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When he was a child in the small Arizona border town of Nogales, ASU Regents’ Professor Alberto Rios saw a poem written on the wall separating the United States and Mexico.
“It was just a tiny, little thing, and I don’t even remember what it was,” Rios said. “But I loved that somebody thought a poem belonged there.”
Today, his own poem, “Border Lines,” is inscribed in glass at the Nogales-Mariposa Port of Entry. It’s one of many similarly themed poems in his book, “A Small Story About the Sky,” recently chosen for inclusion in the National Endowment for the Arts’ “Big Read” initiative, which provides communities around the nation with a diverse selection of contemporary works for exploration and discussion.
“It was a total surprise to me,” Rios said. “And a welcome one. It’s very exciting to think that your work is out there doing something.”
His book is one of only four new titles chosen this year. The others are Roz Chast’s graphic memoir “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?”; Adrian Matejka’s book of poetry “The Big Smoke”; and Ron Rash’s book of short stories “Burning Bright.”
Beginning in September 2018, Rios and the other authors will spend a year visiting arts centers, schools, festivals, libraries, museums and other venues across the country for public readings and discussions.
The honor jibes well with what Rios considers his civic duty as Arizona’s inaugural poet laureate to write “poems of public purpose.”
“A lot of [the poems in ‘A Small Story about the Sky’] now are in the realm of public art,” he said. “They’re finding themselves in buildings, at the border crossing ...” and even at U2 concerts.
The world-renowned Irish rock band projected Rios’ poem “The Border: A Double Sonnet” on giant video screens during pre-show segments of its 2017 Joshua Tree Tour.
Other poems from the book Rios considers to be “of public purpose” include “Stardust and Centuries,” which Oprah Winfrey recently quoted on her website, and “When Giving Is All We Have,” which he says has almost gone “viral,” being used everywhere from church sermons to the walls of the ASU Foundation Building.
“The works of public purpose have meaning beyond me,” Rios said.
Check out the latest episode of Rios’ PBS show “Books & Co.,” featuring Eddie Izzard, who he said gave him some meaningful career advice, and read on below for more about his thoughts on diversity in literature and writing for a public purpose.
Question: Why is it important to read about diverse subjects written by diverse authors?
Answer: Diversity is not simply difference. You’ve got to go farther than that. Different from what? Different from one way of seeing something. Let’s take diversity in its smallest incarnation: If I have a pen in my hand and the only word I have for it is “pen,” I own it. That’s it, it’s done, I can move on. There’s nothing more to say. But if I can also call it a “pluma,” suddenly, there are two ways to look at it. And in French, it’s a “plume,” that’s three. And if there are three, there must be six, and if there are six, there must be 30, and if there are 30, suddenly this pen is wild in my hand. I don’t own it. I have to stay and spend time with it. It suddenly is complex; it will not be passed over. And in that sense, it makes the world exciting.
In the most foundational way, it’s a very American belief. It gives us choice, though many people get scared by that. In the smallest version in language, it’s the word “or,” which is the great American word. “Or” means there’s more than one choice. So much of the world does not live with the world “or.” You take what you get. So that’s what diversity suggests. Choice, complexity and excitement. The excited engagement that makes us want to explore something, especially if it’s something you thought you knew everything about. We want more. We don’t want only.
Q: Why are organizations like the National Endowment for the Arts necessary or important?
A: In 1979, I received an NEA artist fellowship. And I think it changed my life. There is an old joke — and it’s a bad joke — about NEA grants, that people buy new televisions or cars or whatever. I, in fact, bought a car. But I was working for their "poets in schools" program, I was traveling all over the state of Arizona, I did not have a car. When I bought that car, it allowed me to be the writer I not only was but the writer I was going to be. Arizona is a rural state, it is a huge state; I needed to be able to get around. There were no computers yet, there was no Skyping, there was nothing like that. I needed to be able to get around. So what I ended up doing was buying a red — because what’s more exciting than the color red — station wagon so I could carry all my materials. It was kind of a humorous mix of radical and practical.
But the NEA helped me to understand that whatever work I was doing, they were validating it in some way. And not only validating but saying, "We want to help." That’s not something, as an individual artist of any sort, that you often hear. It was thrilling, and it was meaningful. It gave substance to something that was ephemeral in my life: sitting down to write. So organizations like that help us keep the thought processes of this country alive. Not just simply highway building and passing laws but allowing ourselves to dream, which is our individual contribution to the world. If I can dream something somebody else has not dreamt, I have contributed something to the world, even if I can’t make it so. I have expanded something in our thought universe.
There is a climate of defunding things that are crucial to our souls, but there’s a reason why they have persisted and were funded to begin with. It’s a constant battle, but it’s been a battle for centuries. Nothing brand new about that.
Q: What inspired your book of poems, “A Small Story About the Sky”?
A: It’s so funny, I never know how a book gets inspired — I just know that it is an ongoing process for me, that I am always writing. This is the next book; there will be one after it; there was one before. I think there are some common themes in all the books, but every book brings something new to the surface as well. It’s a new point in my life; I’ve got new and different things to say. During this time period, one of the things that was a big change in my life was I became poet laureate of the state. And in becoming poet laureate, one of the things I recognized was that I could keep doing what I did, and it was working fine. But what you want and what a place or a time period or a building or a group needs may not be [the same], and yet you can help them. So I developed an ethos of what I called writing poems of public purpose. And those poems are ideational. They are meant to serve something beyond me. And that’s a breakthrough for me as an artist. Big time. And it doesn’t mean that that’s all I want to do. But I also know it’s there to do and it’s important.
Pablo Neruda talks about this in one of his books. He said that as writers, we must lend ourselves to those who cannot do what we do. He talks about a baker who bakes bread, and you buy that bread and you eat it. And that baker has shared something of his ability with you. It is reciprocal. It’s not about money, it’s reciprocal. You must do something, then, in return. You don’t get a free ride. And as a writer, as a thinker, you’ve got to be contributing. And I think this was a wonderful mechanism for me to discover for myself. And a lot of those poems, very particularly, have gone on to have all sorts of notoriety, in the best sense of that word. The works of public purpose have meaning beyond me and make me bigger.