INTERVIEW WITH ALBERTO RIOS
An Interview with Alberto RŪos.
By Susan McInnis.
Glimmer Train. 26. Spring 1998. 105-121.
This interview was first recorded for Conversations with Susan McInnis, KUAC-FM/TV, the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, then revisited in written form in Glimmer Train.
MCINNIS: You grew up in Nogales, Arizona--cheek-to-jowl with Nogales, Sonora, Mexico. Were you growing up with a foot in each culture?
RÕOS: For me, itís more than straddling two cultures. Itís really three. There is an in-between state, a very messy, wonderful middleness to the culture I come from. It is a culture of capillaries, a culture of exchange, of the small detail that is absorbed the way oxygen enters blood. On the border weíre dealing with several languages, several cultures, different sets of laws, and everything else you can imagine. Nevertheless, youíve got to live side-by-side. What results isnít neatly anybodyís law, anybodyís language. Itís more a third way of living, and that time, or place of exchange, reckons with the world a little differently.
Is it a place where divisions break down?
They have to break down. Otherwise youíre just like two animals butting against each other, and you donít live that way. Thatís how you fight. And I think that wasnít what we were doing. It seems that way by some measures. The fence across the border is an example. But itís a silly fence. When I was a boy, there were holes all over it. You could go anywhere along the fence and see where it was cut. And even now, if you stand at the border you see people running wildly across the hillsides going from one country to the other. So that partís pretty silly. But the fence--now a wall--is there.
I grew up with it, but my sense of place has a lot to do with the stories I heard, not just the things I lived through. In their stories, my great aunts and grandmother talk about a time sin linea, ďwithout a line,Ē a time of hillsides and of people: a time of manners, where you just donít cross into somebody elseís yard, and you live by that understanding.
Youíve said that, as you grew up, your first language wasnít really Spanish, and wasnít really English, but was a language of listening. What does that mean to you?
Well, it was, again, a language of manners. In the mix of cultures I grew up in, children were first and always told to ďbe quiet.Ē That would seem to be restrictive--a punishment--but, in fact, it wasnít. It was how they were teaching us that first language of listening: ďBe quiet!Ē Itís not a terrible thing to hear.
In that quietude we were able to hear with both ears. And also with the eyes and with the nose and with everything else we had. I mean, we had two ears--which was very convenient. We had one for each language. And then, the nose for the smells of cooking, and so on. And I think the great mix of things made listening all we could do. We couldnít talk very well. It wasnít something we were capable of when we were being inundated with so much. We were simply, I think, positioning ourselves, so we could have something to say and be a player as we grew a little older, when it was appropriate in that culture to have something to say.
This sometimes was perceived as a negative thing in the classroom. We were told to be quiet by our parents as we went to school. Our teachers might have tried to say things like, ďJust ask! just ask!Ē but we didnít understand how to do that. We knew how to listen, and that was our way of learning.
This is the Mexican kid, the border kid.
Very much. Very much. At least as I was growing up.
Were you absorbing?
I think we were working a little harder than that. I remember, in second grade, getting in some trouble--even though I was a good student. I was doing all the homework and finishing everything on time, but my parents were called to the school because I got caught committing that heinous crime of daydreaming. I think now thatís probably when I was starting to be a writer. I was not simply absorbing. I was engaging. I was putting all that stuff together in some way and projecting. And to get into trouble for it! You know, I think school was set up to give you information, but they forget that at some point, you learn how to do something with it.
As a child, a second-grader, all you can do is daydream. All you can do is imagine how to put it all together. There should have been a reward, but we donít know how to reward daydreaming. And so, I think that ďquiet,Ē in a school setting, can sometimes be perceived as a negative thing and it shouldnít be. Not if youíre doing all the other things they want you to do.
A related question: In this day and age, we would say, ďHow good that Alberto speaks two languages!Ē But in the early Ď50s?
Very different, very different. In fact, language was effectively taken away from us. We came to the first-grade classroom, and rather than hearing, ďCongratulations, weíre so glad you can speak these languages,Ē the first thing we were told was, ďYou canít speak Spanish here!Ē We all looked at each other, and that seemed a very strange observation about us. So we raised our hands, and said, ďSeguro que sŪ! Of course, we can speak Spanish!Ē
The teacher said, ďThatís not what we mean. We mean, you are not to speak Spanish here, and if you do, we are going to swat you.Ē And, in fact, we got hit for speaking Spanish at school. We were learning a great deal more than was communicated by their words.
