“The Language of Listening”


An Interview with Alberto Ríos.
By Greg Thielan.


University Planet. 1:6.  September 1993.  19—.




Planet: Your mother was from Warrington, England, and your father from Tapachula, Chiapas.  How has this upbringing influenced you as a writer?


Ríos: Well, that’s a good question.  I don’t know if you can always so easily articulate how something affects you.  But that doesn’t mean that it didn’t, and, clearly, I think that set of variables had a lot to do with how I grew up and what kind of language I ended up with.  My father had an elegant and strong Spanish, my mother had, equally, an elegant and strong English, including accent, and I got something in the middle.  I suppose if I had to call my language anything it would be an elegant middle.  I think growing up with different languages and cultures in the house, I had a sense that one word was never good enough for anything, that everything had many aspects, many names, many ways to be seen.  I think that is what growing up with them gave me.  And growing up on the border, like I did in Nogales, all of that made me recognize, whether I wanted to or not, that there was certainly more than one way to look at anything, more than two ways to look at anything, and probably ten or twenty ways to look at something.  Ultimately, I think that is what describes poetry.  So, I had an upbringing that forced me to see with all the sets of eyes that I could muster.  The metaphor I often use for that is binoculars.  The apparatus, that is to say, learning two languages, or ten languages, or learning languages in general, is clumsy and awkward, but they give you something like two lenses.  When you put those two lenses to the eyes it brings something closer, and when it’s closer you see it better, and when you see it better you understand it better.  I think that is what you go forward with as a writer.  That is what you are always looking for. 


Planet: You have had a very positive experience with your family and culture.  You greatly value community.  These have greatly influenced your writing.  You have said that when you take away language you take away community.  Can that be reversed? What about those who have not had a positive experience of family and community? What will their language, their poetry be?


Ríos:  It is difficult to answer because that experience is not mine, and so I cannot answer with that kind of authority.  I can approach it relative to my experience.  I think the fact that I value community, or those things that constitute community and language, doesn’t mean I enjoyed it every step of the way, and certainly not.  In fact, I think there was a great deal not to like, and a great deal of difficulty.  But I think I came out of it well, and I found the value in it.  But I worked at finding the value in something.  It was not a gift to me, even though I portray it that way sometimes.  It’s work, and I think somebody could just as easily have grown up with similar circumstances and have been entirely frustrated and said, “Forget this.  I want to live somewhere else and in some other way.” I think many in my generation, a lot of people I grew up with, moved away and have gone to live in other places and do other things.  I don’t want to say that leaving is easy, but I think a lot of people who have had some success, that I know and grew up with, have gone other places.  I think it has been very hard to stay.  Staying is, for me, part of the work, and part of what is valuable.  It is not that I always enjoy it, but I understand the value of staying, and respect it, and it keeps me here.  It is an embrace that sometimes is smothering, but is useful and ultimately wonderful.  What happens is when you stay somewhere, especially somewhere you grew up, and you still see people who knew you as a child, they never let you grow up.  In this way it takes a long time to establish yourself as an adult.  I think I have had to go through that.  People still see me as the neighbor boy, or their student, whether high school or college.  I think now that, even though I am a professor here, it is probably incredibly difficult for my teachers at University of Arizona to think of me as anything but their student.  I am guessing, and I am not saying that, but I would suppose it would be difficult.  And that generates a little bit of, what you might call, minor key electricity, not in any bad way, but I think it has been part of the work.  The irony of it is, of course, you are trying to find your place in your place.  When you go somewhere else you start new and you carve out a place for yourself.  You are not starting clean here.  You are starting with everything. 


Planet: In the story of your parents’ marriage, your father’s commander transferred your father two weeks before they were to be married, basically out of prejudice.  Also, in your early education, your school punished kids for speaking Spanish.  How does your writing deal with this—does your writing deal with this? Do you fight against prejudice with your writing?


