Voices of Bettering American Poetry Volume 3 — Raquel Salas Rivera

How do you practice self-care when writing about a difficult subject matter? What brings you joy?

This has been a question I’ve had on my mind during this difficult year. I’m so exhausted of having to always fight, always deal with grief. For boricuas in general, and in my own personal life, these past few years have been hell. I kept waiting for a moment when I could start feeling joy again, but then I realized there was no such thing. We have to make room for joy. We can’t wait for it to arrive. We have to carve out a space for joy. These past few weeks, I’ve forced myself to be with others, to be with friends, with lovers, with loved ones and to find ways to laugh, to touch, and sometimes cry, but cry together. I take the time to be alone, to grieve, but I also feel a sort of defiant fuck it, and make myself meet up with others, who always bring me joy, who remind me I am loved, I am in a collective, I have made community.

I also refuse to give of my time and energy to folks who don’t have an ethical self-care practice or a support network. I’ve been in too many interpersonal dynamics where all the world’s oppressive structures are condensed and amplified. Instead of repeating that dynamic, I’ve become very rooted in the “self” part of “self-care.”

My friend Denice Frohman once tweeted “Your wound is probably not your fault, but your healing is your responsibility.” That quote has been ringing in my mind for a while. We do have a responsibility towards others. We live in a world with other people. We also have a responsibility towards ourselves. We must treat ourselves like we are creating a small vision for the future. How would you want everyone to be treated, in an ideal world? This is how you should treat yourself.

Is there anything in your work that people frequently misunderstand?

There are many things people frequently misunderstand in my work, in part because my work has multiple audiences and multiple entry points. I don’t always want my work to be understood. Now, I will say I generally get upset if A selfie of the author, Raquel Salas Rivera, a nonbinary boricua.someone refers to me as a woman or groups me within “women’s literature.” I also dislike it when people refuse to acknowledge I’m a Puerto Rican poet.

I get annoyed if folks treat my work as a critique of the United States and imperialism. Yes, that is part of my work, but I don’t write about the U.S. I write about being a Puerto Rican, both in Puerto Rico and in the U.S. I also really don’t appreciate having my own country explained to me. It’s incredible how often folks in this country feel comfortable explaining my own country to me. It is as if, when I talk about colonialism, they read this as an invitation to make pronouncements about my history and my experiences.

Who would you have nominated for this anthology? Is there a poem you have in mind that you could link to?

I would have nominated Ana Portnoy. This is what I wrote to introduce Ana at the last installment of the We (Too) Are Philly festival I co-organized:

“There is nuclear family (which for queer boricuas is…complicated), then there is queer family, which we make as we move through the world. Then there is compañerx, compañero, compañera, a word which doesn’t translate right. Comrade isn’t quite right. To be un compa is to be a comrade, a partner, someone who accompanies, someone who is there and has been there and gets it. Ana and I are not only from Puerto Rico, we are both from Mayagüez (la sultana del oeste), both went to “el colegio de Mayagüez” as undergrads, both studied in la Universidad de Puerto Rico. She knows my mom, even though she never took a class with her. We get together and talk about the same people, because we saw them every day, which is everything, especially when you are far from home. We are also both poets who work between Spanish and English, and so navigate similar worlds in both Puerto Rico and the U.S. It’s pretty wild. Oh, and she is SO GOOD, SUCH AN INCREDIBLE POET, who is also trying to navigate and work through the trauma of colonialism and the particularities of home.”

She and I are currently working on a manifesto of sorts against the cryptocapitalists who are trying to invade Puerto Rico.


How does pressure to be legible as successful and productive in accordance with American norms affect the creative process?

I tend to shut down when I feel pressure to produce. It is a defense mechanism. Now, I have been very productive over the last few years, but that is because I’ve been using poetry to work through the trauma of irrecoverable loss. I look at the books I’ve written and I see a record of questions I needed to resolve, a grappling. In this sense, I am lucky because I haven’t yet felt extreme pressure to produce.A selfie of the author, Raquel Salas Rivera, a nonbinary boricua.

Back in the second half of 2015, I thought I’d never write again, not because of writer’s block or anything like that, but just because I wasn’t sure why I was writing. I had become very disillusioned. Then decided to try something new, to write through questions rather than try to provide answers. I think it enriched my work and helped me heal.

I also don’t feel that particular pressure because I didn’t become a writer in America, I became a writer in Puerto Rico. My mother taught me poetry was something sacred, a gift. As problematic as a formulation like that can be, I am thankful she taught me that and thankful that I come from a place where no one I know expects to become rich or even make money off of being a poet.

Is there any way to survive in this world without assimilating into systems of power? How do we acknowledge our active and passive participation in totalizing systems that we are at odds with? 

Woah, big question, but I’ll give it a shot. Yes and no. We assimilate to systems of power in order to survive and we create outside and despite systems of power in order to survive.

I genuinely believe that listening to others about their own experiences is a great start. If each of us had this practice, we would go a long way toward undoing totalizing systems.

Oh yeah, and the end of capitalism would definitely help.

What would you like to see change in the literary world, or how would you “Better” American poetry? Can American poetry be “bettered?”

As a colonized subject, it is not my responsibility to better American poetry. It is my responsibility to fight for the freedom, the total freedom, of Puerto Rico and los puertorriqueños.  I’m not here for America, but if the people who live under the control of the U.S. government —and are not from a  U.S. colony—wish to rethink their relationship to imperialism, they can start by never again making English a submissions requirement and translating their calls for submissions. That is a small change that would go a long way.

Do you have any cool selfies or pictures of your pets? Can I see them?

 photo of the author's cat laying down on a red pillow surrounded by by books.


Photo of the of the author, Raquel Salas Rivera, a nonbinary boricua.RAQUEL SALAS RIVERA es la poeta laureada de la ciudad de Filadelfia del 2018-19. Es la primera recipiente del Ambroggio Prize de la Academia de Poetas Americanos (Academy of American Poets) por su libro en español con traducciones al inglés, x/ex/exis. Sus poemas han aparecido en revistas tales como la Revista del Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña, Apogee y McSweeney’s. Cuenta con la publicación de seis plaquetas y cuatro poemarios. Del 2016-2018 fue co-editora de la revista literaria The Wanderer y co-editora de Puerto Rico en mi corazón, una colección bilingüe de volantes de poetas puertorriqueños contemporáneos. Este verano trabajó junto con Raena Shirali, Kirwyn Sutherland y Ashley Davis, organizando un festival llamado We (Too) Are Philly e inspirado por el poema “I, Too” de Langston Hughes. Ama y vive por Puerto Rico, Filadelfia y un mundo libre de la supremacía blanca.

RAQUEL SALAS RIVERA  is the 2018-19 Poet Laureate of Philadelphia. They are the first recipient of the Ambroggio Prize from the Academy of American Poets for their dual-language book x/ex/exis. Their work has appeared in journals such as the The Journal of the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture (Revista del Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña), Apogee, and McSweeney’s. They are the author of six chapbooks as well as four full-length poetry books. From 2016-2018, they were co-editor of The Wanderer and co-editor of Puerto Rico en mi corazón, a collection of bilingual broadsides of contemporary Puerto Rican poets. This summer, they spent countless hours alongside Raena Shirali, Kirwyn Sutherland, and Ashley Davis organizing a festival called We (Too) Are Philly, inspired by Langston Hughes’ poem, “I, Too.” They love and live for Puerto Rico, Philadelphia, and a world free of white supremacy.


This interview series is conducted with authors from the anthology, Bettering American Poetry Volume 3. 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 this anthologies. 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.