Our parents told us to listen to our teachers. The term ďteacherĒ in Spanish, maestro, is a term of respect for anybody who teaches you something. Unfortunately, it was too quickly applied to those people. They werenít always the best teachers, even though it was their name and their job. And our parents got fooled as much as anybody. I donít say that with rancor. I just think it was true.
So our parents said, ďPay attention to your teachers.Ē Our parents also taught us at home, with a belt, if I can be sort of graphic in that sense, that if you do something wrong, youíre going to get hit. Youíre going to get punished. And so you learned that you get hit for doing something bad. And if at school youíre paying attention to the teachers who say, ďWeíre going to hit you for speaking Spanish,Ē well, you make the mathematical leap. The mathematics of language says Spanish, then, must be bad. And there was another equation: If Spanish is bad and your parents are speaking Spanish, they must be bad people, too.
What we learned was sociology. We learned to be embarrassed of them in public. We learned to be ashamed. And we did everything we could to make sure--because we loved them--that they didnít blunder by coming out in public. We didnít let them come to PTA meetings. We didnít take the notices home. Because we loved them. We knew that if they came to school, theyíd open their mouths, because thatís how parents are. And because they were our parents, when they opened their mouths, theyíd speak Spanish, and when they did, theyíd get swatted. Now we, as second graders, thought that made sense. It was our way of taking care of them and of the world. We wanted to be good kids, and this was our way of being good.
But then, of course, somebody at the school, undoubtedly an administrator, said those Mexican parents donít care about their kids--
There you go.
They never come to meetings.
Absolutely right. Absolutely right.
Caught in the trap.
But not in, the long run. Itís not always as dire as it sounds. I think there were a lot of people, a lot of families, who didnít survive this. But there were many who did, who were smarter than that trap, and I think that needs to be said somewhere along the way, as well.
You have a poem called ďNaniĒ that speaks, in some respects, about being smarter than that trap.
Let me tell you something about it. Toward the end of elementary school and the beginning of junior high school, I really couldnít speak Spanish anymore. Which is to say I learned well. I let them take it away from me.
But you canít have words taken away. Theyíre yours forever. You can change your attitude towards them, and thatís what I think happened. It wasnít until later, in high school and the beginning of college, that I re-learned Spanish. And what I was really doing was not re-learning the words at all, but relearning my attitude toward them. Nevertheless, there was a time, late in elementary school, in particular, when I thought I couldnít speak Spanish.
My grandmother could only speak Spanish. And I was still going to her house once a week at least, for lunch, just the two of us. We had a problem. I mean, we can describe it that way. She didnít speak English. I didnít speak Spanish. But in fact, there was no problem, because we were grandmother and grandson, and what we created for ourselves was essentially another language. I donít know what to call it. Itís too easy to call it the language of love or something like that. I see it as a language of some ultimate necessity. I needed her, and she needed me, and so we created for ourselves a third language, one that didnít diminish either of us. It was a simple language. Itís one I think a lot of people understand. Simply, she would cook, and I would eat. And thatís how we talked. It tasted good.
Youíve called ďNaniĒ your breakthrough poem. Is it because, somehow, this was a poem of truth for you?
It was a poem of truth in the greater sense, in that when I wrote it, I didnít know what I was writing. It was writing me. And I think that happens sometimes with language. I wrote these words down, but I didnít ďgetĒ them.
Each time Iíve read ďNani,Ē each line has come up with a kind of currency for me, a kind of meaning that is important. And I think when I realized that, I began to see that I had something in me. Maybe I didnít recognize it yet. I didnít know how to articulate it. But it was starting to come.
Has writing been for you an exploration of languages, spoken and unspoken?
Sure. And itís something bigger than that, in that itís an exploration of what languages are. I try to write to the event, to the moment. And Iíve come to see that language is a very poor reflection of the event. If we can stop worrying about how to say something, and look at what the thing is, weíd be in much better shape. All of us.
