INTERVIEW: ALBERTO RIOS
An Interview with Alberto Ríos.
By Tina Eliopulos.
Red Rock Review. 1:5. Winter 1999. 111-119.
These are written answers to written questions comprising an interview that went from 8/7/98 to 8/30/98.
1. Regionalism is becoming a large area of study in contemporary literature. You’re heralded as one of the major voices of the southwest, yet the content of your work is not limited to the southwest. I’m curious to know how you view this labeling. Is there any real merit in regionalizing writers?
Regionalism implies, of course, place. Place is where and how we position ourselves in relation to each other, and this is only partly a function of geography. Regionalism is an ethos as much as a landscape, and that’s much harder to understand than simply looking at a map.
I certainly think of myself as a Southwestern writer, but I define it by experience at least as much as by geography. For example, I remember the first time I went to New York City. It was in the late Seventies and I was going there to visit my aunt. She had told me to take a taxicab to her house, and I said that would be fine, that I’d seen it done in just about every movie ever made. So, when I arrived, I did just what the movie stars all do. I got in a cab and told him my address and tried to look cool. But the first thing he did was start to honk. Really honk. My face started to get as red as it had ever been and I began to sink down as far as I could into my seat. Nobody I knew ever really honked, unless they meant it--that is, someone was about to die and this was a last resort and the only thing that would save them. And even then, you’d think twice about honking.
Later on that trip, I remember visiting a friend well into the night and returning to my aunt’s rather late. I took the subway, and hers was a small subway station on the upper west side of Manhattan. When I got off, I realized I was the only one doing so, and that when the subway left I was standing there alone. For the first time, I thought to myself, if I were going to be a little afraid, this was the moment. But something profound also occurred to me at that moment. In the West, being alone is a good thing, and a pretty common circumstance. People gather when something is wrong. In this subway station, however, just the opposite held true. I could tell, even as naïve as I was, that having a crowd around at this moment would have been a good thing, and that being alone was not. The moment was a small one, and even though it was finally uneventful I’ve never forgotten the feeling it gave me.
There is something about geography, though, and it’s visceral. There is this thing that happens in the West, certainly in my West. When I walk out the door, the light is so bright that I’ve always got to close my eyes, even in winter. I normally close my eyes to sleep and to dream, so that in closing my eyes to view the outside my imagination is suddenly complicit in how I view it. Dream and the waking world are, at very least, reminded of each other. I suspect there is some lesson in this.
2. José David Saldívar contends in his review of Whispering to Fool the Wind (1982) that your character Carlos, who appears in several of your poems, but perhaps most compellingly and painfully in the poem “Carlos,” is the “representative border man.” Is he still?
He is certainly my border man--border, like geography, meaning many things. Carlos is actually a great-uncle of mine, a man I met only once and whose single photograph is the only one I know of. But he was a man made of stories--everybody talked about him as I was growing up. He had a great feud with his brother. In the tragic tradition of what happened in the United States during the Revolutionary War, the two men took opposite sides in the Mexican Revolution. My Uncle Carlos did not fare well, and became a tenant farmer on the outskirts of the same town in which his brother prospered. Apparently, they never again spoke to each other.
The one time I met him, however, was entirely magical to my ten-year-old sensibilities. We were on a trip through Mexico and we stopped at his ranchito, which was more of a magnificent fruit orchard. It was in the summer, just as everything on the trees was ripened and falling. The small, one-room house he occupied had no glass in the windows, only burlap that was pinned up so that the whole thing looked like a playhouse. At my age, I recognized this all as the only thing it could be: Eden. My brother were sent out to pick whatever fruit we wanted, and we gorged ourselves on everything we could make fit, including fruits we had never seen. That incident, and my sense of it, in my eyes elevated Carlos--and perhaps the whole Mexican Revolution, and Mexico itself--into something I had no words for, but it was good, big, and mystical. Many years later as I was visiting my parents my father casually mentioned that his Uncle Carlos had died. “You probably don’t remember him,” he said--and when he did it took my breath away. The fact was I had never stopped thinking of him, though I had no good way of telling my father. I had kept this man so strongly inside me, in my imagination, that I realized I had never talked about him aloud since the day of our visit. What else was my father to think?
