Alberto Ríos, Arizona’s inaugural poet laureate and recent chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, is the author of numerous books of poetry and prose, most recently, Not Go Away Is My Name. Before joining a Zócalo streamed event titled “What Can Poetry Offer Us in Distressing Times,” he called into the virtual green room to talk about the satisfying slowness of Swedish detective fiction, the perspective offered by a humble pencil, and the scariest advice he’s ever received.
What did you have for breakfast today?
I had what are called migas. It’s corn tortillas fried up with scrambled eggs, and I threw in some weenies. It’s one of my favorite meals.
I wish I could come over! Normally asking that question is so innocuous, but now COVID puts such a different filter on how we talk about a meal.
It's funny because I open up all my classes asking students what they had for breakfast. And the point I try to make is I'm saying one word “breakfast,” and they are all defining that one word differently. And I say, “It's amazing that we can talk to each other.”
One word can mean such radically different things to so many people. It's a wonder that we shepherd the meanings into some cogent form. It's just amazing.
When are you at your most creative?
I am at my most creative after the fact. I have no 6 o'clock news where I write at a particular time or in a particular way. To answer that more straightforwardly: I'm probably the only person I know who, over the years, writes in the afternoon. I don't know anybody else who does that. But it's the equivalent of being drunk or whatever. I’m just too tired, and I can't write up till midnight or whatever. So I think my version of that is the afternoon. It's when something just kicks in, or some barrier gets let down, and something happens then. But I'm always amazed because I don't sit down and plan for that.
What is hanging on your refrigerator?
My refrigerator has nothing currently hanging on it because it's relatively new and relatively shiny and my son is out of the house. It used to be full of all sorts of things pertaining to him. What it used to have, and we used to have a lot of fun with, is wherever I would travel, I would get a magnet of the state. The kind you can get in airports. And so we were trying to see if we could compile a map over time, and we had a lot of fun with that.
What keeps you up at night?
Not much. That is to say, I sleep well. These really are wild days, and so many people are affected, and there are so many things going on in the world. But I don't process that as not being able to sleep. And I suspect it’s because once I enter sleep, something else kicks in. And I think that's where—rather than do my worrying before asleep—I probably do something in my sleep. So it's not about keeping me up. It's something else that works for me. I think of that as a kind of a blessing. I have no idea what my dreams are doing. I don’t remember them.
What is your earliest childhood memory?
I can tell you exactly. I was just an infant. And I must have been old enough to be somewhat muscular—that is to say, mobile. But I know this was pre-verbal. This was Nogales, Arizona, and we lived in a place behind the Catholic church. It was basically a one-room apartment, and it had a coffee table, an old couch. In those days when people shopped, you would get your groceries in cardboard boxes. There were no bags.
We didn't have a car. And so my parents had to carry me and the groceries. We had all come home, and I was on the couch, in the cardboard box. I was holding one edge of it, and I was kind of rocking.
At that moment I knew—I was going to actually fall over. Me and the box were going to fall over. And I was going to hit my head on the coffee table and that it was probably gonna hurt. And it was probably gonna, you know—I don't know what you think about as a kid—but there was probably going to be blood, but I was going to be OK.
Sure enough, a couple of minutes later, I was rocking this thing, and it rocked over, and I fell over, and I hit my head on the coffee table. And they had to take me to the doctor, where I got four stitches. But I was OK. I'll never forget it. It was this moment of prescience. I have no way to explain it. I just know that that is my earliest memory.
So what you’re telling me is you can see into the future?
Once upon a time I could! At least for that moment. It was an odd kind of self-protection, too. I had never seen that happen—I didn’t watch TV, so this didn’t come from a cartoon. I have no idea where it came from. But it was so clear.
What do you do to decompress?
I play solitaire. Computer solitaire. Now that we’re sheltering in place, I tried playing solitaire with actual cards. Woah, was that a lot of work! I also read and do crossword puzzles. Innocuous things. Reading is probably what I ultimately do.
Do you seek out a specific genre?