I think I have a playfulness of language, an awkwardness sometimes, a use of many languages at the same time in an effort to say that itís not about the language. Itís about what the language is reflecting, or attempting to reflect: the event. Thatís what I try to get at. The heart of these things. Not the clothing that an idea wears.
Is it an attempt to bring all of life to bear on the page? And if thatís so, how great a challenge is that?
Itís a way of bringing one moment to bear, one moment to clarity. Drawing it up, like bringing a fish out of the water. And if you always think of it in terms of those parameters--of the single event, the single thing--trying to make that thing clear, itís not hard at all. Itís not easy. Itís not hard. Thatís the wrong measure. Itís just what it is. Itís just that thing you know and can talk about.
Is that poetry, for you?
It is. For me, poetry travels on a lateral plane. Itís not about getting from the beginning to the end. Itís about staying where you are and understanding the moment. And not being done until you essentially can show that. Anything that propels you or compels you forward strikes me as being troublesome. Itís at the heart of everything weíre seeing now in the world. All advertising, all everything makes us go forward. Clocks make us go forward. Everything says, ďKeep going!Ē ďMove!Ē
And thatís, in some sense, what makes poetry exciting. Itís outlaw-like. Itís almost heresy. Itís saying, ďDonít go forward.Ē Stop for a moment and understand where youíre standing. Just understand this moment. I donít think you can exhaust a moment. In some curious way, I think a poem can go on forever sideways.
You can look at anything many, many, many ways. Languages show us simply alternative ways, maybe two ways, like English and Spanish. But there are many languages, and many ways to see something. And so I donít think a moment can be exhausted. I think that thereís a lot there, and I donít know if that sounds deadly, this notion of non-movement, but I think there is movement. Itís just lateral. Itís sideways.
Burger King. Right? ďFast food for fast times!Ē And everybody moving to the city! And everything getting faster! We need to listen to something else. Some other message.
I donít mean this to sound too simple, but whatís lost as we race forward, and whatís gained if we stop?
Understanding. We know how to use things and use them well. But we donít know what they are. My favorite example is the alphabet. We use it to form words. We write sentences and paragraphs, but we build them on a foundation that we truly donít understand. We donít know what the letter A is anymore. A, going back to the Greek, is alpha. We say itís the beginning of the alphabet. Or itís just the beginning. Or itís a sound. Or itís a symbol. But we donít know what itís the sound of, or symbol for. In fact, it comes from the Phoenician, maybe two thousand years ago when it was upside down, a V-shape that represented the horns of an ox. An ox, for the Phoenicians, was food, and thatís the first letter: food. Itís the first thing. It had meaning all by itself before there were other letters. As I read it, the crossbar on the A was a sign that the ox was domesticated and yoked.
How did it turn itself around?
I picture a cave drawing illustrating the whole body. By the time you ďwrote downĒ the whole ox, the ox was gone, and you didnít get to eat. So, in my way of imagining it, they used a shorthand even then: the horns. But the shorthand was asymmetrical--two horns coming to a point at the base. Human beings are particularly uncomfortable with asymmetry. So slowly--if you look at its history--the A starts to tumble sideways, and goes around and around until it seemingly rights itself. But, in fact, what youíve got is an upside-down ox.
I think that notion of using, as opposed to understanding, is crucial. In fact, let me use one or two more examples from the alphabet. We talk a lot about sexism and racism, never considering that theyíre right in front of us from the moment we begin to speak. The letter B was originally written on its side in Phoenician. In Hebrew, itís beth, meaning ďhouse.Ē It was a drawing of a traditional Middle Eastern dwelling, which had two rooms. Two very absolute, distinct rooms, one for men, one for women. Men and women were not allowed to mix because women were said to be--and this is what all the literature says--unclean. We may think thatís absurd, but we continue to use the letter B without a thought to what it may convey from history.
My favorite is the letter Z. Itís the sixth letter of the Greek alphabet, but itís our last letter. One of the first things you do when you conquer somebody is take away their language, because inherent in language is culture, everything about living. And when the Romans conquered the Greeks, they wanted them to become Roman, to live like them, to follow their laws. So they took their sound away. But when they used the Greeks as tutors, I can imagine the Greeks saying, ďThe only worthwhile literature is Greek literature. Weíll teach your children, but we need our sound back to do it.Ē And the Romans would have said, ďAll right, weíll let you have the letter Z--that sound--but, because itís Greek, itís going to the end of the bus, the end of the alphabet.Ē Because itís Greek. To me thatís a lesson. Thatís immediate. Itís right in front of us. Itís right there in the alphabet we use. And thatís where, I think, the work of staying in place, staying with the alphabet until you understand what it is--before you start to use it--makes sense. And that ďstaying in placeĒ is part of my job as a writer.