In poems, Carlos appears when I need him, or when I’m thinking of him. This happens to me quite often, as from the beginning he became much more than the man I met. Unfairly, I sometimes have to call him by other names, but it’s him.
3. The writer John Keeble defines apotheosis as an individual’s physical and spiritual sinking into and rising out of the landscape. As a result of a moment of apotheosis, a character is irrevocably changed; he is more acutely aware of himself and his connection to his surroundings. Is this the process that you imply in your essay “You Are Not Where You Were” when describing the viewer’s participation with his landscape?
In pointing out the viewer’s participation with the landscape, if the viewer is the speaker, I would not characterize what I’m talking about change; I would say it is an “always was” recognition, which is even more difficult to see. It is indeed a many-years’-long epiphany, resulting in recognition, but perhaps not change. Recognition is the better word.
4. The journey depicted in your poem “Lost on September Trail, 1967” from Whispering to Fool the Wind seems to continue in “Lost on September Trail, 1976,” from Teodoro Luna’s Two Kisses. The travelers of both poems seem to have been swallowed whole by some entity or force. Are these voyagers metaphors for the individuals caught on the borderlands?
I was born in September, and that’s what I’ve meant by September Trail in these poems--my life, or some version of it at least. In that sense, yes, absolutely, these voyagers are metaphors for individuals caught on the borderlands; they are me.
5. I’ve read that by the time you were a junior in high school you could no longer speak Spanish because your teachers had forced you to surrender your first language to English. When and how did you reclaim your language? How then do you make sense of the current debates over bilingual education?
This is a very large question. I was part of a generation that got swatted for speaking Spanish at school, which forced it into a private or familial realm, tinged with a sense of danger and even shame. I came back to the whole notion of language when I began writing consciously. As I found myself trying to describe things, occasionally I found that only Spanish could say what I meant or felt. This began to teach me something about the limitations and strengths of all languages--English, Spanish, and others as well. I relearned Spanish in high school and college, but I hadn’t really forgotten it. What I was doing, I suppose, was getting permission to use it again. From whom? Who knows. Maybe it was from myself. But it was also from whoever created the fear in me that understood that there were consequences for speaking Spanish.
6. What do you try to teach your son about language? Is there anything that observing your son has taught you about language?
What I try to teach my son is what I’ve tried to teach myself: languages are, as they have always been, solutions--they are not problems. We talk about language these days with so much surrounding lightning and thunder that we’ve forgotten the simple point of language: talking to each other because we’ve got something to say. And of course he’s taught me a great deal about language, especially its stark inability to capture very much about the world. Language in so many ways limits rather than frees us, and is based so much on what has been, rather than on what might yet be.
One funny moment that taught me something about the disengagement of language from the moment is when my son, when he was still quite young but a good reader already, came over to me and showed me the word “lbs.,” which is really an abbreviation. “What’s this?” he asked. “That’s pounds,” I said. “Wait,” he answered, and ran his finger across the word in a visual and phonetic attempt to understand it. “P, p, p, pounds,” he said, as he looked at “lbs.” The abbreviation is, of course, for the Latin “libras,” but it was quite an explanation for me to give. I often wonder what would have happened had I not been there.
7. You grew up on the borderlands of Nogales, Arizona, and Sonora, Mexico. Yet you have another component in your cultural identity. Your mother, Agnes Fogg Rios, was born in England. How do you treat that aspect of your heritage in your writing?
My mother’s sensibility, the gift she gave to me, is a constant amazement at everything around us. Because her landscape, and ultimately her language, were quite different from what she was encountering in Nogales, she was always pointing out things--normal things--but as if they were extraordinary, which of course they were to her.
She also gave me a sense of what I might call the science of the imagination, or conversely, imaginary facts. The whole time I was growing up she would talk about kings and queens, castles, snow, great gardens and countrysides--things that did not appear in the Sonoran Desert I was surrounded by. And she described them in such detail that they were undeniable. However, the only place I could find any reference to these things, since my surroundings gave me no context, was in books, and fairy tale books in particular, childhood books. Her descriptions and passions made these books more real to me, more possible, and it’s something I’ve carried with me in my life and in my writing. Many people have thought that any magical engagements or exaggerated sensibilities must have come from my father, and from Latin American literature, but it’s all quite the opposite.
