DISCOVERING THE ALPHABET OF LIFE
An Interview with Alberto RŪos.
By Sheilah Britton.
Research Magazine. 11:2. Spring/Summer 1997. 38-41.† Full transcript.
Other versions of this interview may be found here.
31 January 1997.† House of Tricks, Tempe, Arizona.
We talk a lot about the alphabet when I open up classes because I think we are a nation and a century of users and only moving into more of it. So that I know how to drive a car, for example, but I canít tell you how to make a tire. But I know how to use it, which is not bad, itís practical. But as writers, if we expect to find the new, we must know what the old is. Otherwise, we have nothing to compare it to and we canít recognize it. And as writers I think our realm is, what we always say, words and we already forget that each word is comprised of a series of letters which, in and of themselves, have meaning. And so a word itself is already a community of meanings and congruence. As I had begun to think about not only the alphabet Iíve used but the alphabet Iíve lived, I think Iíve come to some funny conclusions about it, including a new-found recognition. I have this piece of metal, itís a metal puddle that I carry with me now and I look at it a lot. When I was a kid growing up outside of Nogales, one of Nogalesí big sources of revenue is produce, and just north of Nogales there are a lot of produce companies and produce docks--sometimes just for semi-trucks and sometimes connected to the railroad. They were close to my house and sometimes we used to go there and steal stuff, watermelons in particular. Watermelons were great and when you stole them you could steal two because they fit just right above your shoulder, one on each shoulder and you were balanced. And we would run down the railroad track, each with two watermelons and I remember one of the great delights of that age when we would finally get where we were going to and we would open up these watermelons. Because we had such a bounty, we never had to eat the part with the seeds. We could eat just the heart and it was just amazing. Neruda calls them the great whales of summer, which is just what they were. So one time we were liberating some watermelons and all of a sudden a semi-truck burst into flames and everybody came out to look at it, and it was funny. It was like you donít realize how many people are in a place until something like that happens. The guys from the warehouses came out and there were other kids stealing stuff and they all came out and we all just watched this truck burn. We were outside of the city limits so there was no fire department that would come in time and it just burned. And as I was watching it, it got so hot it just begin to melt and this metal was falling to the ground and forming these pools of metal. We got chased away but I came back the next morning to that site and this big carcass, this beast, this animal was still there and this was its blood. I went to one of the puddles and kicked it up with my foot and it came up and I took it instead of the watermelon and Iíve kept it ever since. And what that piece of metal is for me is part of my alphabet--that is to say, it invariably makes me remember something. It has meaning and when I write the letter A, I had to learn what that meaning was. It wasnít already built in. I had no experience associated with it, it was just something you drew. But this puddle meant something and so in that way, was stronger and closer to me. Now you canít go around carrying that puddle and everybody else carrying their version of it and expect meaning to happen. But, on the other hand, thatís all language has ever been. And certainly story telling and all of its versions and poetry as you watch it being distilled into something. And in this case, that puddle becomes a poem also in that the whole experience distilled to me into that palpable, singular, heavy thing. That canít help but be exciting, and it becomes in that way also magical. I was 12 or 13 at the time. It was a neat object--it was just this truck one moment and then this puddle, the next and isnít that the basis of science fiction and everything else that is exploratory in its thought process and revelatory in what it shows to us about the world, that it can change in a minute. That one thing is something else. I didnít think it out that way, but its what I felt and continue to feel--even more so now.
I donít start with an idea--I donít think I ever have and if I did I think it would be my weakest writing (it invariably becomes more journalistic) the idea immediately comes with its own set of rules, a beginning and middle and end. And you know that if you havenít accomplished that idea by the end, then you havenít succeeded. Thatís a little bit dangerous for me as a writer because that negates then the possibility that this thing could become 8 zillion other things and be perhaps more successful or something different. So what I think I begin with rather than an idea is maybe a phrase. A phrase is the most vulnerable thing--maybe itís a phrase, a word, a line but not a lot more than that. So I donít know what its story is, I donít know where its going to go, I donít know where it came from. I donít know its placement. At that point, there are no rules. Now on the one hand, thatís an extremely exciting proposition. On the other, about as scary as it can get. Because you donít know if youíll succeed. I donít know where these phrases come from. Itís kind of like life-fishing. You kind of have this big artistic ear, itís like a big net that just sort of trolls through the waters of living. You hear things that other people hear, maybe you read them, but finally you hear or remember or see them differently and if you have heard it well, itís yours. Youíve heard it in a way nobody else has and you know there is more there. And so itís not that youíre stealing, itís just something in you that tells you to go to these words and to take them somewhere. Itís kind of like the invention of television--you might have all these components around you but who would think to put them together? And thatís what I think the great leap is for writers--you make that leap--and you get television.
