Raquel Salas Rivera Talks:
"I don't occupy the same position all the time"
Before the interview, Rivera reads from their collection lo tercario/the tertiary, first in Spanish, then English, flipping the book over and back to switch languages. Wearing a sweater with pink stripes and a scarf with blue stripes, they field questions from the audience, sign books, and then settle into a spare classroom for our interview, responding with energy and thoughtfulness.
Breakwater Review: How old were you when you started writing poetry?
RSR: Well, my grandfather was a poet and my mother is a poet as well. My parents, I think, wanted me to have a sense of freedom in terms of what I was interested in. When I was six months old they went to graduate school in Wisconsin and then later California, they both studied linguistics, and my mother specializes in Creole languages in the Caribbean.
BR: So you grew up in this environment, kind of steeped in words?
RSR: Yeah, yeah, yeah, the way to describe it is, they didn’t have a lot of economic wealth but I certainly was very privileged in terms of what I had access to, in terms of knowledge. They didn’t have a lot of money but they had a lot of access to knowledge, which is its own kind of wealth.
I loved movies, initially I think I wanted to be a film critic before I understood that wasn’t a real thing, or that that was a real thing, but you had to become a journalist and that didn’t interest me. But I really, really liked movies. I was obsessed with cinema, and I still am. My partner’s actually a filmmaker and a visual artist.
I liked all kinds of things. At some point I wanted to study alligators, you know? I think I had a general curiosity about a lot of stuff. I liked art in general, I liked music in general, my parents exposed me to a great deal, my curiosity was pretty well-rounded––I always read a lot. Language was very present. I have a lot of memories of thinking about language and it being very central, but I really didn’t start thinking of myself as a poet or writing poetry until I was about 12.
I moved to Omaha, Nebraska––it was pretty racist where I was. I think the white kids thought I was white and then they realized I wasn’t and there was some kind of backlash around that. And the places I lived were all kind of like that. I went through a lot of fusion, being a new kid, being an only child. Also I didn’t know the codes really well, so I was very bullied when I was young, and books became a shelter, an escape, a way of dealing.
RSR: Laughs. Right? It’s probably how most writers start at some level.
BR: What was it like for you, spending two years as poet laureate of Philadelphia?
RSR: It was suggested I apply. I thought, I can’t apply, I’m not from Philly like that, and they were like no no, it doesn’t matter. And the more I thought of it, the truth is, there’s a lot of immigration happening in Philadelphia. And I definitely can very honestly apply as someone who’s not from here. This is what I can bring, this is what I can offer: the perspective of someone who makes a place a home, even if it’s not their home.
BR: Did that change your relationship with poetry?
RSR: My work blew up at the same time, is the thing. It wasn’t just that I became poet laureate, it’s that I became poet laureate and then I was longlisted for the National Book Award, I won the Ambrosia prize, I won a Lambda. It was all of these prizes and recognitions. Suddenly my work was everywhere. Things I already thought became more evident or more obvious. In having to articulate them publicly they became more like, oh yes, this is what I always thought of this, you know? Suddenly I had a platform on which to talk about these things I had been mulling over for a very long time.
It was nice to just say ok, this is what I think about this, instead of, let me read ten more articles before I tell you maybe what I vaguely think … And I can quote some things but I don’t necessarily need to, in order to have a conversation. Also, I had to think about the accessibility of what I was talking about.
BR: Yes, accessibility! In one interview, you mention using English more, and trying to make poems accessible to the people of Philadelphia. In another interview, you’re quoted as saying “I’m all for obscurity.” How do you reconcile those seemingly contradictory ways of thinking about poetry?
RSR: They don’t feel contradictory to me. I tend to think of it as entry points into my work, they won’t be accessible to some people, but they will to others. I think we can both agree that it would be absurd to claim that we can absolutely know another person entirely, right? Or that you would want to, necessarily, or that they would want you to know them, in all of their entirety. People need to have their own sense of self and being in the world.
That doesn’t mean you don’t want to communicate with whoever you’re talking to. It just means that good communication is also about respecting someone’s unknowability, to a certain extent.
BR: Speaking of accessibility of poetry to general audiences, and reading lo terciario/the tertiary, I’m thinking the audience who wants to hear about the tia in the tuna fish factory may not be as easily engaged with some of the other language that’s more abstract.
