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Embracing Cultures With Philadelphia Poet Laureate

Crystal Brewster/Reporter

The annual Clark College Latino Festival was held on April 27. The celebration, organized by Spanish instructors Elizabeth Ubiergo and Erika Nava, is held around the time of El Día del Niño and El Día del Libro, meaning Day of the Child and Day of the Book. The event is meant to show appreciation for Latinx culture and the value of literacy.

To continue the celebration, Clark invited Philadelphia poet laureate Raquel Salas Rivera to read their poetry in a series of lectures on April 30. The Independent spoke with Rivera about their poetry and what influences their work.

Answers have been edited for length.

Q: Where are you from?

A: There are many ways to answer this question. I experience the world as a Boricua [Puerto Rican] that is both a first- and second-generation migrant to the U.S. I am from Puerto Rico, but I am also from Wisconsin, California, Nebraska, Alabama, Texas, New York and Philly, since these are all places I have called [myself] “from.”

Q: How does it feel to be Philadelphia’s poet laureate?

A: I love Philly. It’s the best city to be a poet laureate. Our poet laureates have been incredible and I feel lucky to be part of a lineup that includes Sonia Sanchez, Frank Sherlock and Yolanda Wisher.

Q: You identify as queer and nonbinary. How has that shaped your work?

A: For a long time I believed in strategic identification. Around biphobic lesbians, I’d identify as bi. Around straight people, I’d say I was a dyke. But I’d never identify as straight. I had to return to these questions when I transitioned. It was a lonely period of finding ways to define my gender as a Boricua, ways to feel affirmed in my identity as a whole. If someone wanted to, they could trace the arch of my transition by reading my books in order. My work in general delves into the relationship between self, history, individual body and body politic.

Q: What sparked your interest in poetry and how long have you been writing?

A: Langston Hughes and my mother. Poetry has been a part of my life for a long time. I’ve been writing since I was 12, and I’ve been publishing since I was 16. I can’t imagine a life without poetry.

Q: What inspired you to share your work with others?

A: Love. The need to connect. Collective queer mourning. Poetry is reaching out, whether in anger, sadness or joy. My work is the product of generations upon generations of poets whose work informs everything I do. Sharing with others is a way of giving back.

Q: What challenges have you faced along the way?

A: Organizing six readings over a period of two months is a challenge in itself. Luckily, I’ve had the help of my co-organizers Ashley Davis, Kirwyn Sutherland and Raena Shirali. The most challenging part is having enough time to do everything I want to do. Some days I feel I’m running against the clock.

Q: What are your hopes and dreams as far as your poetry goes?

A: I want each book to do something innovative. I know that’s ambitious, but my greatest fear is that my work will become uninteresting or repetitive. I also hope my work has a greater and greater reach. Whenever I discover someone is reading me somewhere I’ve never been, it gives me hope. I also want it to give something to each person that reads it, to transform them in some way.

Q: Do you have any advice for people pursuing poetry?

A: Poetry is an obsession. Find poets that make you want to write and that are so incredible they make you angry, and then study them. Also, read poets of color.

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