When did I first realize this? Second grade--absolutely. Something happened to me in second grade. I was a good student, I did what I was supposed to do, I listened well. I just did whatever the requirements of school were then. But I did more, to this extent. I got into trouble in second grade because I had committed the egregious crime of daydreaming. It was one of those classrooms with a big window that opened out to the playground and beyond to the trees and apparently even though I was doing all my work, I would start to daydream. And my parents were called into school and pretty much all I remember about it was they came and they listened and we all got back in the car and never talked about it again. And now what I recognize what was happening, I wasnít just receiving that information, I was trying to do something with it. But what adults donít want children to do is to do anything with the information they receive. So here I was getting all this stuff, great stuff about the Alps or explorers. The name of our school was Coronado, after the explorer, so I wanted to be there. All this exciting stuff, of course you want to be that and do that but your a second grader and you canít even walk across the street without holding someoneís hand. So itís like almost cruel to tell these great things to these little kids who immediately want to do it, but they say ďno, you canít do that.Ē And thereís something strange about that position on both sides. But it didnít stop me. That is to say, where could I go to do these things. Well, the imagination--which is the province of childhood. And there you can go and do all sorts of things. And I was pushed into it and it was magnified for me because I got in trouble for it so I also recognized that it was a dangerous place because you canít be stopped there. And later, in more physical terms, it was the back of a notebook, which is what it became for me.
Later in junior high and high school when I first started to write, I would write in the back of my notebook, which is the most dangerous place in school you could go. It was more dangerous than the bathroom because you do your homework in the front of your notebook. That is where you are supposed to be, but the very moment you go to the back, you know there is trouble. Youíre going to pull out a piece of paper to make a paper wad to throw at somebody, or youíre going to write a note to somebody, or youíre going to do something that isnít your homework. And for me, it was those phrases again. And the only place you have to file it, is in the dangerous place--the back of the notebook.
The only place to put Spanish was with other bad things, bad words and those kinds of things, because you got swatted for it. So the only place you could put it is in that file drawer. Now, whatís really fortunate for me, is that for a writer that really ends up being a really good thing. But everybody didnít survive the same way or respond to it the same way. So people who donít go forward and figure out how to make that work and take that as fuel rather than something that diminishes you, I think itís tragically different. But, incidentally, when I think back now, my elementary school was Coronado which was evocative and provocative and exciting and no matter what weíve learned about explorers since, at the time, it was a strong idea. And it has to do with the notion of naming, too, and language. Now it is called A.J. Mitchell Elementary School, which was the name of a district administrator and I can remember sitting in that classroom thinking ďoh, boy, Iíd like to be an explorer.Ē But I donít know if I can imagine myself sitting in that classroom thinking, ďoh, boy, Iíd like to be a district administrator.Ē I donít think they tell great legendary stories about district administrators and their big Chevrolets. Itís like what I was talking about earlier--the name of that school was sort of like that puddle in that it held something.
