What function does poetry serve off the page? Alberto Ríos’s “Border Lines (Líneas Fronterizas)” is a poem that may try to answer this question by both bridging the gap between two bordering countries and physically situating itself at just such a bridge. It will soon be on the wall in both English and Spanish at the US port of entry, viewable from Nogales, Sonora. His lines and their breaks hold tangible meaning in this border space: “Which way we look at the drawing / Makes all the difference.” Having grown up in Nogales, Arizona, this poem is a homecoming of sorts and a return to a time when this meeting point between two cities with the same name felt more malleable.
Poems can commemorate political figures and historical events. Whitman famously wrote of Abraham Lincoln, and there is an American tradition of honoring a president-elect at inauguration—Robert Frost of Kennedy, Elizabeth Alexander of Obama, and so forth. Similarly, Ríos has written poems for former Arizona governor Janet Napolitano and former Mexican president Vicente Fox. But does writing a poem mean you align your art with politics? Are poets, as Shelley said, “unacknowledged legislators of the world”? Ríos, Arizona’s first poet laureate, sees it his own way.
Yezmin Villarreal The public art installations that feature your poetry are socially engaging—that is, they bring the audience into the project, not just as observers or consumers of art, but as active participants in a conversation with what the art is putting on the table.
Alberto Ríos Yes, public art should move you from where you’re standing to what you’re thinking. That’s the magic of it. It doesn’t have to be physically dealing with movement, but it does, in a sense, have to move—it has to be dynamic. You mention the idea of “consuming” art—that you just eat it and nothing more. But with public art you’ve got to do something with what you see, and I think there’s nothing more exciting than having just enough make you do just enough at just the time when it’s right for you. Too much and you won’t come back. It can’t be exhausting or overwhelming. That’s part of the trick, or rather part of the methodology to consider when you’re working with public art. It’s a dialogue, not a rant. It can’t shout, nor can it whisper so quietly nobody hears.
YV You’ve also written poems serving particular social purposes—such as those commemorating former Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano and former Mexican President Vicente Fox.
AR “Border Lines,” is the one I wrote for President Fox, and it is going to be on the port of entry at the US/Mexico border in Nogales, Arizona. It got a lot of attention and was such a great moment of dialogue, though it seems unfortunately to have shut down almost immediately afterward. But it commemorates a moment that felt true and easy when I first talked to the Governor about it. We were at dinner, and she asked if I would write a poem for this visit of President Fox. It was to be the first time a sitting president of Mexico visited Arizona, even though so many presidents of Mexico have been from the state of Sonora. So he was the first. She said they were going to be talking about all sorts of big things but needed a starting point—an ignition switch. I came up with two metaphors—two ways to look at how we live next to each other.
YV I’m curious about how you work out this process in your head. I’m sure your methodology is different when approaching a commission rather than a poem that comes to you organically.
AR It all comes out of things Pablo Neruda said about the job of the artist. Most of the time you write for yourself, and that’s your job. You have individual vision. He used very different language of course,1 but this is the idea: so you have individual vision, but you also have to recognize that you went down to the bakery and bought a loaf of bread, and somebody, the baker, lent themselves and their labor, to you. They spoke for you when you could not; they baked that loaf of bread you’re eating. As an artist, in turn, you must sometimes speak for others, and it’s not going to be what you want to say. You have to lend yourself out, and such work can be equally important to your own. It’s more difficult because it’s a sensibility you see at a distance, not necessarily coming out of you. What I try to do is distinguish public art as a way of not being me, and certainly not of me talking to me, or even me as the one to satisfy in terms of artistic quality. But the stakes do get raised. The dialogue is different. Sometimes I’m saying things for a museum that has no voice; it has things in it, but that’s not all it is—it’s a bigger idea than that.
In English, we think we own the world. If I take a pen and drop it on my desk, I would say: I dropped a pen. This is rugged individualism in its smallest incarnation—in language. I did it. As for the pen, who cares?
