Alberto Ríos and the Power of Story

by Julie SwarstadThe Dangerous Shirt by Alberto Rios

A two-time graduate from the University of Arizona, Alberto Ríos is a writer whose stories show us the overlooked magic of the world.   Born in 1952 in Nogales, Arizona, Ríos is the author of six full-length collections of poetry, including The Smallest Muscle in the Human Body, which was nominated for the National Book Award in 2002.  His publications also include several volumes of short stories and a memoir.  Six Pushcart Prizes, the Arizona Governor's Arts Award, and the Walt Whitman Award are just a sampling of the honors received by Ríos.  Ríos is currently a Regent's Professor of English at Arizona State University.

Alberto Ríos will be reading at the UA Poetry Center on Friday, September 10th at 8 p.m. along with Ofelia Zepeda and Sherwin Bitsui.

Alberto Ríos writes, "Science may be our best way of understanding the world, / But it may not be our best way of living in it."  The Dangerous Shirt, his latest collection of poetry, provides an answer to the question this statement makes, affirming that story is perhaps our best way of living in the world.  Ríos' poetry is story woven into verse, and his writing can be an exciting entryway into storytelling through poetry in the classroom.

The poems contained in The Dangerous Shirt might be best described as short stories or impressions told in verse.  The Dangerous Shirt combines visions of life in Arizona and the surrounding area with dream, myth, and remembrance.  Ríos' topics of choice range from memories of a childhood experience eating "the dripping barbacoa and hot tortillas on the outskirts of Nogales" to what a compost heap might say about the person who creates it.  Ríos also often writes of childhood memory or examines how his family has shaped who he is; in Ríos' universe, ghosts of family "are what's inside us,/ After all.  They are what we keep warm."  His writing encourages us to see things we encounter every day in a new light infused with memory, to reimagine the stories these things might hold or the ways in which objects and memory have a power over our lives.

Best of all, Ríos' stories inspire us to tell stories; they invite us to inhabit them and to inhabit the fantastic but very familiar worlds they describe.  His writing empowers the reader to see the potential for story in any event, no matter how small, because "the small nature of the event--the small / Nature of any event--will not be denied by large // Feeling, though it may seem only a moment to you."  No matter the size or importance of an event, Ríos' writing encourages reflection on what the occurrence might mean.  His poems could be a wonderful jumping-off point for asking students to write narrative in verse form, especially because his poems can help students see that a good story can come from anything they want it to.

Created on: 
Tuesday, September 7, 2010
Arizona Board of Regents