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ASU professor hopes to be mirror of pride for Arizonans as poet laureate

Alberto Ríos, Arizona's first poet laureate, read his poem at Governor Katie Hobbs' inauguration in January

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Alberto Ríos, Arizona poet laureate and ASU professor, reads a poem at Katie Hobbs' inauguration at the Arizona State Capitol on Sunday, Jan. 5, 2022 in Phoenix.

The unofficial purpose of Arizona's poet laureate– according to Alberto Ríos – is to hold a mirror up to the state, to reflect the best parts of Arizona and to share what makes Arizonans proud of their home.

"We are today standing for Arizona tomorrow. Let us pledge an abiding allegiance to hope, then do the work to make it real – to make it Arizona," Ríos said in his poem "Arizona Tomorrow," at Governor Katie Hobbs' inauguration on Jan. 5.

The official purpose of the poet laureate role currently filled by Ríos, a University Professor of Letters and Regents' Professor of English, is to commemorate Arizona literary artists whose work and service best represent Arizona's values, independence and unique Western history and culture, according to the Arizona Commission on the Arts

"I think by writing meaningful words, it's just a way of making cogent what people are thinking, just articulating along with them what I think is important to the state, including and especially a reminder that we live in a great state," Ríos said.

In 2012, Arizona established the state poet laureate position with Senate Bill 1348, and Ríos was the first to be appointed in 2013.

"I was just doing the work I've always done; living the life of the poet," Ríos said. "You get nominated for this sort of thing. I had no idea it was going on, and then got a call saying 'would you, you know, want to do this?' And I said, 'I think I’ve been doing it.'"

Having grown up with a Mexican father and British mother near the U.S.-Mexico border and speaking both Spanish and English, Ríos understands dual cultures. This allows him to reflect on the way that the state is embedded with Hispanic heritage in his poetry.

Ríos has read his poetry at other inaugurations during his 10 years as poet laureate, such as at two inaugurations of former governor Janet Napolitano.

"Personally, I get a little overwhelmed by the actual importance of it all," Ríos said. "I'm glad to be able to offer words in that moment and to be another voice in the conversation. And when I was there, reading, being part of it, you just feel like you're not in the moment. You're a part of history."

Ríos has authored numerous published books of poetry, as well as three short story collections and the memoir, "Capirotada," about growing up on the border, which won the Latino Literary Hall of Fame Award and was the OneBookArizona choice in 2009.

"Getting published meant that somebody was listening, and for a long time, that's something that writers struggle with because you are working so hard on a voice that you forget you have to use that voice to say something," Ríos said.

Ríos hosted the Arizona PBS broadcast "Books & Co." from 2009 until its recent hiatus in 2018. The program featured intimate half-hour conversations with a new author every week, providing viewers with exclusive access to renowned authors and fresh faces on the literary scene. He previously hosted "Art in the 48," an Emmy Award-winning series celebrating artists across the state, and is now the host of "From the Vault."

As a professor at ASU since 1982 – most recently named director of the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing in 2017 – Ríos uses his knowledge of Arizona and the importance of community in his teachings. 

ASU Regents Professor of English, Ayanna Thompson, has worked closely with Ríos for years, and referenced this knowledge of the community as something that differentiates him and makes him an excellent educator.

"I admire how he always thinks about the various communities that interact with ASU and what it means to make our work part of the public and the way that he brings public voices together and encourages our colleagues to speak to different communities," Thompson said. 

Ríos seeks to get his students involved outside of the words they write, and stresses in his classroom the importance of words having genuine meaning. 

"One of my favorite things is sending my students out into the community to make words work beyond the book and beyond the page– to actually be lived and to find some application for them," he said. "These words that we write, they've got to have actual, you know, value, meaning, pragmatism beyond artfulness."

Ríos’ work allows for Latine Arizonans to feel understood and heard in their community. 

“As a Latino who was also considered ‘at-risk’ from birth, seeing Dr. Ríos succeed brings me pride,” Mario Diaz, a local government relations consultant who has read Ríos’ poetry for years, said in an email. “Dr. Ríos represents not only the past for a people not spoken about much, but also the present and the future for the face of Arizona.”

Ríos' personal history and understanding of Arizona culture ensure that his work – both as an ASU educator and as Arizona's poet laureate – is genuine and reflective of the community.  

"What makes him a good poet laureate is his deep understanding of both the land and the people that gets woven into all of his poems, whether it's, you know, a very specific poem about the water in Arizona, or the way that he weaves Spanish into a lot of his work," Thompson said. "I think it's just a real tribute to his deep understanding and love of the state."

Edited by Jasmine Kabiri, Reagan Priest, Sophia Balasubramanian and Grace Copperthite.

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Sadie BuggleOpinion Editor

Sadie Buggle is the Editor of the State Press Opinion Desk. This is her third semester working for the State Press after two semesters reporting for the Community and Culture Desk.

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