In other languages, like Romance languages, that same moment is rendered in a very different way. In Spanish, it might be something like Se me callo la pluma. Don’t think of me, right—think of the pen. We were both there together, partners in the moment. The pen, it fell from me. Maybe I dropped it, but I don’t know for sure. Maybe the pen wanted to fall. It allows for that possibility of an inherent life in things, and more generally, that we maybe don’t know everything. So I might call this rugged pluralism. We’re in it together with the world. I sometimes think that’s also part of who I need to speak for—a world I imagine as having life, in whatever form, a museum building or a piece of granite. It gets to have a voice as well, and those things are important to me. It’s part of what I think of as this bigger endeavor I’m in.
YV The current relationship at the US/Mexico border, at the port of entry, is tense to say the least. And the structure of the border itself has gone through many physical incarnations and changes. I’ve heard stories about how it wasn’t what it is now, as far as a permanent standing concrete structure?
AR That’s where I grew up, so I lived it everyday. Now it’s totally different. Before, it was basically an open border. There was a fence, but it was sort of like a fence between two houses. It was just a thing that was there. They would open it up for parades if it was Cinco de Mayo or Fourth of July or whatever. They would always have a parade in what was called Ambos Nogales, or the Two Nogales, starting on the far side of Nogales, Sonora and going all the way to the far side of Nogales, Arizona. They would just open up the gates for the day, and anybody could go anywhere and do whatever, then, at the end of the day they, they closed them again, and that was that.
YV Historically, there’s always been a lot of commerce coming back and forth at Nogales?
AR Completely. That’s what Nogales is built on. Commerce is a way of talking as well. That’s language. Mexico has given us a lot and said a lot too. We have not heard it all. We think we have, but we have just eaten it, consumed it (to come back around to that idea). We eat it, but we haven’t heard it or been moved by it.
YV I saw a blueprint on my way into your office. Is it the design of what the port of entry is going to look like? And are they just redesigning the current port?
AR No, the port is big enough now that they need two. This one, the Mariposa port, they’re working on now. The other one literally couldn’t shut down. It’s sort of how you build a dam; the water still has to keep doing what it does, but you have to be able to work at the same time.
YV I went to the website of the architecture studio that designed the Mariposa port of entry and found their statement to be quite different from what the experience of actually crossing is like. They say:
Designed as a cultural connection, rather than a division, the port aims to create an oasis within a bustling vehicle and pedestrian station. With the intent to infuse the human experience with a connection to nature, the project provides dignity and relief from daily stress. The port seeks to achieve balance between efficient, secure operations and a welcoming, relaxing respite.2
Language is complicated in Arizona. I bring up this statement by the architects because, as a piece of property contentious for many people on both sides, I am curious about your perspective on such an idealistic mission, given that your “Border Lines” poem is connected to the project.
AR The architects, in whatever small way, are trying to change the pivotal point at which people come across. They influence that by designing a great building, which is what they’re saying—that’s their intent. They’ve seen the movies, read the books, and heard the stories we all have. It does not have to be like it’s been. You can make a place hospitable to good things. Let’s just start with something very basic. It can provide shade. People are going to feel better, and better things will happen. I think that’s what they’re suggesting. It’s not magic, but it’s a start.
YV We often underestimate the power architects have. They can set up how we interact socially, to some extent.
AR Yes, we are inside buildings so much of our lives now, especially in the desert, which is ironic because it’s all open space. You would think we would be out in it somehow, but it’s not hospitable in the ways we might wish. We spend a lot of our time in structures, but structures can be languages too, or ways of thinking and being. I’m glad the architects are talking about these things—somebody certainly should!
YV How did they approach you?
AR The architect Eddie Jones, the head of the firm, heard it, and they started using it as a foundational way of thinking about what the border was. They were doing a lot of research. Before the building was designed, they had me come over and read “Border Lines.” They adopted it as a credo for what was to evolve and to show the consequences of what happens when we don’t. In it, I talk about how we could be a cow cut up in a butcher shop—we make these divisions and bleed as a result. Or it can be a jigsaw puzzle, putting all the strange parts together. That was an appealing way to think about it. We can cut away or join, even when joining is difficult. The jigsaw puzzle has crazy shapes, but we can work toward a vision. Alternately, we can work toward another vision, one where we just cut each other off, cut legs off, cut ears off, whatever. I can’t take any responsibility for the building, of course, but I can say that this notion was part of the process of thinking it through, and I’m very proud of that.