Is one of the lessons learned by the study of the alphabet, or perhaps by thinking laterally, that our histories and issues are long and deep, even in a fast-food culture? We seem to want to fix things rather quickly. We say, ďWhy canít people get along?Ē ďWhy canít we get rid of this prejudice?Ē
Thereís a great line by William Carlos Williams, something to the effect of, ďWe donít go to poems for news, yet everyday, millions die for lack of what is to be found in them.Ē
We can learn, but weíre not learning. We donít read poetry. We donít read those things that donít seem to have movement. And so I donít think we are learning from all this.
I want to ask you about the relationship between poetry and prose. Youíre a writer of poems that in some ways are very prose-like, and your short stories seem to emerge from poetry--sometimes literally, from particular poems.
Thatís right. Iím at some point of epiphany or revelation about my own work, about forms and about genre. As Iím moving toward what has traditionally been called story, Iím beginning to understand that you see poetry better in prose than you do if you go read a book of poems, where poetry is everywhere. You get inundated. You get oblivious to it. You donít recognize the moment if there are many, many moments equal to it around it. In prose, you know the poetic moment. It is blatant. It affects you. It changes how you read and how you breathe at that moment.
By the same token, I think much of poetry has lost the sense of story. And so I think my poetry has moved more towards story while my prose is moving more toward poem.
Story goes from beginning to end and gets you there. It moves. Itís not lateral. Itís linear. Iíve looked at my poems, and Iím beginning to think thatís what theyíre doing. They have more story in them. They have more movement. They compel you increasingly forward.
My stories, though, are going more sideways. They donít offer traditional plot and structure, of going from A to Z. I think they do that ultimately, because as human beings we canít help but tell stories. We take care of ourselves by wrapping things up. We watch the letter A right itself, because as human beings we need the world to be right, however we measure that.
So I can start writing a story anywhere and as long as I write long enough, I will eventually tell a story. I donít think I necessarily have to impose plot, but plot I think is an organic thing. So if I begin to write a poem and I donít stop at a line break until twenty pages out, I am still writing a poem. I am truly writing a poem. It is the act of writing as an exploration, much like getting on a boat and just going with it. Thatís a harder, more real poem to me. What I can do in prose, or what looks like prose on the page, Iím beginning to see has more value to me as a manifestation of the poetic impulse, an exploration of the moment.
Youíve been doing this as writer and professor in a class you laughingly call Obsessions. But itís serious, yes?
Itís very serious. I think it has transformed students. It has changed their way of thinking and of writing. Itís an exciting notion. Each student comes up with one image. One student chose most recently ďtwo people drinking from the same glass.Ē Very simple. Just a short phrase. Each student begins with a piece of writing based on their chosen image. A poem, perhaps. They stay with the image for the rest of the semester. Thatís all they write about. It would seem impossible to write for three or four months about a single image. But if you can do it, the result is magical: If you can draw the rabbit out of this top hat, you will be amazed by whatís possible in the world, in all those things around you.
So, we begin with the image. We extend it first backward, rather than forward, because this has to do with that temporal notion we were talking about: I donít think you should always go forward. So we go a little bit backward, to a sentence that is that image, and then to a word that is that image-not that describes the image, but is the thing. We are trying to get at what language represents. What is that image? And then we go to a letter, just as I was talking about earlier. We find a letter that is the image of two people drinking out of the same glass. It may be visual. It may have some meaning. It may be any number of things, but we find the letter that is it.