8. In addition to your MFA in English and your BA in English and Creative Writing, you have a BA in psychology. How has this knowledge affected and/or shaped your craft?
Writing and psychology are in many aspects the same thing, and understanding one helps in understanding the other. Their separation is really an act of the 20th Century, and not historic at all. Writers have always been psychologists, if not always good ones.
For me, having some background in psychology has helped me to understand character and action, which are indispensable to writing. But, like the failings of language, that same training in psychology has helped me to see how little we finally know about each other, and how much room that leaves for the writer. Characters who are alive in the world find their own psychology, and this is an important realization.
9. How do you work with or against limitations imposed upon you by different forms, different themes, and different images when you encounter them in your writing?
I’ve been talking about using limitations as positive things all along. Limitations are a form of understanding, but we should not so easily treat them as stop signs. A limitation is often like the pivot point for a pole-vaulter. It is that place you hope to put down your pole, but only so that it will carry you up, much higher and farther than where the pole has stopped, so long as you have run fast and far enough to make this confrontation work.
10. How does your sense of the external landscape affect your treatment of line length and blank space?
This is an intriguing question to me, especially as I’ve used all kinds of line lengths and spaces in my work. I think--and I hope--that my changing usage is a testament to believing there is no one place, no one action, and no one outcome. That is, that everything changes when visited a second time.
It is true, however, that I probably write the spirit of a longer line and a denser paragraph than many, even if they seem to be broken up into several parts. When I write, I try to stay where I am for awhile, in order to understand the moment better. I think of this as lateral movement in poetry, sideways movement, and it’s what distinguishes poetry from prose, whose imperative is much more linear and forward and plot-based. The responsibilities are different.
11. How aware of your reader are you when you’re putting together a collection of poetry or prose? Do you ever write for your reader?
This ties right in to the previous question. In the single poem I am least likely to think of the reader, and in the full prose book I am most likely to. There’s a spectrum, and it’s useful to talk about. In my poems the search and the sharing of information is different from what I’m doing in stories. When putting together a book, however, regardless of genre, then things begin to even out. Then the reader quite clearly enters into the equation. G.K. Chesterton has a wonderful line, and it haunts me, while speaking eloquently to any discussion of assembling a book. The line goes: “There is a great deal of difference between an eager man who wants to read a book and a tired man who wants a book to read.”
I understand immediately what Chesterton is saying here, but it bothers me, too. It gets in my artistic way. This is all part of thinking about the reader however, who is, ultimately, you yourself. As a reader, I feel differently myself on different days. That means there is room for all kinds of books. But what makes me feel eager on one day and tired on another? There’s the rub, and the niggling question to keep at your side when assembling that book.
12. To its credit, contemporary poetry seems to represent almost every voice imaginable. How has this field changed since you began writing? Where do you see it going in the next twenty years?
Contemporary poetry does indeed represent almost every voice, though I’m not sure that equates to valuing every voice. That’s a slower beast. I am happy that anthologies and classrooms and reading lists are making more room at the table, but I am wary as well. I am not always sure it is in service to the particular writer. I often feel that the inclusion is, instead, in service to the generic sensibility, which is not the individual vision at all.
13. Carolyn Forche’s poems have been called “narratives of witness and confrontation.” In some ways, your poetry, although not overtly political, has the same effect. However, rather than maintaining a journalist’s detachment or a spy’s view from behind the drapes, you seem to observe with your senses wide open. How would you describe your role as poet: witness or participant?
The most political act of all is good writing. Good writing integrates the participant and the witness, joining them into a subjectivity that denies inaction at all levels--and includes the reader.
14. Some of your poems seem to define the border between the living and the dead. Is this symbolic of a particular belief or cultural mythology?
Border in general characterizes both my writing and my life, and that includes the border between the living and the dead. It seems quite normal to me, but its normalcy may indeed be cultural. I grew up with the Día de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, as one of my holidays, with its own meaning and its own stories, equal to Thanksgiving and Memorial Day. It doesn’t mean that I didn’t also celebrate these others, because I did. What it probably means is that I just spent more holiday time thinking about the dead since I was celebrating at least two cultures’ holidays. This made the line between the living and the dead part of the conversation of my life, and not simply a whisper.
