Monday, August 26, 2013

Monday Muse: Arizona's First Poet Laureate

The best line in a poem better be the line I'm reading.*
~ Alberto Alvaro Rios

On August 19, 2013, the Arizona Commission on the Arts and the Office of the Governor announced the selection of Alberto Alvaro Rios as the state's inaugural Poet Laureate. Rios will serve for two years. 

With Rios's appointment, Arizona joins a list of more than 40 other states that have an official state poet. Arizona established its position with the enactment in 2012 of Senate Bill 1348.

The law (Arizona Revised Statutes, Sections 41-987 and 41-988) provides for establishment of a nomination committee, comprising from four to seven members appointed by the state arts commission. Committee members, who are to be representative of the state's various regions, may include professional poets or writers, literary critics, professors and teachers in creative writing and literature, board members and directors of literary organizations, and members of the public. The commission is charged with creating a process to solicit applications and nominations, which may come from literary organizations, private and public schools, as well as college and university English departments, booksellers specializing in poetry, directors of poetry reading series, and the public, among others.

The committee is responsible for sending the governor a ranked list of three nominees, each of whom has to have been a resident of Arizona for at least the two years preceding nomination, has to live in the state at least six months of the year, be "of stature recognized in the literary, cultural, education or academic communities", and have a "significant" and "high quality" body of published or documented work. A nominee also must be "willing and able" to travel around the state. On receipt of the list, the governor has 60 days to make a selection.

The Poet Laureate's duties are specified in the law; they include offering at least four public readings annually and visiting at least once during the term of appointment each region of the state. On agreement with the commission, the state poet also is to undertake a "major" literary project that will reach out to Arizonans who might otherwise not be exposed to poetry. The Poet Laureate is free to pursue other projects the commission deems "beneficial".

The law establishes a state Poet Laureate Fund, administered by the commission with "continuously appropriated" monies, which may be in the form of donations, gifts, and grants. The commission is to pay the Poet Laureate's costs and travel expenses. According to the official announcement of Rios's appointment, an honorarium of $2,500 annually will be provided.

Each two-year term begins and ends on the third Monday in January of the corresponding year. An appointee may serve up to three terms.  

Rios describes his appointment as a "profound honor" and "a good story, an Arizona story."** He adds, "Personally, it feels like applause to the imagination. Professionally, I think this speaks well to the recognition that words matter — especially in Arizona — and that words can serve to help and inspire us all."***

* * * * *
I grew up in-between. . . It showed me how
to look at everything in more than one way.****
~ Alberto Alvaro Rios

Arizona-born Alberto Alvaro Rios is the author of 10 books of poetry, three books of fiction (stories), and the memoir Capirotada: A Nogales Memoir (University of New Mexico Press, 1999), which was named One Book Arizona choice in 2009 and awarded a Latino Literary Hall of Fame Award.

Rios's poetry collections include The Dangerous Shirt (Copper Canyon Press, 2009), The Theater of Night (Copper Canyon Press, 2007), a PEN/Beyond Margins Award winner (2007); The Smallest Muscle in the Human Body (Copper Canyon Press, 2002), a National Book Award finalist and a selection for Southwest Books of the Year; Teodoro Luna's Two Kisses (W.W. Norton, 1990, 1992), The Lime Orchard Woman (The Sheep Meadow Press, 1988), Five Indiscretions (The Sheep Meadow Press, 1985), and Whispering to Fool the Wind (The Sheep Meadow Press, 1982). His chapbooks are Elk Heads on the Wall (1979), Sleeping on Fists (1981), and The Warrington Poems (Pyracantha/Arizona State University School of Art, 1989), a limited-edition of 23 poems and journal entires.

An essayist and playwright, Rios has collaborated on a range of artistic projects (a librettist, Rios's work has been adapted to both dance and music, for example), was featured in the PBS documentary Birthwrite: Growing Up Hispanic (1989), and hosts the half-hour, locally produced Arizona PBS program "Books & Co." in which he interviews contemporary writers. 

Among the subjects and themes populating Rios's poems are family, ancestry, growing up, "border experience", ethnic and cultural heritage and identity, religion, violence, relationships, communication, aging, change, discovery and experience of the world through an understanding of what's possible, perception and reality, time, the familiar and the new, the natural world, the seen and unseen, need and want. The American Southwest figures prominently in Rios's work, as does memory.

Great poems help us to see how we might remember something
worth remembering in a way that is appropriate.+

Critics cite Rios for his "accessible" writing style, use of magical realism and sophisticated metaphors and symbols, and for his ability to write from the perspective of child or adult, man or woman. He lends intimacy to his work by writing in the familiar first-person, a voice that can make his poems tender and lyrical.

Here's one example of Rios's narrative style. Note how Rios creates both portrait and story using only the sparest of language and that image of kissing. 

