Poet Alberto Ríos: Finding Inspiration In A Pandemic

By Steve Goldstein
Published: Thursday, May 28, 2020 - 3:27pm
Updated: Thursday, May 28, 2020 - 3:28pm

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Alberto Rios
Jimmy Jenkins/KJZZ
Alberto Ríos reads his poem titled "Five Years Later" in 2016, which he composed to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the Tucson shooting.

STEVE GOLDSTEIN: Many artists have found themselves exploring different avenues of their creativity — or in some cases, their process — during the pandemic. Despite the circumstances around them, some have found remaining in place to be an inspiration and providing a level of quiet that opens up their minds. Others have felt additional pressure to better understand how their art aligns or doesn't with how the world has changed. To learn more about what artists and other creatives are thinking and doing, I'm joined by ASU professor Alberto Ríos. He was Arizona's first poet laureate and is the host of Arizona PBS' "Art in the 48." Alberto, what is this like for an artist? It's a situation that we've never found ourselves in.

ALBERTO RÍOS: I think for an artist, probably, pretty much any kind of an artist, this is a gift in the sense that it gives us time for reflection and for doing those things that we have simply put off for so many years. Myself, I had stacks of paper in my office that go back to the 80s, and I've been able to clear it all away. And what I mean by that really as a metaphor, is that we're in such a hurry environment. Everything is do, everything is late, everything. I've got to be here. I've got to be there. This has allowed us a chance to step into the realm from which we work. That quietude, that place where we think we generate work from. I think we're closer to it in this otherwise difficult time.

GOLDSTEIN: When you go through your creative process, whatever, maybe whether you're writing a poem or something else or all the things that you do, how much of it for you is in that quiet place?

RÍOS: I think that's the ideal. And of course, I think it's what we would prefer, but I've gotten used to the idea that you work when you work and you, and you just have to. And, and I think you accommodate all sorts of things now. I'm not sure that makes for better art or better clarity or anything of the sort. But we've had to bring so much unfiltered noise into our workday that it, it makes the fact that we come up with anything at all pretty remarkable. For me, I think that quietude is something that's just inherent in me. I don't know if I take five seconds out of a minute or, or something like that, but I think I do. And I think in that moment I'm writing — it may not look like it, and it's certainly not because I have a pencil in my hand or anything of the sort, but I think in that... In those five seconds out of that minute I'm writing and I do it all day long, and I think it starts to add up. It is a way of living a real life with, amongst real people, with real things going on and still being an artist. You reserve some time.

GOLDSTEIN: Do artists feel the pressure of, well, this is the time I really need to do it before things, for most of us, hopefully get back to normal? Is there that feeling of, "I need to accomplish this now, because, because who knows when, what the new normal is going to be in a couple of months?"

RÍOS: The greater anxiety isn't that. We're all getting time, but we are so much in the middle of the story that we can't possibly think that we're writing from the right moment. We don't have the perspective. We don't know what's going to happen. And so for anybody who is right — anybody, if you're an author, instead of being an author right this moment, you're a character here. You're in the novel, you're in the poem, you're in the opera. The anxiety that I'm hearing from people is that it's, we just can't get our arms around this thing. So that whatever anybody writes right now, may be altogether wrong. It may be just left, way left and way right of, of the mark. And I think that makes a lot of artists uncomfortable. That said, you work with that uncertainty all the time. This just feels different.

GOLDSTEIN: How are you feeling as an artist about where you find yourself right now and have for the last few months?

RÍOS: I actually, I feel pretty fine. I mean, these are wild days. I know it. We all know it. But I don't think it means there isn't some magic, some rough magic out there yet to be found in the middle of all of the histrionics — and I mean that in the, in the best sense. I mean, hysteria with good reason. In the middle of the histrionics, we need to recognize that we, we are as artists at any rate. Not, not always as perhaps doctors or, or, or caregivers or, or economists. But as artists, you know, we're in a pretty powerful position. When I talk to audiences and to my students, I always ask them who the most powerful wizard in the Harry Potter universe is. And they'll, they'll tell me, you know, Dumbledore or Lord Voldemort or Harry himself. But, you know, in stepping back from that imaginative world, we know those answers to be patently untrue. The author is everything. Dracula is not powerful. Ultimately, Bram Stoker is. And Mr. Hyde is made powerful by Robert Louis Stevenson. I think the magic wand is J.K. Rowling. So right now, we not — we may not be in charge of creating the universe, but we have the power to do something and perhaps create, as we're fond of saying right now, alternate universes. But they may also be answers, answers that we don't currently have. And I think writers are in a position as thinkers to, to offer such things.

GOLDSTEIN: Well, Alberto, how magic was your wand with "Not Go Away Is My Name," your latest collection? The timing of the book coming out, obviously, we could not have predicted we would be in this sort of situation. Do the themes fit our current times that you would want to talk about?

RÍOS: Yeah, some of them do. Some of them straight on. But, but in some cases far — they're ironic. I have a particular poem, for example, in this book called "Don't Go Into the Library." Which, when I wrote it, it suggests something altogether different from a health concern. And so there are some things that are in some ways humorous on that level. But otherwise, there's a lot of, I would say... And surprising to me as I went back to look through it, far more hopeful and forceful kinds of poems that in fact really do speak to what's going on right now. It's not just the pandemic. It's also, you know, immigration issues, it's flooding, it's, it's, you know, the weather worldwide weather. It's a lot of things. So when I say what's going on right now, I mean, it speaks to, to not forgetting that it's a matrix of things.

GOLDSTEIN: Do you think we are more likely right now to feel our way through art and creativity rather than think our way through it?

RÍOS: I absolutely do. I think there are so many pretenders to thinking right now that we've got to let go of something because that's not working. We know what feels right. We know how we love people or we, we want to eat something or we, we know, we know what we want. We know what, what helps us. We know what we need as human beings. And I think we're gonna have to come back to relying on that in some pretty big ways.

GOLDSTEIN: That is Alberto Ríos. He was Arizona's first poet laureate. He also has a new book, "Not Go Away Is My Name," and it is his 16th book, which is remarkable in and of itself. Alberto, thank you so much for the time and stay well.

RÍOS: Thanks, Steve.

GOLDSTEIN: Take care.

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