Then we go forward again. At this point itís like pulling a slingshot backward. Tension comes as you pull those rubber straps backward. When you let go of it, then you can go forward like crazy, and youíve got so much farther to go if youíve gone backward first. Suddenly that image has all sorts of potential. We then write it as a short story, as a prose scene, as epistolary writing, characters writing to each other. And after youíve explored it, obviously you must add things, and thatís whatís fun. You start adding characters and setting, and itís just to accommodate the image. But in fact, youíre doing all the right things you ought to do as a writer. By the end of the semester, we come back to the original form. If you wrote a poem at the beginning of the semester, then you write a poem again at the end. But the difference between those two poems, after millions of miles of exploration, is extraordinary, and itís what my students learn to call craft. That thereís that much even in the single image. That, in fact, you can be a voyager of sideways.
Your own work has these powers of transformation. ďThe Birthday of Mrs. PiŮeda,Ē for example, began as a poem and emerged later as a short story.
And actually is evolving now into a novel. If you canít exhaust anything, it makes sense that a thing will go on. Youíre going to see characters in my works reappear in different settings and sometimes just in a phrase. I feel my books talk to each other, that they ought to talk to each other, that thereís a sense of community here in my works, oblivious to the outside world. My books take care of each other in that way.
When ďThe Birthday of Mrs. PiŮedaĒ emerged as a short story in The Iguana Killer, it seems as if the camera was pulled back to show more of the PiŮedas. The tragedy of the moment which she can never forget was not obscured, but it took its place in the house. Is this a result of writing the poem into the ďpoemĒ of the short story?
I think it is. That notion of pulling the camera back is an excellent way to think about it. That as you go farther back, you see more, in the same way that if you begin to use more languages you understand a thing better. It is a ďphysicalizedĒ language in some way. You stand back and you can say more about it.
In an essay in Ironwood you wrote that youíve always written, even as a little boy, but when you were young you ďcalled it nothing,Ē and you didnít tell anyone about it.
I think if I had been writing something and I called it poetry, I might have gone to a poetry book or a poetry teacher--even though we didnít have any--but I might have tried to do that. And I think that would have been wrong. It wouldnít have been my poetry.
Could it also have been tainted by the boys on the streets? By your buddies? Was there an urge not to appear bookish?
Profound! A profound urge. It was more than not wanting to appear bookish. Whatever our perceptions are, theyíre strong, theyíre social, theyíre what guide us through life and let us do all those things that we do. I know that in growing up, as I was writing in the backs of my notebooks, it felt like I was getting away with something. I did homework in the front, and when I would turn my notebook to the back, I was doing what nobody had told me to do. There was no explanation for that. I was getting away with something. And I was also hiding something. Because I couldnít show it to anybody. I couldnít turn the back part of the book in to a teacher, and I didnít know what that stuff was. If I gave it no name, I also didnít know where to take it.
We didnít, in fact, have a poetry teacher. I lived in a very small town. I would call it a tough town, whatever that means. But the most immediate thing it meant to me is that if youíre doing something at school that nobody tells you to do, youíre different, and different isnít good to a child. And I was clearly doing something nobody else was doing. They did their homework and they were out of there--if they even did their homework. So I couldnít show it to a teacher, and neither could I show it to my friends. Iíd be exposing myself in some way as something I couldnít explain even to myself. How could I explain it to them?
Itís interesting that a secret became a life.
Well, I think it is.
You know, I couldnít show it to my parents, either, because kids canít do that, period. So there was some sense of hiding, and they would ask me, ďWell shouldnít you be doing your homework?Ē It was not that I was afraid of my parents, but I knew they worried about me and what I should be doing.
As I got into high school, itís not like I couldnít figure out what I was doing, but I didnít change the mechanism. I knew that if I showed this work that--first of all, I would still be different because I was doing something others werenít doing--but if I showed it, Iíd be writing, which was a curiosity, period. And Iíd be writing poetry. Given the stereotypes, there was nothing to be gained. I wasnít threatened by it, but it wasnít going to help for me to show my work and to have it be labeled. If I wasnít going to use adjectives for it, I certainly wasnít going to let anybody else use adjectives for it. And so I think my writing became forcefully mine.
The short stories in The Iguana Killer deal with what a critic called ďborders.Ē 7he borders between children and adults, between kids who are accepted and kids who are not. They show up in stories about the fat kid and the kid who smells funny and the kid whoís flatulent and how they all learn to cope with their worlds.