Ríos: Unquestionably.  And again, I think this is part of the work that I do.  I don’t fight things out in the loud arenas because I think that is not my strength, and it is also not how these things were either done to me or given to me.  I think the damage was done quietly, and I have got to find some better and stronger sense of quiet to give back, to combat that.  I think part of that is not going, not moving away.  I know that because I have been here I have been through every stage of the educational system that Arizona has to offer.  I have been all over the state, in all its versions of those educational systems.  Now that I have done that and am a full professor here, I can say with some authority what worked, what didn’t, what happened, what didn’t happen.  I think that people, on some level, ought to listen to my voice.  I talk about how in first grade we were swatted for speaking Spanish, but then the first thing that was required of us when we came to college was we had to have a second language.  There is something intrinsically wrong with that.  Now, I can go everywhere and say that and nobody can tell me it didn’t happen.  This is not a made up history.  This is how things happened here, and it is well past time to talk about that and to do something about it.  There are smaller, everyday versions of that, and I think my writing covers all of these versions, including some loud ones.  I don’t want to say I don’t deal with it on that level, of course I do, but I think that it is the fabric, the stuff that makes the shirt, that really needs to be ironed out, and sewn whole, made strong.  So my work is at the thread level.  Whatever those things are, I think my work is full of that, full of the notion of how two languages are a positive thing.  I think that weaves throughout my work.  In fact, my imagery works off that.  It looks at itself in many different ways.  But instead of saying, “prejudice is bad,” I am looking for what the quieter and more insidious versions of that are, and trying to celebrate the good side of how to make that better. 


Planet: How did you find healing from your early grade school teaching that the language of Spanish was “bad”?


Ríos: Well, I found it in an artistic sensibility.  I think that is what rescued me.  If you get hit, for example, for speaking a language like Spanish, it is a physical thing, in much the same way that learning to ride a bike is a physical thing.  When you ride a bike you learn balance, and balance means not doing anything that will make you fall to the ground and hurt yourself.  It is physical.  In much the same way, you learn to speak whatever languages will keep you balanced and not get yourself hurt.  Part of that is, for example, obscene language.  You sort of learn not to do that, because you may get hit for that.  So, if you widen that out from obscene language to Spanish, or to whatever else it is, you learn that it is dangerous to speak that language.  You are unbalanced when you do it.  You can go back to that language, I think.  Intellectually, you can learn the language.  I don’t think there is a mystery to that—you study it and you learn it.  But, there is something physical that we don’t address.  For somebody who grew up like I did, there is something physical and it relates to memory and balance.  When you speak Spanish you are unbalanced, you are going to get hurt, and so doing that is a dangerous thing.  And that is why I say the artistic sensibility rescued me, because that sense of danger, of trying language, or going where you shouldn’t go, is compatible with this notion of doing a dangerous thing and seeking a state that may be unbalanced, but which serves you.  This is that celebration of the good side I was talking about.  So, I think in that sense that is how I have come out of that.  And not everybody comes out of it the same way.  I think it quiets a great many voices.  A lot of friends of mine have gone on, and they don’t recover so well.  Either they learn only English, or they learn only Spanish, or they stay in some middle ground, but they don’t resolve it.  Now I don’t know that I’ve resolved it.  I have simply found a way to use it that I think is healthy. 


Planet: You said poetry for you was like shouting into the arroyo when you were a kid.  What is the strongest, the most frightening thing you have shouted through your poetry?


Ríos: Yeah, that is a good one.  I was scared someone would ask me questions like that because, as I was saying before, I don’t really shout loudly.  For me, I am always looking for what I would call the marvelous middle.  We should first probably say something about the arroyo incident.  When I was a kid, one of the things my friend and I would do to solve junior high school, which was so frustrating, was we would go across the street, after school, into the arroyo, and we would yell at the top of our lungs every single dirty word we could think of.  We would do it really loud, and that sense of empowerment, of just shouting some obscenity and having at least one witness, somebody to share that with you, made a bond for us.  It also gave us a sense of our selves that was bigger than school was letting us see.  It was a sense of self that was undeniable and inherently there.  I didn’t turn around then and go to school and shout obscenities, but I do think, in my writing, I have turned around and found some way to say things that I could never say in conversation or in various forums.  I think the work, ultimately, is the work.  It goes in interesting and odd directions, and it is stuff I can’t explain, and don’t want to.  In some way, for me, it is that shouting in the arroyo, it’s letting the work go wherever it wants to go, and following it.  I think that is part of the key to understanding my work, in that it finds lateral movement, not linear movement.  It goes sideways.  It stays with the moment, finds movement in the moment.  I am looking for whatever is there in a person, or in a work, or in an image.  I am looking to try and bring out what is in there, rather than imposing something on it.  I don’t want to just use something.  I want to listen to it, and I think that’s something that brands my writing.  So, going into a poem of mine is sometimes going to be frustrating because you are never going to walk to the end.  There is no particular end that I am aiming for. 


