Gov. Jan Brewer, in conjunction with the Arizona Commission on the Arts, recently appointed English professor Alberto Álvaro Ríos the state’s inaugural poet laureate after a lengthy selection process.
Ríos will serve as poet laureate for two years, give at least four public readings each year and pursue a major literary project during this time.
The position of poet laureate came about after a constituent wrote to Sen. Al Melvin, R-Tucson, regarding Arizona being one of eight states without a poet laureate. Melvin sponsored Senate Bill 1348 to create the position, and Brewer passed the legislation in May 2012, according to a press release from the Arizona Commission on the Arts.
“Language and Arizona are problematic, but languages are solutions; they’re not problems, and I think that’s what I get to say now,” Ríos said. “I think poetry makes sense and good out of words, and I think I’m going to be able to bring that to the table.”
Ríos has published three books of short stories, 10 collections of poems and the memoir “Capirotada,” which discusses his life growing up in Nogales, Ariz. Ríos has also received numerous literature and poetry awards, including the Walt Whitman Award in poetry and Governor’s Arts Awards.
He said he hopes to show the nation a different picture of Arizona than one they may have seen.
“It’s a place, and real people grow up here, and there is a reason why everybody isn’t leaving,” he said. “Arizona, I think now, is projected in the news as a series of sound bites. You can’t tell a person’s life in a sound bite. I’m a poet of story.”
He said the first period of his time as poet laureate will be spent listening to the public and addressing concerns, rather than acting immediately.
Ríos said he never expected to become a poet or achieve the status that he has today. He originally was a political science major at UA, but took an interest in English during his junior year.
“I read a book like I had never read a book before and it was the college catalog,” Ríos said. “I was doing what every student that year was doing, looking through the catalog for the mythical, easiest courses. I read something, ‘English 9: Introduction to Poetry Writing.’ No lights went off until I got to the last line: ‘No final.’ I signed up, and the joke was on me.”
Christy White, who was part of the nomination review committee and is president of the Arizona State Poetry Society, said Ríos fit the profile of what they wanted.
“We were looking for someone that could reach out to all the community of poets, also someone that had experience with working in the public,” she said. “He’s done community projects as well as worked in the academic world. He’s an accessible poet for people who aren’t poets.”
In addition, White said she believed Ríos could contribute to the attitudes of Arizonans.
“I think he will bring perhaps some healing between the different cultures in Arizona,” she said. “Arizona is so diverse. Some of the divisiveness has distressed me as much as I’m sure it has other people.”
Besides teaching, Ríos is the host of Channel 8’s weekly half-hour show “Books & Co.,” where he discusses works with their authors. Suzanne Guery, producer of the show said the program benefits from Ríos’s dedication to literature and detail.
“I think that he lives, breathes, eats and sleeps words and language, and I think there may be other people who do that as well, but he also is just a consummate communicator,” she said. “I’ve seen him speak to people across every spectrum.”
Guery said she believes Ríos’ years of work in the community will set him up for success as poet laureate.
“Doors, communities and opportunities will be open to him,” she said. “Maybe they would have been open to any poet laureate that would have been picked, but the fact that it’s Alberto – he’s building on all the those good relationships that he’s had for all these years.”
Ríos said aside from accomplishing what SB1348 mandates and making “poet laureate” a comfortable term for everyone, he would like to instill why poetry is important.
“There are so many enterprises concerned with the big things that poetry just brings to us moments that are worth holding onto,” he said. “You find any great line of a poem and it will tell you why it’s worth remembering. There’s something very important about that, for us as human beings that we give understanding to each other so we can each keep moving forward.”
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