“The Edge in the Middle”
THE EDGE IN THE MIDDLE: AN INTERVIEW WITH ALBERTO RIOS
World Literature Today. 3:2. July-September 2003. 57-60.
Another version of this interview can be found here.
This interview was conducted on May 15, 2002, at the home Ríos shares with his wife and son in Chandler, Arizona.
How did you decide on The Smallest Muscle in the Human Body as a title for your new book of poems?
The title is excerpted from “Some Extensions on the Sovereignty of Science,” a poem I wrote shortly after my father’s death. The human body’s smallest muscle is called the stapedius muscle, and it’s located in the ear. Two of its purposes are to keep us from hearing ourselves chew and from hearing our heart beat. The muscle does important work, I think, but at the same time, it keeps us from something that belongs to us. We are protected from particular sounds for our own good. There are many things in life we are protected from hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting, touching, and feeling. In large measure, the poems in this book–and all my books–struggle to bring into view what we’ve been protected from experiencing. But by this, I mean the small things as well as the large.
The last line of the book is, “Words are our weakest hold on the world.” Without words, what?
Well, words do good work—don’t get me wrong. Words are wonderful suitcases that hold ideas for us. Even so, they don’t know everything and aren’t always necessary, or aren’t always the answer. The body remembers instinctively how to walk, run, eat, sleep, kiss, and much more. The words come after. And there are so many words and so many languages that, as a result, the world sometimes gets more complex than it really is. I don’t run in Spanish, for example—I just run. Still, we live in a world of words. It is simply an imperfect world.
The phrase “edge in the middle” appears in the poem “Some Extensions on the Sovereignty of Science.” Discuss the edge in the middle as it pertains to your life and poetry.
We live 99% of our lives in the middle, moving through day-to-day routines and patterns we’ve established because they work for us. Too often, we take the middle for granted because it’s always there–so familiar, we don’t realize that the dailiness of life keeps us healthy. Part of this oversight is because the press and media feed us a constant diet of extremes. Of course, news of the world is important–and we must pay attention to it–but news of the world doesn’t sustain us like the middle does. One of the things I try to do in my life and poetry is to nurture keener sensitivity and sharper awareness–that is to say, seek out the edge, the epiphany, the fingersnap, that exists in the middle, which is where we least expect to find these things and never think to look. A discovery where you expect to find one is a wonderful thing, but a discovery that is not where you expect, a discovery in plain view–this is doubly wonderful, and feeds us rather than leads us.
Speaking of discoveries, a number of your poems involve references to science.
What manifests in my poetry is situational physics—a physics whereby moments create their own set of rules. I believe this notion fits comfortably—if unexpectedly—into science’s domain. Growing up on the cusp of two cultures with a Mexican father and English mother undoubtedly influenced and broadened my view of what is possible in the world. For example, Hispanics and a variety of other cultures believe that humans are partners to the world rather than rulers of it. In English, one might say, “I dropped the glass,” while in Spanish, that same moment might be articulated as, “The glass, it fell from me.” English assumes human responsibility for the dropped glass, whereas Spanish assumes the glass itself is something of a sentient participant in the action. For me, this allows the world and its ways to be an active and unpredictable part of my work. We often refer to science as the law of averages, but I think it would be more accurate to include saying that science is also the law of possibilities. In a law of averages, the single event that doesn’t behave gets dropped. In my work, this moment is no less itself, no less a part of the world because it behaves differently, and in fact may be the basis for a whole story. One might call this the science of the single event. That explains on some level all the aberrations and curious goings-on in my work. Awareness of different cultures and languages underscores the magnitude of those possibilities.
Part of that world includes animals, which are a major presence in your work. So often, though, your animals exist on the fringes, close but, somehow, inevitably beyond reach. Talk about that.
Animals have been a big part of my life. When I was growing up in Nogales, Arizona, we had dogs, cats, rabbits, turtles, snakes, fish, birds, and chickens. This menagerie roamed inside and around our house. Parakeets roosted on the living room curtain rods, and our pet hen scratched freely all over the backyard. Her name was “Hen-rietta,” but most of our pets were either “Bruno” or “Katrina,” named by my parents for sentimental reasons that were never completely clear to me. We had so many animals, it was easy to lose track of who was who and who was where. If an animal vanished, it usually reappeared in a day or two, crawling out from under the sofa or flying down from a secret roost. We probably didn’t even miss it. What I’m saying here is that animals of all kinds were part of my daily life back then, and they didn’t require words, or worry, even if they were lost for a while. The contrast between then and now is dramatic. We have one dog, and his sudden absence would be a major upset, triggering a frantic search. But then, he’s our only pet, and his disappearance would stand up and shout. I write about animals being out of reach because the animals of my childhood exist only in memory and imagination. They are no longer close enough to physically touch, but they are still present. I haven’t lost sight of them. Perhaps what I’m saying after all is that it is my childhood I am protecting, and the animals are its small glimmers.
The horse in particular is a recurring image in many of your poems.
Much of the horse imagery I use can be traced to a particular experience I had as a boy. Our family was on a day trip in Mexico. We were picnicking on a riverbank outside Imuris, a small town I often write about. It was a wonderful day—hot, but not too hot. No ants or flies, none that I remember anyway. We were relaxing on a blanket after a lunch of mangoes and fresh farmer’s cheese in tortillas when two boys on horseback suddenly appeared. After chatting a few minutes, they asked if I wanted a ride, and I said sure. The boys’ offer was a great act of sharing. The ride was an adventure, especially since I’d never ridden a horse with confidence before that day. The horse was probably old and tired—nothing to fear—but I didn’t know that. All I knew was that I was climbing on a big horse for a big ride. The experience filled me with tenderness—for the boys, the horse, the ride, the day—but, of course, I didn’t speak my feelings aloud—they weren’t made of words. I’ve carried that tenderness with me all these years. It was a unique and defining moment–my heart opened up. In terms of minutes and distance, the ride wasn’t long or far, but inside me the ride was as long and far as a ride can be.