Planet: You just mentioned listening.  How important is listening for a poet and his or her poetry?


Ríos: I talk often how my first language was maybe Spanish, kind of English, but in truth, my first language was the language of listening.  I think that is the crucial language.  That is our common first language.  It is the one we forget to talk about.  And I know we know what it is.  It is simply trying to get dinner, and you listen for how to do that, and you do whatever it takes.  You point at your mouth.  You point at the stove.  You do whatever it is.  Language sort of comes naturally, and it is an agreement between people who matter to each other.  I think that is the first language.  It doesn’t need to have a name.  It inherently is listening.  That’s what it is.  It is the language of listening.  It requires that you use something other than your mouth.  It is the language we forget to use, and in that sense it is the most important language we all have in common.  I get put in the middle of lots and lots of debates about bilingualism, biculturalism, English only amendments, all those things, and they are loud.  It’s the loud stuff, and we have forgotten about going back to that quiet stuff.  In saying all these things, we have forgotten to listen either to what they mean, or to where they are coming from, and to why we want to do them.  I know for me, when I was having trouble with language, and I have had lots of trouble with language, I learned English maybe too well, for a period of time, so much so that I didn’t think I could speak Spanish.  But I still would go to my grandmother’s house every week for lunch, and my grandmother speaks only Spanish.  So, you would think there was a problem there if we were both speaking different languages.  But a grandmother and a grandson in a kitchen for lunch is not a problem.  It doesn’t matter what languages, or what loud sensibilities you try to overlay on that, it is not a problem.  We developed for ourselves an early language, one that I have talked about a great deal, and which deserves to be talked about a great deal.  In our case, it was simple: she would cook and I would eat.  That is how we talked, and I think a lot of people understand that language.  It may not be the best language, but it was the language of that moment and that time.  I remember it.  It still tastes good, and that is a vocabulary that is worthy.


Planet: You came from a Catholic tradition.  You just reminded me because eating and the table is such a big thing in the Catholic tradition.  I am wondering how Catholicism influences your writing, and is spirituality important to you as a poet?


Ríos: For me, yeah, growing up Catholic, I certainly had a lot of stories to tell about that.  I tell them often.  I lived right behind the Catholic church, so I was intimate even with the building, which was a mysterious thing all by itself.  Old Catholic churches, they are wonderful and spiritually Byzantine places.  Also, in the fifties, the Catholic church in Nogales, even though the town was basically Spanish speaking, for the most part, the Catholic Church sent Irish priests there to sort of retire.  So we had a lot of Irish priests.  My mother, who came out of England, was a rarity in that she was Catholic.  She had something in common with these men, geographically and in terms of religion.  So we saw the priests not simply as priests but also as men. 


Planet: Yeah, it amazes me how in your imagery of the Catholic Church, of the altar boy, and of different priests in your poetry you have brought them back down from the lofty places we sometimes put them and have made them real. 


Ríos: It is what I would call a “grounded spirituality,” if I could call it that, so that my priests, in much of the same way as my people, do regular things.  In my last book, in the poem I have about the priest there, he is essentially cleaning the walls, and he is having fun.  He starts to make these little drawings, and they get more and more elaborate, so that he becomes sort of trapped by them, and I suppose there is something symbolic in that.  But that drawing on the wall, you know, he is just having fun.  He is doodling, and I make a remark that it is like writing “wash me” on a car windshield.  That grounds it in the way it ought to be grounded.  It is a simpler moment.  But spiritual, too.  Quiet. 


Planet: Where did you get that special vision? I suppose a lot of it came from seeing your mother with the priests?