If youíre in junior high school, for example, and you start writing some things that you donít quite understand, you know right away that the first thing you canít do is show them to your parents because theyíll tell you that they understand and you better stop--or whatever. You just donít know how that relationship quite works. This is you at your most vulnerable, because you have produced it but you canít quite say what it is. And thereís a lot of metaphors that work there--and so you canít show it to your parents, and you canít go show it to your teachers (emphasis on plural, because now you have a lot of teachers instead of the one central elementary teacher who was parent-like, seemed to know everything)--so now you couldnít go show it to your teachers because youíd have to decide which one and presumably it would be the English teacher if you were writing a poem. But you know what you are writing doesnít look anything like the poems you are reading, so there is no equation to be made. So nothing draws you to the English teacher although I think that is changing now. And the thought that you could be writing one of these things anyway was not even in the realm of this known universe and especially at the school where I was. It was relatively tough and not a university bound school. So you didnít show it to your teacher and you finally could not show it to your friends, this is the hardest, because, first of all, you knew they werenít doing it and they knew if you were, youíd be different. And you can draw that out the older you get, if you were writing whatís not an assignment, why would you do that. And so in some ways, it starts maybe not to make sense to you--so then, maybe thereís something wrong with you. But you canít help but keep doing it. So what you end up finally doing is, you show it to nobody and in retrospect, that was the best thing I could ever have done for myself. Because in showing it to nobody it meant I was not writing this for a grade, I was not writing this for approval, I was not writing this for money, I was not writing this for publication. I was doing that pure thing. I was writing it for myself, notebooks, and notebooks of this stuff. And one day when I was in high school, as people who write often do, I would carry these notebooks around with me all the time and the school bus came, I was in a rush, somebody picked up my notebooks and I never saw them again. Which is probably just as good, now I can romanticize what I was doing and think that it was really wonderful even though I know that it was not.
The first person who saw my writing was a Humanities teacher in high school who showed me the first contemporary poet I had ever read or seen or heard anything about and I donít remember why this connection was even made. But I must have said I was writing or shown her something and she immediately showed me Lawrence Ferlinghetti. And that was the first time I saw a poem in its own form, that was talking about things, that didnít sound vaguely Shakespearean, didnít do anything except do what it did, which was pretty awesome.
In 1967, the Summer of Love, I went to Anytown just outside of Prescott--Tri-Hi-Y camp, if I remember right. Anytown was a radical notion at that time. I think it had just been in existence a year or two and it sort of didnít know what it was but the best phrase it had at the time was it was a human relations workshop. Now I was a shy, painfully shy kid and there was clearly a lot going on under the surface, I had a lot to say, I felt passionate about a lot of things, but given the culture I was being raised in, both the actual culture and the culture of high school, I was just exceedingly shy. So Anytown didnít make me change overnight, but I was changed overnight. I was. I did not become less shy, but I knew I would become less shy. I learned one dance, the skate. It was the first time I had actually danced. It was so big and things in the world were so big. Itís powerful even today when I think about it. And this must have encouraged me the next year to start thinking about the notion that what I was doing had so validity and maybe where I was headed wasnít where everyone else was headed and that maybe I wanted to be in the drama club. And actually the truth of it is, I never sat in an audience in high school. I was in every single production.
I bump into research, I bump into things and then they carry me with them. I donít go out and do real research - but this may sound odd at first, but thereís a lot of science in the work and what Iíve been interested in for years is what I would call situational physics is when the elements of a moment can conspire to make their own rules and that everything that happens derives from them as opposed to some outward sense of rules. That is the most exciting thing to me but I wouldnít know how to get there if I didnít also have science. So itís a loose relationship but not a casual one. And for a poet, research sometimes means just finding out one fact and thatís plenty for a page. Sometimes its coming across a fact that nobody knows, or everybody knows and you are going to show it again. I have a new poem that is dedicated to my father and when I came across this fact, I knew it belonged to him in that I didnít know what to make of it. Here is this great fact, but I donít want to say what it means, I donít even want to think about what it means because I donít want to sort it out. Thatís all I can say about it. The detail is - The smallest muscle in the human body is in the ear but itís the only muscle that doesnít have blood vessels, itís got its own fluid. Because if you were to hear the blood cursing through your ear, hear your own heartbeat, it would decimate you. So as weíve evolved thatís the only muscle that does not have blood vessels for that reason. Now thatís a wonderful and intriguing and astounding fact. I found that fact when my father was sick and there was a correlation that was simply there. The poem is called ďSome Extensions on the Sovereignty of Science.Ē A good example of situational physics is in the first stanza where I say something to the effect that when somebody gets sick we start looking for a new kidney or a new something, but why wait, why not think ahead. Why not have 3 kidneys or 2 hearts? Thatís the original concept of the poem but thatís a kind of situational physics, a kind of reasoning that makes its own sense. But of course we would never do that.
Nelson Fine Arts Center, Arizona State University
Well, I have championed for a long time the notion of the artist/citizen--and I think we live in a community and if we write about a community, if we take out we must also put in. And I think itís a hard-sell for writers to make somebody understand how a poem might be as valuable as a loaf of bread, but thatís my job and Iíve got to go out and show people how thatís so. And I do it sometimes in the classroom and sometimes when I read and sometimes when I talk. But Iím always doing it so to be told you have to do it more it a great consternation, a great frustration.
