Regents’ Professor of English and Arizona’s inaugural Poet Laureate Alberto Rios helps young students find inspiration
The way Alberto Rios tells it, it’s like it was fated to happen: He was going to lead a public art project to celebrate South Phoenix, but he didn’t know how until “it occurred to me that we could play the street.”
The idea that turned into the performance event “Story Days: Music in the Landscape” came together after a year of work that started when Rios, ASU Regents’ Professor of English and Arizona’s inaugural poet laureate, recruited Jenny Irish, assistant director of the university’s creative writing program, and a group of students to be his “army of 100 ears.”
The team set off on various excursions throughout the city to listen, observe and record. During some of those first explorations, Rios began to notice certain imagery: birds perched on telephone wires; tomatoes lying in furrows in Harmon Park; the eyes of masked lucha libre wrestlers in a wall mural — they all looked like musical notes.
It came to fruition recently when students at Dunbar Elementary on Seventh Avenue and Grant Street played piano pieces they had composed based on photos taken in and around the area.
“Whatever you think of South Phoenix, it is ours,” Rios said. “When they play this music, they touch place. This is them; they are playing their world.”
He and his team found their way to Dunbar Elementary after overhearing children at parks. They were unfiltered and honest, and could provide a unique perspective on how the community viewed itself.
Rios connected with the school and knew the students shared his vision when a few of them pulled a friend up to the front of the classroom and told her to frown. Wrinkles appeared across her forehead, and dotted along the lines were freckles: Music, they told him.
And so they were off, taking their own photos of music in the landscape. Photos of rocks lying in scored lines of cement. Photos of bananas with stickers in neat rows at a supermarket. Photos of bouncy balls in tidy metal cages.