that it wasn’t up to them to tell me. It had been up to me to walk across the campus a month earlier and apply. I hadn’t done it, and they only accepted students in the fall, so I was going to have to wait a year in order to get in—even if I got in. I hated that, so I wasn’t going to let that stop me. I took the LSAT and did everything they required. I didn’t want to go to work, because I didn’t know how, so I stayed in school. I had learned how to do this well by now. I got another degree—this time in psychology. Then I found out I had gotten into law school. So I went to law school a year after that. I did pretty well, and I was suddenly facing the end of my first year, and here it was—my whole future mapped out for me, right? Some kind of financial security, some social standing, and the possibility you could do good for the world, and all those things—except, on the other hand, I didn’t like it. How do you measure all those expectations that are potentially fulfilled versus the whining sound of “I don’t like it.”? And so I did what everybody else does: I called up my parents and said, “What do I do?” And they said, “Well, son, you haven’t disappointed us up to now.” You know, worthless advice givers—they gave me no help at all. They said they’d support me no matter what I decided, so I said thanks a lot for nothing. And, of course they did what they should have done. I had never quit anything, and I was suddenly faced with the possibility of quitting something big. And I finally did decide to quit law school, and I actually went into a severe depression that went seven, possibly as long as eight minutes. The epiphany for me was that I wasn’t quitting law school at all. I had quit writing, and it was time to go back. This is what it took for me to recognize the value, the largeness of writing in my life. It took law school to show me this other way. I knew I could go to law school and finish, but I recognized that it wasn’t what I wanted or needed to do. I went back and got a degree in writing—with no sense of any future. I didn’t know what it was going to entail, I didn’t know where it would take me, but I knew it was the right way to go. I still don’t know how I made that decision, really, but there it was.
And you stayed in the same school to finish?
Yeah, I did. You know, I didn’t know anything. My students today, they know everything about every writing school in the country. They know everything about everything. I didn’t know anything about anything. I just knew that the school I was going to had a writing school. I didn’t even know how good it was—I just didn’t know. I never even thought about the quality of it, or anything. I just signed up. So I got in, and I finished my M. F. A. there at the University of Arizona, and I started writing.
Where was the real turning point in your career as a writer? The NEA? The Walt Whitman Award? The job?
That’s such a hard question. It’s so much messier than all that. I don’t have any sense of any clear turning point. I think you could call any of those events a turning point, and yet none of them alone was strong enough—it just had to be something else—and it never stops. There just has to be something else—almost continuously—that tells you this is what you ought to be doing. Sometimes, there are outside markers like an award, or an NEA, but sometimes it’s as simple as just finishing a good piece, and knowing it was worth it. It’s messy—I don’t know that I can answer your question very well.
How did you get hired at Arizona State?
The chair of the department called me up and asked me if I’d send in a résumé. I didn’t even have a résumé. I whipped one up, and then he called me back and asked me if I’d come talk to him. It wasn’t even an official interview. And when I went to go talk to him, he wasn’t there—so I left, and I got hired anyway.
You know, reading your poetry, I get a sense that you have a very real spirituality. You don’t have this antagonistic relationship to Catholicism that so many Chicanos have—at least I don’t sense it in your writing. This is very interesting to me. Tell me about your relationship to Catholicism.
I don’t think I have an antagonistic relationship to Catholicism. In fact, boy, this would have been the perfect poem—l just wrote one about heaven—and, in many ways I think it explains everything about my relationship to Catholicism. I may not believe in a lot of things, but suddenly—the poem is about how I have a little boy, and I may not believe something, but he needs me to believe something, so that I can tell him something when his grandfather dies. I have to be able to tell him something. There are so many answers to that, obviously. You have many choices, but I think you finally take the best of what was given to you. You know, I’m really intrigued by your use of the word antagonism, because I think it’s a correct question—a good way to ask it, and I think my answer is that I don’t feel antagonism, but that doesn’t mean I don’t feel whatever the opposite is, either. I don’t feel angry or judgmental about it. I don’t know if that makes sense as an answer. It’s there. It’s something I can’t ignore—
You don’t have to fight it, but you don’t have to embrace it?
Yeah. I don’t have to do either. But I have to know that it’s part of how I grew up. It spoke its own language; it had its own life, its own space—
And it provided a space for you.
It provided a very important space. And I don’t know if I grew bigger than it, or it’s so big that I can’t know where I am in it. If I can say it like this: it’s more mysterious than that. I don’t embrace the rigidity of it, and yet, who knows? When I write a formal poem, where does that come from? I’m willing to let it play a more mysterious role in my life where I don’t have to answer those questions. We’re always asking everybody to decide or answer something, but for me, I’ve talked already about the messiness of an answer—it’s a very messy answer. I probably can’t answer it, but I think you’re right, in that it’s clearly in the work, and yet I think it’s in the work in a mysterious way. It doesn’t dominate the work, and yet it’s not absent.
I always want to characterize your work as an earthy theology of incarnation.
I like that. I would feel comfortable with something like that. It goes back to what I was saying earlier on, trying to speak the language of listening. That means you try to listen to everything—including those things you feel antagonistic toward. It’s very easy to feel antagonistic toward Catholicism. It’s got the most rules, so, of course, it’s easy to rebel against it, but I’ve tried to make myself better than that: better than the rules, but also better than the anger, and that will take a lifetime to sort out.
What, in your experience as a writer, has been the most difficult thing?
There’s an old phrase—and I heard it originally attributed to writers, although I suppose it’s just a folk saying: “the hardest thing for a writer is to have your parents still be alive. “ I love that saying. It means conscience, it means your elders—it means that, in some way, you’re talking about them—and not always in flattering ways, and it’s hard for somebody to understand that. I was raised to be a nice kid. I don’t always know what I’m being in my writing, except that I remember getting a wonderful gift from my mother. This is how parents are, and I have to hope that, in some ways, parents are everybody I’m worried about. My mother pulled me over a number of years ago, and she said: “You know that poem you wrote, ‘Rodriguez Street’?” And I’m thinking, “Oh my God,” because in it, I characterize her as somebody who hits me and tells me to do this and that, and I characterize another lady down the street as mamá doing things like giving me boxes of Jell-o to eat right out of the box—great stuff. It was not a flattering view, but she pulled me over and said, “You know that poem you wrote? Anytime I’m feeling low at work, I pull this book out and I read that poem, and I feel so much better.” And I’m thinking, “Oh my god, she’s right.” She’s reading it as my mother—not as a critic. She doesn’t know what I’m saying—except that I’m saying something about her. I’m glad she can’t read it as a critic. I’m glad she doesn’t know what it says—because she’s right. She, without knowing it, is reading it absolutely right. There’s a big view, and it’s hard to explain to people—and so, what’s hardest for me as a writer is saying something that might not he nice about somebody. Now that may seem like a mundane answer, but there’s a gravity and a foundation to that that is community. It’s hard to talk about what might upset somebody. I think, as a writer, that’s the hard thing— and yet, as a writer, it’s what I do and what I need to do. It’s something that will never he resolved. You try not to characterize it or judge it. And yet sometimes you know it’s not the best thing you’re ever going to say about that person; at that moment you’re saying possibly the worst thing you’re ever going to say about that person. But you know there’s a long view, and they might not see it. It makes me nervous—and yet people constantly surprise you with their generosity of spirit.