Who cleaned the graves this year, and were there fresh cempasúchiles in the vases? These were common and easy questions, which regularly led to a telling of who these things were for. For me, there were simply more occasions for my family to tell the stories of the dead, who took on a life in the telling. My grandfather, for example, has invariably been part of every family gathering I can remember, though he was dead just before I was born. In this way, I grew up with him, and all the rest. Story, I think, must be life.
15. Religion--sin, confession, and salvation--serves as a backdrop for many of your works. What texture does this backdrop bring to your characters and to the work as a whole?
I grew up Catholic, and in fact spent the first several years of my life in the literal shadow of the Catholic Church itself--we lived right behind it on Rodriguez Street. In Nogales, it was one of the three most imposing structures, along with the Court House and the high school, all of them on hills, which only added to their multi-storied effect. My mother, interestingly enough, was Catholic, which was relatively uncommon for the English, and my father came from a long Catholic lineage.
I am old enough myself to remember the Latin masses, and the mystery and the rules that Catholicism proffered, and I went to catechism and made my first Communion and everything else. I don’t suppose this can’t be ignored in my work as having some bearing, though--as it was given to me--what it is and where it is are not always clear. But this lack of clarity is not something I would equate with confusion. Religion offers, instead, regardless of how comfortable or uncomfortable I am in saying this, rooms without names--something not a bedroom or a living room or a kitchen, but a room nevertheless in each piece of writing. And interesting things happen in rooms without names.
16. I’m fond of the way you use the kiss in your writing. In “The Woman in the Picture with Me. . .,” it marks maternal love, in “Teodoro Luna’s Two Kisses” it symbolizes a lifetime of love between a married couple, and in “Seniors” it’s a rite of passage into manhood. In the hands of many writers such use may take on sentimentality, yet in yours it’s natural, poignant, and tender. How do you find the reality and maintain the beauty without overwriting?
This is the lateral movement I was talking about earlier, the staying with a thing. Overwriting may be the consequence on the one hand, but on the other, staying with the right thing may not have nearly enough writing about it, and staying with it becomes both a discovery and a joy, all the more if the thing is common and plain.
The writer who does this best, I think, is Gabriel García Márquez, particularly in books like Love in the Time of Cholera. “The Simpsons” later lampooned this book in a scene where Marge Simpson is reading a book called Love in the Time of Scurvy, or something close. I take this as a compliment to quotidian nature and availability of the original, though the humor is of course clear.
A kiss, finally, is many things. It is not any particular cleverness on my part to work with this. But staying with it, that’s the news, and it is sad and happy both.
17. You use photographs as the controlling image of several of your poems: “Pictures Looked at Once More,” “The Woman in the Picture with Me. . .,” “A Photograph of the Revolution” to name only a few. Do poetry and photography share a common purpose? Do they secure the moment, maintain our conscience, keep us still?
My father loved photography, from when he was a teenager until he lost his sight from diabetes and could no longer focus the camera, though none of us had the heart to tell him. Photographs--and their stories--were a big part of my life. I was amazed even as a child at the power of a photograph, how it could make the holder launch into a history that could take hours. And it was the photograph’s doing. This is certainly poetry, this lever, this fulcrum, this trigger, offered in what a photograph can do and always does.
Photographs help us to remember things, and in that way take care of us. Poetry, while it is not limited simply to what has happened, nevertheless helps with this work. It is one thing that poetry does. An image is a powerful thing, if only in that it underscores existence.
18. In a recent interview with Susan McInnis for Glimmer Train, you said: “I feel my books talk to each other, that they ought to talk to each other, that there’s a sense of community here in my works, oblivious to the outside world. My books take care of each other in that way.” With that assessment in hand, what have your most recent works--Pig Cookies (short stories) and Two Remembered Centuries (poems)--learned from their guardians? What maturity can your readers expect from them?
The new work stands on the old, making a new whole, trying what has not been tried, remembering what the first pieces did not finish, and trying to make a work both familiar and new. They try the hardest work of the last half of the 20th Century: finding news in the middle. A kiss, again but for the first time. This is a hard sell in a jaded time, but I have full faith in the great torrent of small things to come. The big things will take care of themselves.