In 1975, the Southwest was blazing with Hispanic writers. Inner-city poets like "Tiger" Perez verbally slugged it out with Alurista and other "Aztec poets." Novelists like Rudy Anaya seemed to burst on the scene fully formed.
Alberto Rios wasn't a part of all that. Then, he was a dutiful student quietly studying poli sci at the University of Arizona."I was busy trying to be what my adviser was," he says today. "I was born in Nogales, my father was from Chiapas, Mexico, and my mother was from England, so I was from the world of borders. I didn't know a lot about American universities. I didn't even know what a `major' was."
Today he does.
Today Rios is not only a professor of English at Arizona State University, he may be the most popular and respected Hispanic writer at work. His short stories and poetry appear in the "big slicks" - the New Yorker, the Atlantic, etc. Norton just released his latest collection of verse ("Teodoro Luna's Two Kisses"). His book of verse "The Lime Orchard Woman" has become a regional classic, and - true measure of success - PBS hounds him for interviews.
And at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 19, at the Art Barn (54 Finch Lane), Salt Lake City has a chance to meet him. Rios will read with another prestigious poet, Jacqueline Osherow, in a program sponsored by the Poetry Society of America (See related story inside).
In all, for a boy from the border on top of his game, it's a heady time to be working.
"I see myself in the second or third stage of Hispanic writers," Rios says. "It's not like the '70s, but it's not a passive time either. What seems to be flourishing is the desire to look at things behind the language, to examine why words matter at all."
In Rios, what lurks behind the words is often an off-beat anecdote or striking comparison. "Moments of surprise," Rios calls them, "like hooking a fish." Epiphanies. They give his writing a warm, magical undertow - a generous quality like the wonder in the work of I.B. Singer. And like Singer, Rios writes stories with the charm of freshly minted folk tales. They haunt the imagination.
You don't need to explore Mars to find awe and surprise - Rios seems to be saying - you can visit southern Arizona. You can stroll through my old neighborhood and have dinner with my friends.
This, for instance, from his story "Pig Cookies:"
In the daytime [Mr. LuderT had a business in clocks, something regular, but every night he slept on the grave of his wife and child, and he wept.
The business later failed, and all he could do was to sleep on that stone and dirt, or walk around the town getting ready to sleep. This walking toward sleep became his job. People, in fact, had sometimes heard Mr. Luder's sobbing, and thought it was coyotes, and later the sounds of the Chinese. It was a sound many animals shared.
"I think of writing as movement," he explains. "I think of myself moving laterally through things, not in a linear way toward them. I move sideways and I stay with the moment. There's more than mere beginning and ending in that."
What it means is that Rios will mine the same claim for a poem, come back to it for a story and recycle parts of it in his criticism. The genres blur at the edges in his work. And though he writes to find what hovers behind the words, his words are unique as well. In the stories, especially, the syntax and style can be startling, even disconcerting. Once you realize he's simply laying English words over Spanish sentence structures, however, the effect is less jarring.
In short, in both his subject matter and his language, Alberto Rios takes a cue from Emily Dickinson: "Tell it slant."
Today he looks at his own work - and his journey through it - with a shake of the head: "As a junior at the University of Arizona," he says, "I read the college manual cover to cover looking for those `mythical' easy classes. I thought an introduction to poetry and fiction would be easy.
"After the first month, the poetry teacher had us write a poem. I didn't know what to do. For the first time I couldn't turn to some book and find the answer. So I wrote in Spanish. I was embarrassed. Yet once I started writing for real, I realized I'd been a writer all along - a writer without language."
Now, Alberto Rios has the language.
And on Feb. 19 at the Art Barn, Utahns can share it with him.
`Teodoro Luna's Two Kisses'
A poem by Alberto Rios
Mr. Teodoro Luna in his later years had taken to kissing
Not so much with his lips as with his brows.
This is not to say he put his forehead
Against her mouth -
Rather, he would lift his eyebrows, once, quickly:
Not so vigorously he might be confused with the villain
Famous in the theaters, but not so little as to be thought
A slight movement, one of accident. This way
He kissed her
Often and quietly, across tables and through doorways,
Sometimes in photographs, and so through the years themselves.
This was his passion, that only she might see. The chance
He might feel some movement on her lips
The Poetry Society of America is on a crusade: Get the word out about American poets and poetry. At the reading of Alberto Rios and Jacqueline Osherow, the Executive Director of the organization - Elise Pachen - will offer a brief presentation and distribute materials about the program.
Osherow, who will be reading with Rios, brings impressive credentials of her own. "Looking for Angels in New York," a collection of verse, was published by University of Georgia Press. She was awarded the 1990 Witter Bynner Prize, serves as a Fiske Scholar at Harvard and is a professor of English at the U. of U.
The reading is sponsored by the Utah and Salt Lake Arts Councils. It is free and open to the public. There will be a book signing and reception afterward. For information call 533-5895 or 596-5000.