Wednesday, January 07, 2004

Alberto Rios - Chandler, AZ

Phoenix is a bit of a homecoming for me. I went to school here in the late 70s and early 80s, met my wife here, and drove fast and wild on the desert highways in and around Phoenix when I was infallible and indestructible. So it's terrific to be here again, my first visit in almost 20 years. And while I did my B.A. work here, I hardly ever think about Phoenix as my "college" hometown. I just wasn't much of a student. I didn't think much about class, went as seldomly as I could, and really just visited campus when I had to. (Not that I'd recommend that for any of the kids...stay in school, stay off the pipe!) 

Two things I love about Phoenix: 1) Streets are wide. Not just the big streets, every street. The mountains are a long ways off, and the desert surrounds you, so even in the city you feel a bit like you're in the middle of nowhere. Room to move. Room to breathe. 2) Most folks have given up on the whole lawn thing. Keeping a nice lawn is a vexing sort of thing no matter where you live. What kind of seed? Do you want to aerate? What about those weeds? Crabgrass? Kill them with chemicals? An organic path to a weed-free lawn? Aren't there BUGS in the lawn? Chiggers waiting to feast on my belly. A chigger with an attitude and a tattoo. In Phoenix, "lawns" are nice stretches of chipped rock, gravel, white, gray, red sometimes for contrast. A saguaro cactus and three wheelbarrows of rock and you're done landscaping until the next ice age. Anything else is just vanity.

Alberto Rios - and his family's sweet dog, Kino - welcomes me to his lovely home in Chandler. We're just south of Tempe where Rios teaches at Arizona State, my alma mater. We read at the same function more than 20 years ago, although neither of us remembers too much about it. We sit in the front room and we talk about what it's like for me to be back in Arizona after all this time. I tell him about the trip a bit and he tells me about a recent sabbatical he's taken.

He was born south of here in the border town of Nogales, and has spent his entire life in the state. He talks with real passion about the deeply complex twin culture that has been such a big part of his life. Born on the border, and inhabiting borders of all kind ever since. His poetry is well known, affecting, beautiful. His manner is gentle, sincere, and his responses to the questions are thoughtful.

He tells me about his first poetry, scribbled in the back of his school notebooks. As he recalls it, the only thing the back of the notebook was used for was spitballs and stuff you could write but couldn't show anyone else. He remembers that he was writing for himself then, not for school, not for assignment, not for a grade. It was an important but solitary part of his progress, and he wonders what effect a more organized introduction to poetry might have done to him.

As an important and influential poet, he clearly has had numerous opportunities to go elsewhere, nearer the hubs of publishing and academia, but he's chosen - both consciously and subconsciously, I'd imagine - to stay here, within an easy afternoon drive of his hometown. The Southwest is his place, a place to live and work, but more importantly the place that is inside him and his poetry. As a dedicated wanderer, as someone who believes the "next" place is always to be sought, I find myself deeply envious of Rios as I watch him and Kino go back inside the house.