Ríos: Yeah, and I think the work of a church.  Again, it goes back to that loudness.  The loudness is Mass.  Most of the time Catholic Mass proper is not going on.  Most of a Church’s life, that big building, it needs to be cleaned, it needs to be taken care of.  A lot of stuff has to happen that is pretty regular, and I think I was very close to the whole picture.  That is why I call it a grounded spirituality, you know.  You have to pray, but you have to sweep.  And you sweep more.  In a practical world you sweep more.  I don’t know where I come out, ultimately, in all of this.  I don’t have a good articulation of how I have ended up, except that I think that it all comes together in a lot of my work.  Not only my cultural background, but also I suppose that religious background has allowed me room for a kind of mysticism, a place for angels.  But, at the same time, it is exactly those things that have also made me understand that the trash has to be emptied too, and that this also matters.  What all of that adds up to is, and this is the combined loud and quiet, the marvelous middle, something that has room for both of those, and elevates the trash throwing while bringing, I don’t want to say “down,” but bringing in the angel moment, so that they all count.  I guess that is a Marxist notion, where one thing does not count less, or more, than another.  They are all grist for the poem, grist for the writing.  If you take care of each thing, you find that they equate, that there is something holy about emptying the trash, and something pretty trashy about angels.  I think if you work hard enough at finding those things, and not simply pandering to the guessable loudness, or addressing angels simply as they have always been addressed, then I think you will find what I would call the best middle, the marvelous, and I think that is what I look for in my work.  I think there are a lot of people who have worked in that tradition, and I think the most eloquent is García- Márquez, who writes in that middle place.  I think a lot of what Magical Realism is, for example, is simply prose that has found poetry.  I don’t conversely think that the poetry I write is poetry that has found prose.  I think ultimately it goes back instead to that sense of lateral movement, of simply staying with a moment until you find it, until it has spoken something to you.  Even if what it speaks is wrong, it’s all right.  There is room for that too.  There is room for something to lie to you in a poem.  I think there is room even for that. 


Planet: What writer has had the most powerful impact on you and why?


Ríos: I would have to say that intellectually I would look at García Márquez, but I don’t, on the other hand, think that any writer sort of sits over my shoulder when I write.  A lot of what I have come to I have come to simply myself.  Now I think writers do that.  They arrive at their style, and I’m not sure they imitate.  I think that is part of the process, but ultimately you arrive at something yours.  For me, that is what it has been.  I think it ends up being related to a lot of what García Márquez does, and a lot of writers, like, maybe even Luis Buñuel, the film maker, I mean a lot of varying currents.  But I think I have arrived at those things.  Clearly, García Márquez is Colombian and I’m not.  So he is going to have a different landscape, and he is going to have innumerable things that are going to be different.  But we are going to share some things too.  What we share is that sense of the gray, or the middle, that thing that is inside rather than outside. 


Planet: Your first book of poems, Whispering to Fool the Wind, won the Wait Whitman Award.  How has your poetry grown and changed since then? Is it difficult to change your style, to look and be open for conversion in your writing?


Ríos: I think it has changed a great deal, and not all for the better.  I think of that first book as much more written from emotion and spontaneity, and I can’t explain a great deal of what happens in that book.  As my work has changed through the years it has gotten more intellectualized, it perhaps is too smart for its own good, and I am not always sure I can remember how I wrote those other poems.  I miss them.  I miss them a great deal.  But I am still young, and I am not worried.  I think I’ll find some way to blend a lot of what I was doing early on, and I think I do that better now.  I am not stating this as a black or white sort of assessment.  I am finding the spark that was evident in the earlier poems, a lot of the good roughness. 


Planet: Were The Warrington Poems difficult for you, a challenge to move from writing about your Hispanic culture and subjects to writing about your mother and her side of the family?