Mr. Teodoro Luna in his later years had taken to kissing
His wife
Not so much with his lips as with his brows.
This is not to say he put his forehead
Against her mouth—
Rather, he would lift his eyebrows, once, quickly:
Not so vigorously he might be confused with the villain
Famous in the theaters, but not so little as to be thought
A slight movement, one of accident. This way
He kissed her
Often and quietly, across tables and through doorways,
Sometimes in photographs, and so through the years themselves.
This was his passion, that only she might see. The chance
He might feel some movement on her lips
Toward laughter.
~ "Teodoro Luna's Two Kisses"

A prolific writer, Rios has published in more than 300 literary journals and periodicals, including The American Poetry Review, Indiana Review, IronwoodNarrative Magazine, OrionParis ReviewPloughshares, PoetryPoetry Daily, New LettersThe New Yorker, The North American ReviewReaders' Digest, Superstition ReviewThe Virginia Quarterly Review, and The Writer's Almanac. His work also has appeared in more than 250 anthologies, including The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry (W.W. Norton, 1973, 2nd Edition) and Men of Our Time: An Anthology of Male Poetry in Contemporary America (University of Georgia Press, 2004).

The Arizona State University Regents Professor, who also holds ASU's Katharine C. Turner Endowed Chair in English, is the recipient of a Walt Whitman Award in Poetry (1981), for Whispering to Fool the Wind; the Distinguished Achievement Award of the Western Literature Association (2002), an Arizona "Literary Treasure" award from the Arizona Humanities Council, and a Governor's Arts Award (1991). In addition, Rios has been awarded fellowships from Guggenheim Foundation (1988) and National Endowment for the Arts (1979; List of NEA Literature Fellows) and some half-dozen Pushcart Prizes in poetry and fiction (1986, 1988, 1989). He was presented with a Prairie Schooner Edward Stanley Award for Poetry in 1998. Rios's poem "A Man Then Suddenly Stops Moving" (from Five Indiscretions) won first place in a 1997 Academy of American Arts poetry contest; his poem "Arizona, The Sun, And What That's Like" was a 2008 "Best of the Net" Finalist in Poetry. Rios's fiction has won other prizes, including a Western States Book Award (for the 1984 The Iguana Killer: Twelve Stories of the Heart). 

Some unusual recognition has come Rios's way. During Arizona's Centennial celebrations in 2011-2012, James DeMars set text by Rios to music for chorus and piano; the commissioned piece is titled "Turquoise and Thunder". DeMars also composed a cantata for chorus, soloists and orchestra, "Tito's Say", using four of Rios's poems; the piece was performed in New York City's Carnegie Hall. Israeli folk singer David Broza included his contemporary settings of Rios's poems "Chileno Boys", "Hips to Hips", and "Away from Home" on his album Away from Home (EMI, 1989); go here to listen to the tracks.

Rios was designated "Arizona HistoryMaker" in 2005 by the Arizona Historical League and received the honorific "Best Wordsmith" in 2009 from Phoenix NewTimes. One of the levels of The Poetry Garage in Chicago is named for Rios. His poem "The Museum Heart" is engraved on a wall in the lobby of the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art; Rios wrote the poem to celebrate the museum's opening in 1999 (the museum's 2009 poetry series "Museum Heart" included Rios). In addition, his poem "Desert Water/Agua del Desierto" is part of a 2011 public art installation, Passage, at South Mountain Community Library in Phoenix (more about Passage here and here); in 2012, the installation won a Crescordia Award from the City of Phoenix.


Photo Credit: Arizona State University

Note: A long list of Web resources for Rios may be found here. Some are cited below. See also Rios's "poems of public purpose", which include the Words Over Water project at Tempe Town Lake, a collaboration with Karla Elling and Harry Reese.

* Quoted from "Some Thoughts on the Integrity of the Single Line in Poetry" from "A Broken Thing: Poets on the Line (Emily Rosko and Anton Vander Zee, Eds., University of Iowa Press, 2011) at The Academy of American Poets

** Arizona Office of the Governor, "Governor Jan Brewer Announces Arizona's Inaugural Poet Laureate", Press Release, August 19, 2013 (pdf)

*** Quoted from "UA Alumnus Named Arizona's First Poet Laureate", UANews, August 19, 2013

**** Quoted from Margaret Warner Interview for PBS NewsHour (Rios's mother was born in England; his father was born in Mexico.)