YV Is the poem going to be featured in both languages on the port?
AR Yes, and they are going to do their best to set it up just the way I read it originally. Let me just you how it happened. There were thousands of people at the Phoenix Civic Plaza. Security was crazy.
YV President Fox was there?
AR He was, but I hadn’t met him yet. I knew Governor Napolitano. So she and I were sitting up on the dais, up at the front, and he’s not there yet. We keep looking to the wings, thinking, Where can he be? All of a sudden people applaud. This was one of the best moments of showbiz I’ve ever seen, and I mean that in a sincere way. He didn’t come from the wings! He came in the back door, at the back of the civic auditorium, and he started to walk up the center aisle. He always wore cowboy boots. He looked gigantic. And people, I can’t tell you how it was—emotional. People wanted to touch him. How very, very simple—a very human reaction. People wanted to touch him, and if they couldn’t, they could make noise. People went a little crazy. He was like a rock star. And he knew it. Showmanship—I get that, but it was also connection. He was saying, This is where I come from. It was a different way to come into the room, and I’ve never forgotten that.
We all shook hands, then I was at the beginning of this thing. It was kind of like an invocation. Everyone was standing up while I read this poem, and he was standing next to me. Can you imagine how intimidating that was? I read it in English and Spanish. I went back and forth.
He came over, shook my hand, then I said, “Pero sabe usted que el trabajo es suyo” (But you know the work is up to you). He said, “You’re right.” It’s the closest to high policy I’ve ever been, but it was a nice thing to be able to say something in a few, succinct words, then watch that poem take flight and become a thing that, in some fashion, charges a relationship between two places. So the politicians went off to do whatever they went off to do, and the poem did too. I think this poem, in a weird way, is going to outlast those talks because, well, they didn’t go anywhere. (laughter) The poem has, I think, a good idea—something to say of lasting value.
YV You wouldn’t expect that philosophy from something branded on the port of entry to the United States from Mexico.
AR But it’s there. You can’t ignore it. It’s going to be huge. And I think it’s a provocative thing. I’m glad it’s there, and it should be a challenge to everybody every day.
YV The poet laureateship has been established in a number of other states across the country. When I heard news of it coming to Arizona, I wasn’t sure how that was going to work—whether Governor Brewer was going to sign it into law—then she did, which was interesting. And then, of all poets in Arizona, she chose you—a poet who writes about his experience growing up on the border. This is controversial because she is the governor who signed SB 1070 into law. When you got wind of that, what was your response?
AR Very interesting, I agree. I hear exactly what you’re saying. It’s overwhelming, but, you know, this is work I’ve been doing my whole life—right here, in this state, talking about ways to come to solutions, ways to come to dialogue. I don’t mean that in a pompous way. Part of this job is going around the state, and I’ve done this my whole professional life. I’ve started conversations, and I just have to hope that people believe me, including the Governor and the legislature and everybody else—languages are solutions, not problems. It doesn’t matter which language it is; the best of it is going to have something useful to offer.
I think if poetry can be construed as the best that language has to offer then this is the way to start the best dialogue we can hope for. I don’t have a big neon, yelling rant to offer. I want to talk about what’s in our refrigerators, talk about different parts of how we all get to where we are. It’s not less political or more political; it’s just work and finding good words every step of the way. I had to meet with the Governor’s staff. I had to get vetted and all that sort of stuff. But I don’t have to say anything that I haven’t said forever, which is something, you can imagine, that I was a little nervous about. I thought maybe it was not a conducive environment to what I believe, but I was never made to feel odd, strange, or weird. I was given the opportunity to tell my stories, and there are many of them. They take care of themselves.
YV That said, you’ve been in the position since October 2013. What kind of projects do you have planned, or what have you gotten to do during your tenure already?
AR There is virtually no support for this, but they want you to do everything everywhere all the time. It’s kind of an untenable job in that sense, but that’s exactly why I love it. I get to invent this, and whatever is sustainable about it is going to be me doing it. That’s my job. The first wave was media—just the idea that this governor would appoint me, and Arizona would come up with a poet laureate and join the dialogue happening was extraordinary. People were interested in it from New Hampshire to Hawaii. It got a lot of press, which was remarkable. I wasn’t prepared for that. I got a lot of questions, and did some television, radio, newspapers, and journals.