Ríos: Very difficult, although I tricked myself on all sorts of levels with that book.  I remember going to England with a pad and a pen, and I was waiting for anybody to open their mouth and I was going to write everything down.  Pretty early on I saw that was just a very polite way of stealing, and that it was the antithesis of what I really wanted to do.  And that it was rude—not that anybody would say so, or even understand what I was doing.  That was not community, or family, or anything, and I was going there in search of those things, but on my mother’s side.  What I realized was I couldn’t sit down and start a book about England by writing about England, because I would be stealing.  What I had to do was find the bridge, or find the dialogue, and so the book begins with a poem about Nogales.  It’s my way of finding entry into the discussion.  This is where I grew up.  I am writing about somewhere else, but this is how it starts, because these are the variables I understand and this is how I grew up.  To start the dialogue I needed to say something about what I know, not what I am stealing or borrowing, but what do I know about first.  So I think the beginning of the book spends some time with here, rather than there in an effort to talk about there more effectively. 


Planet: You have said that, growing up, you saw your mother’s stories about England and her side of the family as “fairy tales.” You said that “they weren’t real.” Was it hard for you when you finally saw the realness- was it difficult to then write about the realness?


Ríos: Well, I saw it in a very physical way.  Partly the reason they were fairy-tale-like for me is that my mother could tell me all about snow that was ten feet high, but, you know, I never saw anything like that, so, clearly, she was making this up.  And I think that is kid reasoning.  I think it was very clear to me that I didn’t have any sense of this as rooted in any reality that I could put my hands on.  That is what reality ultimately is.  Also, I was surrounded by my father’s family, with that language and all those stories, so anything my mother said seemed set in isolation, seemed one of a kind, the way you would make something up.  Nobody else was reinforcing that, so it was in its own world.  I thought “great,” that is good, but I didn’t believe it.  I may have liked hearing her stories, liked hearing about England, but I know I listened with a grain of salt.  What I remember most about going back to England was seeing one of my mother’s aunts.  For the first time, I saw family that looked like my mother.  They didn’t look like my father, physically.  Now, I look like my mother.  I don’t look a lot like my father.  And this is what was eerie about it.  This is what grounded it.  My aunt looked just like my mother, only she was twenty years older than my mother.  So I was looking at my mother, older.  That was what I was thinking at the time, and then it was like one of these comedic double takes, “wait a minute, if I look like my mother and my mother looks like her aunt, I must be looking at me!” And I had never looked at “me” before.  There was never anybody to see.  At that moment I had a very physical revelation of family that I had not experienced quite that way up to then.  I think that was a real eye opener, and made the experience harder to write about, but also necessary to write about.  That was a moment to be reckoned with. 


Planet: You write both short fiction and poetry.  How do the two complement each other for you as a writer?


Ríos: That is a good question, and I think I get asked that a lot without my being able to give an articulate or a teacherly answer.  I think they are, however, very different kinds of writing.  For me, I don’t know what takes hold, but something does, that tells me this is a story or this is a poem.  A lot of times, any good idea is going to serve you through many incarnations.  So, a lot of my work has already been a poem, and I start to work on it as a story, or the reverse, or I begin to write non-fiction about it.  I think there are just different ways to look at aspects of any event, or experience, or character, and they simply present themselves differently.  I hear them differently.  I think about them differently.  I think that is what distinguishes the works.  When I was done with Teodoro Luna’s Two Kisses, for example, I was done with the book, but I was not done with the characters.  Those characters were characters for life.  In some ways that is what I have been writing about, and I knew that book didn’t finish what I was doing.  What I couldn’t turn around and do, though, is write that book again.  But I couldn’t abandon those people.  And so I think the next step from that book was a new book that essentially springs from what happened in Teodoro Luna, a forthcoming book of short stories, Pig Cookies.  I think that was clearly, from the beginning, a different kind of writing, a different way to look at many of the things I had already looked at in the earlier book, but with a different sense of space and room, and a different sense of writing.  And so, for me, it is all process.  Now, I think what they have in common, that I think my particular kind of prose and my poetry have in common, is that lateral movement still.  I think my prose is very much tied to the heart of what my poetry springs from in that the prose as well stays with the moment.  And I am not, probably, a very good storyteller in the traditional sense.  I don’t think I tell a story from beginning to end.  In fact, a lot of the stories are called fiction, but I don’t think I work from imagination very much at all.  I work from a bad memory.  Bad memory means you remember things wrong, but you know you are remembering something.  It may not be accurate, but you know it is true, you know it is grounded in something true.  And that, to me, is often a more interesting page.  Not making this up, but not working from the imagination.  I am remembering badly.  In that process you do contribute, you smooth out, you do all those things, but grounded in something.  I think that is where writing gets to be fun for me. 