Gabriel García Márquez spoke in an interview about an intrinsic tenderness in men. What about this tenderness?
I don’t want to generalize in ways that are unfair, but speaking from stereotype–as we do more often than we realize—I would say that tenderness may sometimes be deeply buried in many men. Consequently, when tenderness surfaces in them, we take note because it’s a surprise. Men and women both often keep tenderness buried to protect themselves. After all, tenderness makes us entirely vulnerable—we open our hearts to something or someone without knowing what to expect. There may be no suitable words to articulate what we are feeling, but the emotion belongs to us—it’s been inside us all along. Hello, it says suddenly. And there we are, standing naked.
Let’s talk about magical realism, a term that is often applied to your writing.
Magical realism is the essence of surprise. That element of surprise, by the way, connects magical realism to the edge in the middle we’ve talked about. Both involve moments when things happen that are different from what we’ve been trained to expect. With surprise at its core, magical realism is undefinable. In fact, to define it is to misunderstand it. Anyone who applies magical realism to an author’s writing expects the term to do more work than it should–or can for that matter. The bigger challenge is to discuss the work itself–what it’s doing, and how. Nevertheless, I understand that magical realism is a term many use. While I can’t define the phrase, I can discuss where I think it comes from, and why some might apply it to my work. First of all, magical realism derives from a life lived, not a life imagined. By that, I mean if particular impossible things are real to you, write about them—indeed, you must. If, however, they merely seem like a good plot twist, you’re better off to leave them out. My work comes from my life—it’s that simple. Magical realists at their best do not make things up. Rather, they honestly report something that has happened, or which could have happened. This is a way of describing what I earlier called the science of the single moment.
Provide an example from your new book of what you mean.
Dogs running in the distance appear to have no legs in the poem, “Gray Dogs.” They become ground birds. Their leaps become flight. They fly into trees, float over streets made of branches. The thing is, the dogs do not change, but the narrator’s perspective–his vision–shifts, and he reports what he sees. This is honest reporting. At a distance, one cannot see a dog’s legs. It is our assumption they still exist. Maybe they do, but at that moment, as a narrator I can see no legs. Photographers and artists–Picasso, for example–have often talked about this kind of honesty, this not reporting what cannot be seen. Ironically, to report legs on the dog at that moment–which is what most writers would do–would be to make something up. Making something up is often charged as being the worst thing done in magical realism, and yet it is not what the best magical realism does at all.
“Gray Dogs” has a surprise turning point.
Initially, I thought I was writing about how dogs running in the distance are less distinct than when they’re close. As I wrote along, I realized I can’t see any of my dogs clearly anymore because they’ve all died. They exist, but only in my imagination, like all the animals of my childhood. This was an emotional epiphany for me, and it became the first line of the poem’s second stanza: “All my dogs have died this way”—by going off into a distance. After I wrote that line, I let emotion lead, and the poem surprised me by basically writing itself. All I had to do was hang on, following the idea to its finish, following my dogs into that distance.
Do many of your poems come in a rush this way?
No, it’s more typical for my poems to come from bits and pieces I’ve written and filed away over time. I’m not consciously aware of connections between the various bits, so I’m invariably surprised at how seemingly disparate images sew together in unexpected ways. Although I don’t have any one way of writing poems, I would say that surprise, the discovery of connection—this science—is a common denominator. Every once in a while, however, there is the odd poem that simply invites me for a ride—like that horse in my childhood. Get on is the only thing I can do, get on and hold onto whatever will be held in that moment.
What prose or poetry are you writing now?
I’m finishing a novel about a married couple who move to Arizona from Mexico. In Phoenix, the pair inadvertently becomes involved in a small crime, which is the worst kind because it isn’t headline news, and nobody offers help. Being from another country, the two are ill-equipped to fend for themselves mainly because they are unsure of the rules. Their small crime consequently snowballs into a complicated problem.
Let’s end by talking a bit more about the novel, particularly the excerpt included in this issue of WLT. I think the excerpt provides a good example of magical realism as you’ve described it.
I can see how you would say this given our discussion about magical realism. Certainly, surprise is an element in this selection, as it is throughout the novel. I was continually surprised as I wrote, so I hope the reader is surprised as well. The narrator makes a discovery in the kitchen she's known for most of her long married life. She has seen her reflection many times in the kitchen window, the refrigerator handle, in spoons and other familiar places, but she has always taken the reflections for granted. They were just there, nothing to take particular note of. Now that her husband is gone, she perceives the reflections—and herself—differently. In fact, the many reflections of herself around the room form a small, yet strong, community of emotional support that feeds rather than leads her to take action. The realization does not make her move—instead, it lets her move, and the choice she will make is the heart of the book and of her character. This ties into what I was saying earlier about how wonderful it is to make a discovery in a familiar place where you least expect it—a discovery that is in plain view. This particular discovery is not only wonderful, but essential, enabling the narrator to go out into the world to get her husband back. By paying close attention to what surrounds her, the narrator is sustained in unexpected ways. Such sustenance is ours, as well, if we are attentive to the dailiness in our own lives–the edge, the epiphany, the fingersnap surprise that exists in the familiar middle.