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New Ways of Seeing Known Things: A Conversation with Raquel Salas Rivera

by Alexa Smith & Steve Burns

The news has broken, and for once, it’s good: RAQUEL SALAS RIVERA has been chosen as our next Philadelphia Poet Laureate. We at APIARY could not be happier about this announcement! Raquel’s contributions to the Philadelphia poetry community are tireless and tremendous, and we are proud to support their work as a collaborator and friend. Raquel’s poetry was featured in APIARY 8: Soft Targets (“No Se Cambia Una Chaqueta Por Una Chaqueta”/“Coats Are Not Exchanged For Coats”), and you can read their previous interview with Wendy Travino in our Hive archives (“Extending an Opening Fist”).

In the slushy transient haze of a mid-holidays Google .doc, we sat down and talked with Raquel about Philly communities and the transformative power of poetry.

Alexa: Congrats on your appointment to PHL Poet Laureate! Many of our readers will already know you by your active presence in Philly’s literary scene - but for some, this announcement may be the first time they’re hearing of you. I thought while these readers get to know you, we can start with how you got to know Philly. What were some of your first impressions of the poetry community in Philly? Any stand-out first memories, projects or collaborators?

Raquel: Thank you, thank you, thank you! I’m still reeling from the news.

There are so many Philly poets taking it to the next level. Philadelphia, like the rest of the U.S. is segregated by white supremacy and the poetry scene is no exception. Like the rest of the U.S., there are poets fighting white supremacy (Kirwyn Sutherland, Yolanda Wisher, Husna Hashim, Denice Frohman and Kai Ayana Davis come to mind) by building against and despite the violence of the regime we are living under. That’s the Philly I love.

Poetry is my life. I’m constantly going to readings. In fact, my poor partner noted that at some point we stopped going to plays, the movies and concerts because it became readings, readings, readings. But it wasn’t always that way. I read in Philly for the first time after being here for about three years. I was approached by Christy Davids and asked to read alongside Yolanda Wisher and Brian Teare as part of the Vice Principal Hand reading series. Up to that point, I had only written and read work in Spanish, since my first book, Caneca de anhelos turbios, had been published four years earlier by the Puerto Rican press Editora Educación Emergente. I was nervous because I wasn’t sure how my work would be received. I knew reading in Spanish was important both for the quality of the work and in terms of my right to express myself and take up space in my primary language. Both Yolanda and Brian read work that, while different than mine, made me feel that I had a great deal to learn about poetry in Philadelphia. Thanks to this reading, I began translating my work and rethinking my relationship to bilingualism and being diasporic.

Some of the most significant experiences I’ve had in this city have been thanks to the New Sanctuary Movement (NSM) and Sanctuary Poets. Their work inspired me to apply to be poet laureate. Philadelphia is a city of many languages and people, all of whom have different relationships to their languages and communities. Though most poetry readings in Philly are monolingual, the Sanctuary Poets have reshaped spaces by bringing in other languages and making the relationship between these languages and their lived histories explicit.

Poetry can change the way we experience. It can change how we relate to others, how we feel, and what we do.

Another person who left an immediate impression on me was Gabriel Ojeda-Sague. Gabe was incredibly supportive of my work, even though we weren’t close friends at the time. He went out of his way to read my work and engage with it critically. His presence made me feel welcome at every reading where we coincided.

Frank Sherlock has also been incredibly supportive. He and the novelist Marc Anthony Richardson are my found brothers. They helped me see Philly from new angles.

Then there is my stay-at-home queer crew. Emma Sanders and Elizabeth Baber have seen me cry and supported me 100% of the time. It’s nice to have friends like that who also happen to be poets, especially because they always know what books to give you for the holidays.

Steve: Philadelphia’s writing community is certainly fractured, but it also seems to be growing, changing, and restabilizing with fresh talent. I might even say that now is the best iteration of “Philly poetics” I’ve seen since 2012, when I first discovered APIARY. Yolanda’s final event as Poet Laureate, a fundraiser for Puerto Rico at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), really cemented that for me - the sheer variety of powerful voices, the mission of the work, it all boomed until I was crying in my seat. What lessons, if any, do you feel the Philadelphia poetry scene has taught you and how do you intend to use those lessons to enact change for everyday Philadelphians as Poet Laureate?