Planet: You teach a class on forms of verse.  How important is formal training to a modern writer? Is it important for a writer to find a balance between traditional form and free verse?


Ríos: Oh sure, and that balance doesn’t mean it has to be in the middle between the two.  I think you can balance yourself way over on the edge of free verse, or, although I don’t recommend this, way over on the edge of formal prosody, and still be a contemporary writer.  I think what is important about it is you simply must know your toolbox.  You have to know what you can do before you rest with what you are doing.  Too often we simply do what we do and don’t stretch, don’t pull ourselves, and reject those things which seem at first unappealing, or different from what we do.  I think it is simply an act of fairness to one’s self to pursue these things that are part of the writer’s toolbox.  If you are going to be a poet, prosody, which has been around for centuries, is simply something you can’t ignore.  You can ignore it on the page, you need not employ it, but you can’t ignore knowing about it, or you’ll get into trouble sooner or later.  I don’t think you need to be a scholar of prosody, but you need to know what it is, and enough about it, to feel comfortable saying, “no thanks,” or “yes, come on in and stay for a while,” one way or the other.  I think it is just as wrong to accept prosody without knowing what free verse can offer.  So, I think it’s just simply knowing your craft.  I think craft is ultimately what will save you as a writer, not sort of a one trick pony offering, where you write only one kind of thing.  And also, I think part of that takes away fear, because I think we are scared, for example, to know what a lot of forms are in the same way we may be scared of grammar, we may be scared of science, we may be scared of all kinds of things.  But the key to that is to go right to what scares you and ask it to please stop, and the only way to do that is to engage it in at least a rudimentary dialogue and say, “stop throwing rocks at me.” It is not that I advocate prosody or form as a way to write, but I very much believe that you need to know about them to be able to write for a lifetime. 


Planet: You have also studied psychology and some law.  How has this influenced your writing?


Ríos: I think they influenced me in big ways.  Psychology, simply because it is so irretrievably tied to the act of writing.  I believe you are thinking consciously or unconsciously when you are writing, and I think they are just tied together.  And again, that is just knowing about methodologies, and what goes wrong, what goes right, but I don’t think that guides me one way or the other.  Law school, on the other hand, was more dramatic, in that by the time I went to law school I was on a roll.  I had a couple of degrees, my parents were really proud, I got into law school, they were already talking about their son the lawyer, all that kind of stuff.  It promised everything.  Some kind of salary in the future, some kind of employment, all of those sort of tangible things that, presumably, we want.  So when I got toward the end of my time in law school, towards the end of the year, I knew I could do it.  But I recognized that just because I was capable of doing something didn’t mean that was what I wanted to be doing.  I remember coming to a decision point where I thought I might have to quit.  You know, a word I had never employed up to that point.  I remember calling my parents, and my parents, just like parents, gave me the worst answer they could have ever given me.  “It’s up to you.” In other words they weren’t going to make that decision for me.  And I decided to quit law school.  I realized what I had done was not quit law school at all, but had quit writing, and that is what I needed to go back and do.  It took law school, and all those things I could do, to teach me what I wanted to do.  At that point I recognized something, whether I could articulate it or not, about what writing was going to be to for me.  As I turned to writing, it didn’t have any of those things on the horizon.  It couldn’t say that I was going to have a job, couldn’t say there was going to be a salary, or anything.  But I knew it was the right way to go, and I’m glad. 


Planet: In your interview with Benjamin Sáenz, I saw how much you admire and love your parents—you call your mother “heroic.” What did their relationship teach you that has had the strongest impact on you as a writer and on your writing?