+ Quoted from "Alberto Rios Named First Arizona Poet Laureate", KAWC News, August 20, 2013

Arizona Poet Laureate Page at Arizona Commission on the Arts

Alberto Alvaro Rios Poems Online: "A Man Then Suddenly Stops Moving", "A Small Motor", "A Small Story about the Sky", "A Yellow Leaf", "England Finally, Like My Mother Always Said We Would", "Five Indiscretions", "Mason Jars by the Window", "Nikita", "Rabbits and Fire", "Seniors", "Some Extensions on the Sovereignty of Science", "The Lime Orchard Woman", "The Night Would Grow Like a Telescope Pulled Out", and "The Pomegranate and the Big Crowd", All at The Poetry Foundation; "Day of the Refugios", "Refugio's Hair", "Teodoro Luna's Two Kisses", "The Chair She Sits In", "The Cities Inside Us", "We Dogs of a Thursday Off", All at The Academy of American Poets; "Nani" at TideFans; "The Injured Thumb" at Verse Daily; "The Chair She Sits In" at Poetry Daily; "In Second Grade Miss Lee I Promised Never to Forget You and I Never Did", "The Dog Inside Mine", "Summers, About 1959", All at The Writer's Almanac (Audio Available); "A Sustainable Courage" (2007 Governor's Inauguration Poem; Vimeo Video) at Alberto Alvaro Rios's ASU Web Page; "Lineas Fronterizas/Border Lines" at The Virginia Quarterly Review; "Coffee in the Afternoon" at Poetry 180, The Library of Congress; "Morning" and "Home", Both  in Men of Our Time on GoogleBooks; "Nani" in ASU Research Magazine; "Tuesday Soup" and "Having Eaten That Way Again", Both at On the Seawall (Review of The Dangerous Shirt); "Border Lines" (Poem for the Visit of Vicente Fox, 2003) at ASU Web Page; "Mi Abuelo" at Poem of the Day; "Explaining a Husband", "Her Secret Love, Whispered Late in Her Years", "My Husband Clemente", and "I Heard Him with My Back", All at PEN American Center; "Dentist, Mexico, 1959" at Plume Poetry; "A Small Story About the Sky" at 3 Quarks Daily; "One Thursday Afternoon: Magdalena, Sonora, 1939" and "Quietude", Both at ConnotationPress

Poems from The Dangerous Shirt, The Theater of Night, and The Smallest Muscle in the Human Body can be found on the Copper Canyon Press pages for each of the books.

Kerry Lengel, "Rios Fits Naturally in Role of Poet Laureate", The Republic/AZ Central, August 22, 2013 (Several of Rios's poems ("When Giving Is All We Have", and "The Cities Inside Us") are included in a sidebar.)

Bill Coates, "Noted Poet Brings His Voice Back to CAC", TriValley Central News, April 7, 2013

KTEP Interview "Words on a Wire: Alberto Rios" (Audio), March 10, 2013 (This interview also is found at PodOmatic.)

Leslie A. Wootten, "A Thumb and a Wisp of Steam: An Interview with Alberto Rios", The Bloomsbury Review Blog,  December 6, 2011 (The interview took place in July 2010. Also see Wootten's interview "At the Kitchen Table: A Conversation with Alberto Rios" at Bloomsbury Review, July/August 2003. Rios is an excellent interview subject, offering a depth of insight that is especially satisfying.)

"Twenty-Four Questions: A Conversation with Alberto Alvaro Rios", Northwest Arkansas Community College, October 2011

New Letters on the Air, "Arizona Poet Alberto Rios", PRX Podcast, September 2011 (Rios reads from his memoir and from The Dangerous Shirt.)

"Alberto Rios, Borderlands Poet", Border Beat, February 9, 2011 (This post spotlights several of Rios's creative collaborations, including Inside Chance with artist Linda Smith; the work won a "Best Artist's Book" award at the Northwest Book Fest 2000.)

Margaret Warner, "Poet's New Work Chronicles a Couple's Life", PBS NewsHour, August 17, 2006/August 10, 2007 (Video Available)

Tina Eliopulos, "Interview: Alberto Rios", Red Rock Review, Winter 1999, Available at Rios's ASU Web Page (This is a particularly good interview with Rios.)

Susan McInnish, "Interview with Alberto Rios", Glimmer Train, Spring 1998, Available at Rios's ASU Web Page (Poetry, Rios says in this interview, "is . . . not about getting from the beginning to the end. It's about staying where you are and understanding the moment. And not being done until you essentially can show that...." The poem "Clemente and Ventura Show Themselves, if Just for a Moment, in their Son", from The Theater of Night, appears at the end of the interview.)

Shiela Britton, "Discovering the Alphabet of Life", ASU Research Magazine, Spring/Summer 1997 (pdf; see pp 39-40)

Alberto Alvaro Rios on FaceBook

1 comment:

Peggy Rosenthal said...

I'm delighted to learn that Arizona's first poet laureate is of Hispanic ancestry. I've lived in Arizona, and its state legislature is notorious for some of the worst anti-Hispanic laws in the country. So this recognition of Hispanic contribution to the state's culture is especially welcome. Thanks for giving us all this info about Rios.