When you describe (writing) in simpler terms, itís not a mysterious process. When you go into something like creative writing or its highest aspirations, something like poetry or well-crafted fiction, youíre not simply teaching people to write, youíre teaching them to write well. Writing well is not a crime, nor is it a mysterious thing. Weíre individuals and how do we express that except with our own voice? So I think the search for individual meaning with the requisite expectation of requisite individual contribution, as well, this seems to be very healthy notion. People, I think, make fun of the process of arts, or arts in general, but I really think defining the word in that discussion is simply doing anything well. Thatís what the arts are, theyíre not just doing things, but theyíre doing them well. And I would think weíd want as a group, as a group of human beings living together want things not just done, but done well. And that is the art--itís the highest form and the most inventive way of pushing forward that we can and should muster. What happens in the arts and in writing is, a lot of times the avenues you explore are wrong turns, but until somebody goes there we donít know that. And I think a lot of what gets bad press are those wrong turns but, in fact, if you can conceive of this, wrong turns ought to be equally celebrated as explorations.
Well, I would first like to sort of glibly say, there is nothing to balance. Theyíre not different things. When I sit down to write something, Iím not neglecting my teaching one bit and when I speak aloud in front of a class, Iím not neglecting my writing a bit. They are two arms of the same body and they serve each other. Now that is a little bit easy to say and Iím not sure now as I get to be a little bit older and writing in different ways that require different amounts of time and different approaches to writing that I can quite say that as persuasively, even to myself. But I donít disagree with the basic premise. I know that every time I teach a class I just wish I had a tape recorder! And students donít always recognize this, but I know that where I am in my writing, what Iím saying there is coming out of that and is pushing me a little farther in my own writing. Iím teaching the course but Iím saying something new, something I hadnít recognized until that moment. Even if Iím teaching the same course Iíve taught many times and giving some semblance of a similar lecture, it is not by any means the same lecture and thatís what keeps it exciting and keeps me active on the page. If Iím excited about teaching then I have the energy to sit down and write, rather than the adverse.
I have to be honest and say that time off was a gift, or at least, a necessary span of time. I think the vagaries of teaching those things like reading manuscripts, having conferences and all those things which in their context are enjoyable and productive, nevertheless do in fact ultimately and practically take away some time, and I think for me, I just had a build-up of all those things and it was time. And the sabbatical I chose it well, and I think, it was timing but also I donít worry about writing in the way a lot of people do. I think I knew it was time, but I wasnít worried that it was time. Had something happened I think I still would have written it at another time but it would have been a different writing. So it was time to, in fact, slow down and write things as they are now, make time stand still, that is to say, reconfigure it, make it work for me. And this time it was very practical, it really was a semester off.
I always think Iím goofing off, because all morning Iím sitting around reading the paper, drinking coffee, I get on the Internet or watch something on TV and I keep saying, ďI should start writing, I should start writing.Ē And I donít and pretty soon itís lunchtime and then, of course, I canít write because I have to eat lunch. Itís actually taken me many, many years to stop feeling guilty about that and to recognize that I happen to be the only person I know in the universe who writes in the afternoon. I actually have energy in the morning and clarity and vision but I donít particularly write in the morning. So you ask me do I have a time: I donít have a planned time, but by default I recognize that I have done it most productively in the afternoon--which is also when I teach.
In a curious way when everybody comes and crowds out that quiet time you had, you sometimes, if youíre lucky, can receive that as an act of clarification because suddenly the salient moment occurs to you that something in you says, ďYouíre not going to get a chance to do this again,Ē and it comes to you or you are forced to put something down on the paper that you didnít think you were ready to do and so you take a risk because youíre not sure it is as thought out as you wanted it to be or that itís as finished or as tame as you are trying to make it and so you write this wild thing down with every intention of coming back and doing something to it but, in fact, it was the right thing to do.