Ríos: They were an odd mixture for one thing.  They were products of some heroic time that called for doing big things.  My mother was in the Battle of Britain.  She was a nurse during a lot of the war, and told me stories of how, when they were going through this, it was their activity to get up in the morning and open up the front door to see how much shrapnel was there.  My mother had this sensibility of sacrifice and pulling together, because that is the only way you are going to survive at all costs.  And my father had a whole story-telling tradition, a family history that was in its own way extraordinary.  All family histories are extraordinary, but ours was so tied to the Mexican Revolution, those kinds of exploits, that I came out of that kind of history of largeness that was extra proportional.  The easiest thing would be to talk about these things on those grand levels, but I think the work has been to find exactly what it is about my parents that allowed this to happen, that made them heroic—the quieter middle, the everyday, that I think I have tried to look for, rather than decorate with those things that would obviously be loud, or more recognizable.  I am looking here more for what we don’t know. 


Planet: Language, the word, the power of words, is very important to you as a writer.  Could you explain why? Especially the importance of each individual word in a poem.  Do you sweat over each word when you write a poem?


Ríos: I don’t sweat over each word, by any stretch of the imagination, but that comes as a result of training.  I try to hear the right word, and I think that is different than sweating over it.  I might spend the same amount of time, but it is a more joyful enterprise listening for it.  And I think the reason words are important to me is that I know any given word is probably much bigger than I am.  The ways the word can be viewed are so many.  Understanding that, and knowing languages, you can’t help but respect what you are dealing with.  I think that has always been a useful thing for me to know for myself.  It may be what brought me to poetry, because poetry itself has that respect for language and for words.  So I think it was, again, being rescued by that artistic sensibility, perhaps by poetry specifically, which was paying attention to the same things that I was paying attention to. 


Planet: That power you describe, the power a poet feels when he or she writes, what is it? Where does it come from?


Ríos: Well, what it is, it’s that thing that makes your heart beat faster.  I always recognize that when I am on the page.  I know there is writing I can do that is good and effective and clear and all those things, but I know there is another moment when I’ll sit down at the page and write something out and I’ll go, “Whoa, I don’t know if I can say that,” or literally your heart beats faster, or I think, “God, I don’t think I could let my mother see this,” or whatever it is that I think.  I know the second kind of writing is different.  But if writing is also those first things—clear and to the point—then I know I am at the right place, and I think that is the moment of shouting.  It is when you physically feel something a little different, because it just triggers something.  It’s the body again.  Somebody once said that one of the worst things for a writer is to have your parents still be alive.  That is a terrible thought, but a useful way to look at this.  It’s not so much an act of censorship, or whatever it is that you might at first think.  It’s just that you know you are writing something that is in the arena of grown up, in the arena of something you haven’t been so far up to now.  It is some new place of understanding.


Planet: You have said before how writing is more than just when you write on a page.  Explain how you view writing.


Ríos: An explanation of that kind of writing goes back for me to second grade.  I was a good student in second grade and I had a favorite teacher at that time.  But she did something that I’ll never forget.  It was terrible at the time, probably, but it has served me wonderfully ever since, because I think it marks the advent of my writing.  This is when I knew I was writing, and this is what I mean by it having nothing to do with the page.  I got sort of busted in second grade, and my parents were called into school, because I had been committing the crime of daydreaming.  The thing about it is that I was doing all my work and doing it well.  But, I was daydreaming, and this is something that drives everybody crazy.  I think back now and see that I was doing the most I could do as a kid.  As a kid, you can’t go out and raise an army and conquer a country, you can’t go out and slay a dragon, you can’t go out and form a revolution and create a brave new world.  As a kid you are a kid.  And so all you have, essentially, because your body isn’t formed, your mind isn’t formed, all you can do is imagine.  That is in the place of action.  And I think what I was doing was, not simply learning, but trying to do something with what I had learned.  I think that came as a surprise, or it was something they didn’t expect, that we would actually try to employ the stuff we were learning.  If I was to read about Australia, then somewhere in me it was more than just reading about it.  It was doing something about that.  I don’t know what I was daydreaming about, but I think it was the realm of activist knowledge, or trying to make what I knew do something.  I think that is what ultimately turned into my writing.  I hope I still do that.  I hope there is still that other life inside of me. 


Planet: If you could say anything to young aspiring writers today what would it be—what advice would you give?


Ríos: Stop conducting interviews.  Get busy and write.



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