Raquel: That event in particular was very formative. I had the opportunity to work with Denice Frohman and Yolanda, the main organizers. Denice had an amazing vision and made a point to make me feel that I was included. So often there are events and fundraisers for Puerto Rico that don’t involve any boricuas and that really pisses me off, especially since we have no representation in Congress and no say over our colonial status. It says a lot when Puerto Ricans aren’t even asked to be involved in events organized supposedly for their benefit. But Denice and Yolanda’s event meant a lot to me because so many of the readers were boricuas and it made me feel hope, a hope I don’t always allow myself to feel. I think it’s less a question of whether or not the scene is fragmented and more of a question of who is willing to do the work to organize events like this, events that are essentially decolonial, radical and conscious of how power relations play out in collective spaces.

If the Philly scene has taught me anything, it’s that if you put the work in, you can manifest something incredible. Maybe it’s because I’m a Capricorn, or maybe it’s because I’m queer and queer folks have to create queer family and build relationships from scratch, but there is nothing I appreciate more than watching poetry palpably change people.

One of my favorite filmmakers, Val del Omar, worked with Federico García Lorca in what they called the Misiones pedagógicas (Pedagogical Missions) during the period preceding the Spanish Civil War. They went from town to town, throughout Spain, with a mobile cinema and showed films to those who had never seen a film. They took photographs and captured the faces of those who were watching a film for the first time. It’s hard to describe what those faces emanated, but in some ways they were more beautiful than the films themselves. This is what the best readings feel like. Sometimes I look out on a crowd and I see a similar expression on faces. That energy runs through some Philly readings. I don’t think you have to be a poet to experience that, just as you don’t have to be a filmmaker to feel that way the first time you see a film, or the third, the fourth or the hundredth time. Poetry can change the way we experience. It can change how we relate to others, how we feel, and what we do. I’m not sure if I can transform the lives of everyday Philadelphians, but I can definitely create spaces where the everyday lives of Philadelphians can shimmer, become different, bring new ways of seeing known things.

Alexa: I’m glad you mentioned Kai Davis and Yolanda Wisher earlier, because I’ve been completely floored by the poetic productions they’ve each presented this Fall, specifically Yolanda’s Pirate Jenny’s Conspiracy with Intercultural Journeys, and Kai’s Vanishing Point ensemble piece with The Philadelphia Pigeon. To me, these projects brought new ways of seeing poetry itself. Both of these works were game-changers in how they asserted poetry as a space-taking, stage-storming, full-fledged event that can (and should) sell out a ticketed venue, on the same scale as a popular movie or play.

[I]t’s less a question of whether or not the scene is fragmented and more of a question of who is willing to do the work to organize events like this, events that are essentially decolonial, radical and conscious of how power relations play out in collective spaces.

Too often, it feels like there’s this tacit assumption that you have to be a poet to enjoy a poetry reading, so poetry is then relegated to the corners and backrooms of bars and bookstores, literally niched into wherever/whenever it can fit without disturbing the everyday patrons. It’s so inspiring to see poetry events taking up space in a way that challenges this attitude, that demonstrates poetry’s viability as a compelling experience for everyday patrons. I think there’s something to that in the moment of wonder you described, at an audience’s first exposure to an art form -- that this wonder is for everyone, can change anyone. Are there any particular venues, spaces or organizations in Philly you’d be especially jazzed to work with this year, to infuse with poetry in fresh ways or combine forces in campaigns of extra-shimmery poetic outreach?

Raquel: I hope to work alongside the New Sanctuary Movement with very specific political projects. Denice, Kirwyn, and I participated in a reading that was part of a vigil organized by NSM. My hope is to help organize and curate events that can be more than readings, they can also be a way of rearticulating public space. Something that really drew me to tagging as a teenager is that it is more about marking and breaking with the privatization of public space than it is about creating a perfect piece. I’m currently working with Raena Shirali, Ashley Davis, and Kirwyn Sutherland to put together a festival this summer that will extend into a reading series, called “We, Too Are Philly,” after Langston Hughes, “I, Too.” We want to set up events in different parts of the city. Events that are visible and take up public space and feature people of color. This is what has me most excited right now.

Still, most of my best ideas have come as I’m working on something I’m already excited about, so I’m sure if you ask the same question in a month or so, you’ll get a more elaborate answer and a whole new list of projects.