When I re-write what Iím really doing rather than line by line textual editing is rearranging big segments of text because I write in a kind of disembodied way. I donít ever sit down and write like a journalist. I donít ever know what I am going to write about and I can say that with a decent amount of honesty. So I sit down to write and the human mind is a curious, wonderful thing. Very rarely do you stick to one subject - very rarely do I stick to one subject. So I write and I write and I write and I donít worry necessarily that it doesnít all make sense together, it takes me a while to sort out later that I was really writing three things. But I couldnít see it. And if I trust the mind-set, I will reap the rewards. If I try to narrow it, try to write about one thing, it will become narrow and much less interesting because I wonít have been making any of these leaps around. And itís fun that other ideas get so insistent and they intrude on the original exciting ideas so itís an interesting kind of tennis game with 12 nets and 42 players.
I donít believe in the notion of abandoning the people I create or the people I talk about or simply addressing the issues that interest me only once, I think they have much more dimension than that. Even when Iíve done it just about as good as itís ever going to be done, I immediately know Iím wrong, but that doesnít diminish the value of what I just did. I am intrigued by the notion of how many suits of clothing one idea can wear. Painters know this, they call them studies, and a Picasso study can often be as valuable as the finished piece--because itís the process and product may simply be a figment of our imaginations. Maybe we die and so the last things we do become the product, but I donít think we always necessarily intend that, especially as artists. I like the process and one of the ways of demonstrating that notion of how many different suits of clothing an idea can wear, is to write out an idea in different genre. So that a poem can become an essay, an essay will then capture all those things I couldnít put into the poem, and that will perhaps become a short story which allows me to make up a little bit, where the details didnít work as neatly as I wish they had in real life. And so I think thereís a lot of energy and it just feeds on itself.
Cruel mathematics. Cruel science I think part of the well spring of writing was that I had not been writing during (the time of my fatherís illness and ultimately, his death) and I didnít have the impulse to sit down and write but that didnít mean I wasnít. So that when I finally did, I was writing out of a storehouse, this great room that had all of this material that had been taking care of itself for me, inside of me. Though clearly everything I wrote was not about my father by any stretch of the imagination. Nevertheless,it gave me an energy that maybe isnít easily articulated, but I donít think anybody would not understand it. Also with my father dying, it made me think more about what my job as a writer was, Iím not playing anymore, my father didnít play when he did his work, this is my work. And that was clarified. One of the greatest gifts my parents, both of them, gave me is that they never came to hear me read. And that freed me more than anything else I know. Because when I would get up to talk and read, I could really do it as me. There was room in that familial notion for me to say what I needed to say. And they had every faith in me that I would say it right, if I could, if they let me. And I take that as a gift.
I grew up essentially around my fatherís family and everybody looked like my father, and nobody looked like or sounded like my mother, very English looking and consequently, once we get past that notion of visual or audio, what they sounded like, living through our days, well, neither did anyone tell the kinds of stories my mother told. So that when she started to talk about snow five-feet high, and castles and kings and queens. . .well, there wasnít anybody else who was around me that was saying stuff like that. But that sent me immediately to books. My mother was talking from books. I, of course, as a child didnít know she was talking from life but in a curious way that compelled me towards books, because there were kings and queens and snow and things in there. As a child when I first internalized those things, of course, they were as fairy tales and later they just became stories but the fairy tale notion never left. As I was growing up we never had very much money and certainly not enough money to travel back to see my motherís family in England but I never had a lot of anxiety about that even after I went through college and the reason for that is pretty simple. I believed in them with some vague fairy tale sensibility. They were never going to grow older, they were always going to be there for me, everything was going to be wonderful. And the stories my mother told never changed in all those years because she didnít go back either. But after my brother and I both got out of the house and I finished college and my parents could finally afford to go back and they did. It had been 27 years since my mother had been there and I think she felt the same way. She was in this new world and everything she left because it froze in time she imagined wouldnít change but her brother was seven when she left and she went back and he was 34--he was this man with a wife and child. Well, both my motherís parents were alive but right after they returned we got word that my grandmother, my motherís mother had died. There is some timing that gives you goosebumps there. It was at that moment, I was living in Globe AZ then, when I got the news that something became so clear to me. They werenít going to be around forever and, in fact, I was already pretty much late. But it was at that juncture that I thought Iíd better get myself to an Englandry.
