Voices of Bettering American Poetry 2015 — Rio Cortez

What have you been reading, watching, or listening to lately? What new or emerging writer do you want the world to know about?

I’ve been reading Octavia Butler’s Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago. It’s a series and some of her more classically sci-fi work, written in the 1980’s. I’m obsessed with her.

Octavia Butler Cover Dawn

I had once shied away from science fiction as a reader. There is something heartbreaking about a genre where there are no rules, no history, wherein widely white writers still manage to depict other worlds as having still white-dominant characters, excluding us even in space, so to speak. There are still kingdoms of men, those kingdoms are white. There are still forces of evil, those villains, though they may not be human, are still rotely cast in darkness. Liberators, heroes, golden-haired. These imaginations kept me from the genre. What I have found so liberating about Butler’s work, and other Black science fiction writers like Nnedi Okorafor, is that I trust them to know us. There is a freedom outside of earth that is so seductive as a Black reader, I’m in love with it.

I’d also use this opportunity to challenge her publisher, Grand Central, to come up with better, more original cover art for her books, to publish her individual volumes rather than anthologize them, and to enroll her into their line of classics. I think she deserves that much.

How do you practice self-care when writing about difficult subject matter?

I feel like an expert in self-care. Some things I wouldn’t publish in this response—but mostly I give myself permission to unhinge, be carefree. Sometimes that means watching Nancy Meyers films (I’m particularly charmed by middle-aged romance, happen to love the image of Diane Keaton as she puts her reading glasses on to check the cholesterol of her lover before sex), sometimes I take selfies with my cat, I listen to records, I drink rosé with my friends, I open all the curtains and do nothing.

Rio Cortez Cover

Do you feel that your writing is necessarily assumed to be autobiographical? How do you feel about this assumption? 

I do. I think that’s a pretty human assumption. We are trained out of it in writing workshops, but I’m certainly guilty of making the same assumption of other writers’ work. Even when, on an intellectual level, I know a poem is not necessarily autobiographical, when I read “I”, I almost, for a moment, don’t believe it isn’t. Maybe that’s the credit of the poem, or maybe it’s more of an expanded definition of what comes from us, what is autobiography. I think we are really asking readers not to judge us, because maybe the poem isn’t from our direct experience. That’s interesting to me.  And so that is a practice I find valuable, non-judgment.


Rio CortezRIO CORTEZ is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College and the MFA program at NYU. Her manuscript, I Have Learned to Define a Field as a Space Between Mountains, was selected by Ross Gay as the winner of the 2016 inaugural Toi Derricotte & Cornelius Eady Chapbook Prize, and is available from Jai-Lai Books.


This interview series is conducted with authors from the anthology, Bettering American Poetry 2015. As Bettering’s editors wrote in their call for nominations, “Our efforts will intentionally shift favor so that the literary landscape within this anthology reflects a ranging plurality of voices in American poetry and illuminates the possibilities of sharing space … This anthology represents just one concerted effort to better American poetry, but it is one that we hope will resonate.”

Bettering has sought to delve deeper with the poets selected for the anthology. These questions are composed collectively by the editors, with the belief that the literary community needs a polyphony not only of poems but of poets’ voices.