University of Calgary

Rios writes and reads

Daydreaming is the first step to writing

American poet and author Alberto Ríos begins term as visiting writer

By Janice Lee

Alberto Ríos is visiting the U of C from March 4 to 13. / Photo: Lupita Barron-Ríos

Alberto Ríos is visiting the U of C from March 4 to 13. / Photo: Lupita Barron-Ríos
Acclaimed American poet and author Alberto Ríos is the 2009 Markin-Flanagan Distinguished Visiting Writer. He is in residence at the U of C from March 4 to March 13. Ríos, a Regents’ Professor at Arizona State University, is the author of 10 books and chapbooks of poetry, three collections of short stories, and a memoir. He was born in the border town of Nogales, Arizona, the son of a Mexican father and a British mother. Growing up, his life was filled with the juxtaposition of the languages and traditions of two cultures—a recurring theme in his writing.

How did growing up “in between” cultures and languages influence your writing?

The most immediate gift it gave me was the impulse and later the ability to look at everything in more than one way. Every-thing, every object, every emotion, every nuance—the whole world had more than one way to be seen. Said another way, this gave me the idea that everything was full of more, and this led me to writing.

As a child you spoke Spanish and then “forgot” how to speak the language. How did that

happen?

Growing up in the 1950s, especially along the border, the prevailing sentiment was that learning English was everything—so much so that we were even swatted for speaking Spanish at school. When I say I forgot how to speak Spanish, I mean that in a theatrical way—I learned not to speak it, at least where that was the appropriate response. 

When did you realize you wanted to be a writer?

In second grade, I committed the egregious childhood crime of “daydreaming,” which I have since come to realize was the beginning of my writing. It was a way of writing before I could write. And in this sense, I never had any kind of epiphany about wanting to be a writer—I suspect that I simply always was one, as so many of us are. 

What’s the best writing advice you’ve been given? And the worst?

The best writing advice was also the most haunting piece of information I know as an artist: the worst thing for a writer is to have your parents still be alive. This of course speaks to the choices you make on the page—what if my parents were to see this? And then, as you get older, it changes into—what if my children see this? Figuring out for yourself where and what that line is presents a struggle greater than creating the writing itself. The worst [advice] was when I was told in a creative writing class not to use strange names for characters—“names in Spanish,” is what the teacher later articulated. That was wrong on so many levels.

What are you looking forward to most about your residency at the U of C?

I am looking forward to more of the good energy I already feel, even at this distance. Hello, Calgary!


Ríos presents public reading
Alberto Ríos reads from his award-winning poetry collections The Theater of Night and The Smallest Muscle of the Human Body, and his acclaimed memoir, Capirotada, on Monday, March 9 at 7:30 p.m. in the MacEwan Ballroom. For more information: 403-220-8177, leej@ucalgary.ca, or www.markinflanagan.com.