My mother, my father, my wife Lupita, Lupitaís mom, me--We sort of took this whole circus on the road to England and in retrospect it was absolutely the only way to have done it. I canít imagine having gone back without my mother being right there with me. And the curious thing about going to England and meeting my grandfather and my uncle for the first time and all the rest of the family, the first and most salient thing I can say about it is we were not ever gone even though I had never been there. And it was like we had been gone two weeks and then welcomed back. And I donít think I ever really appreciated that even though the stories never changed about my mother and her family and what she told us, she nevertheless through all those years, of course, been writing to them and sending pictures so they knew all about me and were not surprised at all. And that is a wonderful way to find family, that is to never have lost them. As soon as we got back, we got word that my grandfather died so it had a kind of timing that you canít put into a story.
My mother left her family, her country, her culture, and her language, her landscape, and her mirror, because she was suddenly going somewhere where no one looked like her.
The first book was Elk Heads on the Wall which is one of my earliest memories as a kid and how they really did have elk heads and maybe they were moose, I donít know, I really couldnít distinguish as a child as you walked through that dimly lit building with all of these elk heads. It was a place of great mystery and intrigue that has never left me and in some ways has filtered into my work in general.
I think my work now is too smart for its own good and Iíve got to work hard at getting past that. When I think now about the earlier work it was much less reined in, much wilder, much less tutored. I didnít know what I was doing so much I just knew I was in the right place, doing the right thing. I mean I had some training, of course, but I was much younger and didnít have much life experience, was much more willing to say things that I didnít have much responsibility afterwards. I think that has to do with being young. I remember in one particular poem that has since become a kind of signature poem of mine about my grandmother, early on I wrote a line that was purely speculative, imaginative and I didnít feel it, I knew it but I didnít feel it particularly. It was a line about her dying and it was an easy line to write. And that line, of course, has come back to haunt me especially after she died. Thatís not great evidence of any kind of prescience and of course she was, as we all will at some point, she was going to die but nevertheless I felt it very differently when she did and so that line for me ends up being a useful distinction between what I might have once been writing and what Iím writing now. I think whatís happened though, too, as Iíve come to know more about what I want to do and how to do it better on the page that Iím getting in my own way too many times but I have a lot of patience in that. Iím still very young as a writer so Iím not troubled by it. People always want to try to encapsulate you at whatever point youíre at no matter how old you are but in fact as Iíve said before itís a process, and Iím going to be doing lots of things beyond this so Iím not worried. But what distinguishes my work now is that it is more thoughtful, more complex, more intriguing but on the other hand, itís not as willing to go skinny-dipping.
When we hear the word essay, itís a daunting label but all these essays are things I have said about things and thatís not formidable. As Iíve said them all these years Iíve started to say them better and itís become important to put them down on paper and I think thatís what these are about. Often these are the stories I would tell before I would read a poem for example and they were in a curious way what was missing from the poem and it became a lot of fun to tell these things before poems or before stories and I think people come to readings to hear things that they donít get on the page. Well, this was why I was doing it and the more I heard myself doing it and the longer I started to talk--I think I probably gave a few readings there for a couple of years where I probably only read three poems and I spoke for the rest of the hour. But it was no less entertaining, I donít think, or any less substantial. It was just coming to terms with the fact that it had value, too, and was that other set of clothes. No piece of art captures something perfectly so thereís still more to be said and it was leaking over, spilling out and I think the essays were a way of capturing some of that and I was probably ready to come to the essay form last because I think in some way I must have felt the least creative and most journalistic, though I have long since stopped thinking that.
I think of writing a lot like two people sitting across from each other at a kitchen table and whatever passes between them there, thatís what I want my work to be. Itís more than conversation. Itís secret instructions, things you might not be able to say aloud but that you have been thinking and here is your chance to say them, if only this one time and only for a moment. I think you laugh more comfortably at the kitchen table, itís a more genuine place of reckoning. You hurt people more at the kitchen table and I donít relish that for a moment, and I donít intend that, but I think thatís true. You get hurt more at the kitchen table. You are, in some ways, most alive there even though in some ways you are most away from everybody whoís around you. Thereís a curious sense of community right there. Community starts first with two. We think about it as a huge word but it starts with two. . .
One way Iíve thought about this is, taking that word I and remembering itís a first person point of view but you are no less a first person point of view when I talk to you even though I say you. Youíre really an I, in the same way I am an I. And two eyes together always see something better. If my work can make that little magic happen, then I think it will have done something. I bring to the table two cultures, two languages--but of course two is a metaphor for eight million.