Alexa: The “We, Too Are Philly” project sounds excellent, and resonant with Kirwyn's recent response in our New Years piece, A Poet's Resolutions/Revolutions: "I want the walls up between different Philly poetry communities to be forcefully taken apart, because that kind of work is active and requires the labor of EVERYBODY. I want workshops for everyone who craves developing their craft, whether performance or written it would be great to have a glut of spaces that serve as sources of growth for poets."

I like the intersection of these hopes and resolutions: your "marking and breaking with the privatization of public space" as a form of active labor that reconfigures the boundaries of who the space welcomes, who we're going to see there, and how we see each other. Also appreciate the emphasis on breaking the old structure over creating a perfect new piece. I think often, both in writing and in community, people hold themselves back from the full scope of what they could give because they are scared of contributing in a flawed or awkward way. What advice would you offer to an organizer in the poetry community who wants to do more of that active work, to bring walls down and deprivatize the vibe of their own public event or series? More specifically, what action would you hope to see from white event organizers who want to disrupt the systematic white supremacy in their literary community, and in their own instincts when they’re shaping an event?

Raquel: My advice is bring in more than one organizer that is black or brown, give them credit, and defer to their decisions, especially in relation to race. Give community organizers priority, listen, don’t ask if folks are willing to do free labor without at least trying to find money to pay organizers and artists, and don’t organize in gentrifying spaces. If you are white, you will mess up, so learn to hold space and listen. There are many things you won't know and you should give organizational power to people of color as often as you can, be willing to do labor, and ask how you can be supportive without taking up too much space. Respect communities.

Alexa: Raquel, thank you for sharing your thoughts and time with us. We’re thrilled that you’re Laureate, and can’t wait to see what you do with this role. It’s an exciting time for Philadelphia.

We’ll close this conversation by taking a look at your recent poem eclipse (for philly) below. This piece was performed for the Monument to the Philadelphia Poet, and will appear in the upcoming anthology of work from that project. (Note to readers: as in Raquel's live readings, ​eclipse​ is presented in both Spanish and English below.)

 

eclipse

para fili

cuando llegué a filadelfia,
lloré como foránea,
un lagarto atrapado entre el escrín
y la ventana, un coquí que en el baño
busca muerte y humedad.

pedí disculpas
por venir de una colonia
en los pasillos de los colonizadores.

en 1700, se fundó el primer cuerpo policiaco de fili
para evitar que los indígenas robaran la ciudad,
¿pero qué cuerpo existe para detener los pillos de la historia,
los asesinos que arrasan campos de girasoles?

me he quedado enamorada,
quien mira un eclipse y se quema la mirada,
quien duerme entre las cavernas
de sótanos y cuartos contiguos,
sufriendo el aire estancado de luces circulares.
me enamoré de dos pueblos.
soy quien llega y emigra hacia migrantes.

sueño que paul robeson guía la guagua.
me dice, no te preocupes que esta no es tu parada.

¿pero, paul, no que habías muerto sin pasaporte,
perseguido por fascistas vestidos de patriotas;
no que te habían destituido al amor de fili,
dejándote aquí soñando otros continentes?

sí, pero tu parada no es esta, me dice,
mientras me guía por calles que han cambiado de nombre,
por zonas en vías de gentrificación,
por el parque donde todos juegan realidades.
nota que lloro callada,
fingiendo que siempre he llorado
en la misma guagua,
pero no señala.
transeuntes perennes embarcan y desembarcan.
una bucha hermosa se me une.
dice, no te preocupes, que esta es mi ciudad,
y toma tiempo parar.

le pregunto,
con mi voz mayagüezana:
¿cómo se puede vivir
con tanto dolor que se para
en movimiento aquí
en movimiento, queriendo
finalmente no tener
que soñarse distinta,
a sabiendas que este sitio
tiene nombres?

me besa al son de las puertas que se cierran,
un viento viejo de tormentas sin palmas,
de manos atrapadas dentro de manos,
en cadena,
de amor que pesa, un edificio
que bloquea la vista, pero sin distancia.
cercanamente, todo vive cercanamente,
sin adios, ni buenos días.
los vivos, los muertos, los que resisten
bombardeos nocturnos que parecen
fuegos artificiales sobre el río,
trepadoras horizontales
que crecen por las calles,
estelas del futuro.