The second wave we’re still in, and in large measure, it is planning. It’s technically a two-year position, but as the first I get to choose if I want a second term, so as to have time to evolve something, to set a marker for how people are going to follow, and, in theory, I’m supposed to do six events and a major project. That went out the window almost immediately because I did six events the first week just going to places. And what is an event? Is it going to a fourth-grade class or addressing the legislature? I don’t measure or gauge things that way. I call them all events.
It makes me laugh every time I’m in a place—Who am I? I have a personal experience everywhere I go to bring with me, but to listen to experiences I gather as I go—that part is very exciting for me. Early on in my career, I worked in something called “Poets in the Schools,” where I traveled all over the state, working with students. I went to a lot of communities in those days and started a lot of things. Now I’ve got kids of the kids I worked with years ago. It’s a weird thing. Just the other day a little kid said, “My mom said to say ‘Hi.’” Eerie and wonderful.
I’ve got some things started that are potentially big projects. I want to do a community poem, where people from all over the state will get together to contribute to a collective approach. That’s one idea. And I’ve done something like it before. It’s a little like barn raising, only it’s a poem raising. You have all these people come together to create something and make a structure—everybody has a part in the making, but you’re giving it up to greater use. Of course the big thing might also be a thousand small things, moving a half inch at a time.
These are the humanities; this is what this is—arts in action. I say this a lot: science might be our best way of understanding the world, but it may not be our best way of living in it. We need stories, art, and ways to make our lives better.
YV I read another interview where you talked about how you won the Walt Whitman Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets for your first book, and decided to stay in Arizona instead of leaving for New York or Los Angeles. A lot of artists and writers just starting out don’t end up staying in Arizona. A lot of people get frustrated, saying there’s not a support system here or enough resources for artists. They prefer to go elsewhere, but you stayed. How was this important to you?
AR It’s easy to go away, and it’s hard to stay and make things appear where they don’t seem able to appear, like water out of the desert. I have place, and it’s important to be able to stay and to remember so nobody can erase events. Whatever the population of Phoenix is, the city describes Arizona in so many ways. Sixty to seventy percent of the population is here. Whatever its memory is—and it doesn’t mean it is true or eve goes back very far—I want to be able to speak to that, all the time. What has helped, what hasn’t? What could’ve helped?
I don’t blame anybody for leaving. I get it, but this is where the problems are, and where the solutions lurk. I want to be part of that. I don’t want to go somewhere that’s already fixed and where everybody thinks like I do. I want to stay and make changes. And I want to think them through myself, then find ways to explain and be a force that can have an impact. For me, its been writing but speaking publicly too. Of course change of any kind is always really, really slow, but that’s not the way to measure it. You don’t get to write on your book how long it took to write. You don’t get to say on the first page: it took me twenty years to write this! It’s a book or it isn’t. You’ve made changes, or you haven’t. I don’t worry about how long it takes, just that it can be done. That’s the challenge for me personally. I don’t think everybody has to adopt the same set of challenges, but with the things I went through, the ways I was brought up, and my family, I feel responsible to that story.
A lot of this sounds big, and it is, but the real work is just work—a little bit at a time. It’s the patience to keep on and not be daunted by all the things that can stop you. And almost anything can! You find your way through; there are no instructions for an artist. It doesn’t matter what medium. There are no instructions. You have to write the manual yourself. You have to then explain it to people. Why is that important that you wrote a poem? It’s not their field. They don’t know what your talking about, and they don’t care. You have to find ways to make it part of everybody’s lives, not just your own. These acts of discovery, you may be very excited about them, but if you don’t find ways to excite others you’re going to be dead in the water.
I’ve never walked into a fourth-grade class without thinking that they’re future university students, and we’re in trouble if we don’t think that way. I know it matters, and there’s something very compelling about that to me. This can also be in the back of your mind while you write. It doesn’t help as you write, but it tells you something about why.