One is about youngsters on the edge of puberty--a girl who is just beginning to menstruate, and a boy who is having wet dreams. They know each other, but they donít talk because oneís cool and oneís not. Still, they manage, leaving notes in little pouches strung around cowsí necks at the fence between them, to tell each other the most intimate details of their lives.
Iím wondering how this story came to you. Was there a basis in what we think of as the real world? Did you want to talk about secrets and how theyíre kept and shared?
Itís all of that. I think I was every character in that story. I was the boy. I was the girl. I was the cows, too.
I was in some way trying to recover something that I felt in childhood about secrets. I think I write a great deal about secrets as well as borders. And this was an exploration of my own questions: What are my secret lives? What are my borders?
Some of it was what goes on between boys and girls. Some of it was about being a girl, or being a boy. No matter what I am as a writer, I was trying to explore those borders, to see what was there, what it meant to be on one side or the other, to be in the middle.
I am always looking for some kind of truth, though not necessarily accuracy. It didnít have to happen to me that way. It didnít all have to happen to me. Nonetheless, what I write about is all mine. It reveals a truth. But Iím not a journalist. Iím not reporting anything that happened. Still Iím talking just exactly about what happened. Picasso said, ďArt is the lie that tells the truth.Ē It follows that, in some way, ultimately, we canít lie. You know? I mean, I think Iím making this stuff up on some level or another, but Iím not. I can sort of go back and figure out why I think I invented something, where it comes from. Itís just using the right... like playing poker, you put down the right cards at the right time. And you make that happen. You make that luck, that story, that thing happen.
In ďHis Own Key,Ē you take up that unabsorbable moment when a child meets up with adult information. A little boy learns from his friends how babies are born-at least he learns what they know--and is overwhelmed by that four letter word, by this new knowledge, by his disbelief and the powerful secret he now has in his mind. I would have said that here you were writing ďall of lifeĒ into one moment.
Itís sort of what we were saying earlier about language and meaning, and writing to the event. In this case you have more than one piece of information--the known piece and the unknown piece, the secret, and the non-secret. When you put those things together, itís like adding a set of lenses. The act brings that faraway thing, whatever it might be, closer, like binoculars. I love that. I love doing it as a writer. I love looking at the magic of binoculars. I mean, to bring a thing closer is extraordinary, and when I can do that in writing, it just makes me want to do it again.
Secrets are always on the border, on the edge. Somehow, a secret is that faraway thing that is not faraway at all. Itís right in front of us, but we try to make it faraway, and thereís something both right and wrong about that. I donít know which it is, but the moment you can bring that faraway thing, that secret, up close and look at it, youíve done a kind of magic. Itís not what the secret is about, but itís magic.
When you look into your characterís confusion, you look into a very private place, but the act seems compassionate, not invasive.
I donít think Iím capable of looking at a secret and not seeing what is positive about it. Thatís just in my character. If I have to think about how I write, itís not to expose something that shouldnít be exposed. I just start writing about a thing, and, in the same way that plot is organic, the thing Iím writing about comes out. I donít have to impose it. I also know Iím going to take care of that secret even though I might talk about it.
In reading your short stories and your poetry, it seems you are very gentle with your characters and with your subjects.
I like them.
ďClemente and Ventura Show Themselves, if Just for a Moment, in their SonĒ
He was a serious man
But for one afternoon
Late in his life
With serious friends.
They adjourned to a bar
Away from the office
And its matters.
Something before dinner,
Something for the appetite
One of them had said,
And the three of them walked
In long sleeves
Into the Molino Rojo.
The cafeís twenty tables
Were pushed together
Or pulled apart barely,
Giving not them
But the space between them
A dark and ragged shine
Amidst the white tablecloths.
And the spaces they made
Looked like the pieces
Of a childís puzzle
A continent breaking, something
From the beginning of time.
To get by them
Don Margarito had to walk
Sideways, and then sideways
Again, with arms outstretched
It was a good trick of the place
Conspiring with the music
To make the science
In this manís movement
Look like dance.
Excerpted from RŪosís new book of poems,
The Theater of Night.
This interview was recorded for Conversations with Susan McInnis, KUAC-FM/TV, the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. Born in San Francisco, Susan McInnis was a producer and interviewer for public television and radio in Fairbanks for over a decade. Sheís now writing and editing, and on a yearís leave from the far north, visiting in Sydney, Australia.