I discovered detective novels about five years ago. When I was growing up, I had been a science fiction reader. I never even read a book of poems. I didn't come from readers. I moved toward them.
And so, I don't know how many years ago it was, but when The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo came out, everybody said, oh, you’ve gotta read it, you gotta read it. We're all resistant to that type of thing. I’ll put it on my list, right? But every article I kept reading kept talking about the long tradition of detective fiction in Swedish or Scandinavian letters. And I thought, well, what is that? So I started reading, going back to the ’50s, the Scandinavian detective genre of all things! And it changed me.
I had so much fun. And what was really great about going back to the ’50s and reading those pieces is that it was sort of like playing solitaire with real cards: the pace was slow—there were no cell phones, no fax machines, nothing that would make the cases go faster. So these cases would take, like, years, and one little detail would come up. I ended up realizing how much I enjoyed that journey. It also drew me later to the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith.
When I first picked that up, I recognized a kinship with what I had felt reading the Swedish works, the early ones, and reading about Botswana. I loved them. And I still do. There are 20 books in the series. I read them all. I find such great poetry in them. It's a little difficult to explain because I'm not sure I teach this way—but I don't read books of poetry to find poetic inspiration. I see poetry as an act of discovery everywhere but a book of poems. Because then it’s already on your plate. And so I'm always delighted to find the moment—whatever we might imagine that to be—in somewhere I don't expect it to be. And the slow pace helps me to see it and recognize it more clearly.
What is the best piece of advice you've ever received?
I'll tell you the scariest piece of advice.
The worst thing for a writer is to have your parents still be alive. And now as I am much older, it’s sort of the reverse: the worst thing for a writer is to have your kids read your work.
But that idea of maybe, I don't know if we could call it conscience or, I'm going to use that word “barrier.” If you think that your parents are going to read it, something changes in you, and you don't have that freedom to act, or to say, or to speak that you need.
I have to say, my parents were wonderful. I love my parents. And they did some things that were often quite hard in the telling. They didn't always explain things to me, necessarily, but they were intuitively incredibly smart.
And this is one of the hardest ones to say. My parents were very proud of me. But they never came to a reading of mine. And it was so strange. I was trying to get them to come, inviting them.
My mother pulled me aside one time, when I was at the house, and she said, you know, we haven't been going to your readings. We love you. We're very proud of you, she said, but you know, we want you to be able to say what you need to say.
It still brings tears to my eyes. The intuitiveness of that, and as much as I wanted to say at that moment, and I'm sure I did, “Oh, it’s OK, you can come,” she was right. She was right. I have never fully come to terms with what a gift that was. Because of that hard edge to it. Of course, I wanted my parents to come. But you know, what a true gift it was.
What is the last thing that inspired you?
I speak with kids a lot. I always say, you know, every pencil is filled with a book. I'd done some research on pencils several years ago, and it turns out that a regular yellow No. 2 pencil has enough lead to write about 45,000 words—a small novel. So, every pencil is filled with a book.
I was thinking about that as I was writing a little talk, kind of an exhortation to creativity in this time. And something I always talk about is the most powerful wizard in the Harry Potter universe: J.K. Rowling. The author. And her magic wand is her pencil. It turns out there are 1,084,170 words in the entire Harry Potter series. And that constitutes the use of just a little bit more than 24 pencils. That's the last thing that inspired me.
This Zócalo event is about what poetry can offer us in distressing times. Is there a poetry reading that comes to mind that you would like to share in this moment?
The series Dear Poet at the Academy of American Poets. I've been involved in that, so I feel a little weird [plugging it], but what's so important about that is that’s such a tender use of the poem in that it's aimed at kids. And the kids write letters back to the poets. But these are all adult poets.
So there's a kind of odd schism between adulthood and childhood. But just listening to them read the poems, absent everything else—there's no big fanfare, no big production, it's just there. It's a little bit like what I was saying about the slowness of the detective novels. You're just suddenly there in the moment, for that time, and it reminds you why you love poetry.