 

eclipse

for philly

when i got to philly,
i cried like a stranger,
a lizard trapped between screen
and window, a coquí in the bathroom,
seeking humidity and death.

in the colonizer’s halls,
i apologized
for coming from a colony.

in 1700, the first philly police force was founded
to keep the indigenous from stealing from the city,
but what force exists that will stop history’s thieves,
that will stop the assassins that raze sunflower fields?

i’ve been lovestruck,
one who looks at an eclipse and burns the gaze,
one who sleeps between caves
of contiguous basements and rooms,
suffering the rutted air of circular lights.
i’m in love with two peoples.
i am one who arrives and migrates towards migrants.

i dream paul robeson drives the bus.
he says, don’t worry, this isn’t your stop.

but, paul, hadn’t you died, without a passport,
chased by fascists disguised as patriots;
hadn’t they destituted you to philly’s love,
leaving you there dreaming of other continents?

yes, but this isn’t your stop, he says,
while he guides me through streets that have changed names,
through zones under gentrification,
through the park where everyone plays realities.
he notices i silently cry,
pretending i’ve always cried
on the same bus,
but he doesn’t signal.
permanent transients embark and disembark.
a beautiful butch joins me.
she says, don’t worry, this is my city,
and it takes time to stop.

i ask her,
with my mayagüez voice,
how can one live
with so much pain that stops
mid-motion here
in motion, wanting
finally to not have to
dream oneself different,
knowing that this place
has names?

she kisses me to the sound of closing doors,
an old wind of palmless storms,
of hands trapped in hands,
forming a chain,
of love that weighs, a building
blocking the view, but without distance.
close by, everything lives close by.
without goodbye, or good morning.
the living, the dead, those who resist
nocturnal bombings that look like
fireworks over the river,
horizontal creepers
growing down streets,
trailing the future.

 

Alexa: I love the liminal space this poem draws of a person caught between communities, an eclipse state in identity. There’s the painful, exposed disorientation of living in that overlap (“a lizard trapped between screen/and window”), and the simultaneous strained sweetness of living “in love with two peoples”, of “hands trapped in hands” – experiencing something communal and sublime even while your eyes are burned by the glare.

I’ve often been struck by a line from your past author bios: “If for Roque Dalton there is no revolution without poetry, for Raquel there is no poetry without Puerto Rico.” Can you talk a little bit about Puerto Rico’s place in your poetics, and what tensions or changes Philly has evoked in those poetics since moving here? Earlier in this interview, you mentioned that your first Philly readings led you to begin translating your poems, "rethinking my relationship to bilingualism and being diasporic.” Where is that relationship now?

Raquel: Uffff. In a new middle. It just moves from middle to middle on an infinite plane. Hahahaha. I’m still thinking through this question. For a long time, I’ve been devastated by what’s happening back in Puerto Rico. I’ve often unsuccessfully searched for a adequate language through the poems. It’s obvious how Puerto Rico is in my poems about Philly, but less obvious how Philly is in my poems about Puerto Rico. But it’s there. It’s so there. It’s there as love, as memory, while I remember in Philly, my body and soul in Philly and Puerto Rico. I am embodied as a Boricua in Filadelfia. I’ve become braver about my bilingualism through translation. It’s been a coming out of sorts. But returning to the “where” of your questions: my relationship is between, always in between, even as I am here or there. I’ve moved away from seeing this in betweenness solely in relation to loss, and into seeing how most people occupy some form of in betweenness that is actually incredibly present and material. To relate is to move between and to make that movement a noun, a now.

 

Join Raquel, APIARY staff and Philadelphia’s Youth Poet Laureate, Husnaa Hashim, tonight (Jan 9th) at the Free Library of Philadelphia for the official Poet Laureate announcement! For complete details, visit their event page.

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Raquel Salas Rivera is a queer Puerto Rican poet and translator who lives in Philadelphia. Their work has appeared in journals such as the Revista del Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña, Apiary, Apogee, BOAAT, and the Boston Review. They are the author of Caneca de anhelos turbios (Editora Educación Emergente) and tierra intermitente (Ediciones Alayubia). Their third full-length book lo terciario/the tertiary is forthcoming in 2018 from Timeless, Infinite Light. Currently, they are Co-Editor of The Wanderer, and Co-Editor of Puerto Rico en mi corazón, a collection of bilingual broadsides of contemporary Puerto Rican poets published by Anomalous Press, of which 100% of sales will be donated directly to Taller Salud to assist Puerto Rico in recovering from Hurricane Maria. Alongside their partner, they have raised money and organized relief efforts for Puerto Rican LGBQTIA evacuees, while continuing to build strong ties between Philadelphia and Puerto Rico. 
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