RSR: I do think there tends to be this kind of discussion in poetry, which kind of always has been a non-discussion for me. It’s so much about managing how one’s work is received. I’m not saying it’s not relevant or not important, but I also think that it presupposes that one’s work will be received in one way. And I really don’t believe that’s possible. There are as many ways to read my work as there are readers. And I think that it’s written in the way that I live, in the sense that I don’t occupy the same position all the time in my writing. I don’t occupy the same position all the time in life. My poems are meant to be living, in a way. There are moments in which I’m being playful and sarcastic and there are moments in which I’m being direct, and you know––
RSR: Heartbreaking, yeah, and moments when I’m speaking more internally, like as an aside to someone close to me. And there are moments in which I’m speaking maybe even directly to someone opposing me. I learned that from some of the poets I admire the most, like Angelamaría Dávila. There are all different kinds of poetry … I can do a dramatic monologue, I can do this, I can do that, but in my work I tend to like the notion of poems having a life, or creating conditions of livability in them, and having movement and feeling like they’re breathing and kind of alive and you’re interacting. Part of that work feels like allowing for both points of access, and also moments in which I’m protecting myself. I think that again, to me, that is what constitutes difference.
With my partner I’m not going to enter a discussion or conversation assuming we’re going to agree, right? But I am going to enter it with a certain amount of good faith. That we’re trying to communicate, and part of that is taking some time to be like, I understand why that would upset you, or I understand that I can’t know that, or I understand that that’s not my experience, and that’s, maybe, not mine to claim. I feel like part of communication and understanding is to know the limits of one’s own experience.
So I feel both interviews you mentioned are very true, they’re just addressing different aspects of my work.
BR: You’ve referred to yourself as a “trans translator.” Can you help me understand what that means in terms of your poetry, in terms of lo terciario/the tertiary?
RSR: The way in which the book is structured is around the notions of primary, secondary, tertiary. And a lot of debates happening on the left would be, for example, economic concerns are the primary concerns of the revolution, like class first and foremost, and secondary issues are the women’s issue, or race, and of course there was no tertiary as a category. And I started thinking that when you say women’s issues, you’re thinking cis women, and trans people aren’t even on this horizon. They’re not even acknowledged as existing in these debates that were happening during the 60s, 70s, and 80s. So part of the term came from that, and part of the term came from going back to that translation of Marx’s Capital and really thinking about how Marx talks about there needing to be a third value that gives value to two things.
In order for you to exchange x number of chairs and y number of notebooks there has to be something that makes them equivalent, because they’re not, there’s nothing they have in common. The only thing that makes them equivalent and exchangeable is how much work it took to make one versus the other. So labor is like a tertiary value that makes things exchangeable, right? And I was fascinated by this notion that the only way for these two dissimilar things to come close to each other was this ghostly kind of abstracted thing, that made them exchangeable. And in a way I thought of transness as that, as being the definitive outside of these primary and secondary categorizations. I still feel that way. I still feel it’s like a third value. Which is such an internal critique!
But it’s also about other stuff, like being a colony, and how colonies during the Cold War––there was First-World and there was Second-World and the term Third World actually comes from the Cold War, because the First World was the U.S., the Second World was Soviet Russia, and the Third World was what was up for grabs. They would fight over the Third World as a way of gaining power, because they couldn’t throw nuclear bombs at each other. So the Third World was this term created for the rest of the world, and the way that was divvied up was determining who was winning the Cold War. It was really interesting to me that this thing that was tertiary was actually giving value to these other two things that were supposedly more valuable. That’s kind of the origin of the term, and it’s also very much a principle throughout the book in terms of how I engage with language, and the language in the book.
My transness is, I feel, at the core of the book. But I don’t stylistically foreground it the way I would if I were engaging with that kind of language on its own terms, if that makes sense?
BR: It’s intrinsic, it’s structural …
RSR: It’s intrinsic, it’s structurally there and sometimes it’s explicit but a lot of times it isn’t. It structures how I engage with the way Marx is talking, the way the PROMESA law is talking about our lives. I feel like it’s kind of the reigning principle but I don’t always make it explicit. It’s not an easy one for me to explain …
BR: Is there a question nobody has asked in an interview that you wish you were asked? Something you never get to talk about enough?
RSR: I wish people in general would talk more about U.S. colonies, and why literature from U.S. colonies is totally invisible in the U.S. in this way. The U.S. literary world doesn’t seem to care, and a part of me being from Puerto Rico and living in Puerto Rico, I’m like, do I care that they don’t care? It continues to be a question, you know? But it’s still there, in the sense that there’s such a clear inequality of resources. In Puerto Rico there’s just never money for writers, ever, and there’s no scholarships or anything … I think of Guam, I think of the Virgin Islands, I think of all these places that have literature, so I guess my eternal question is why these national awards or prizes or contests refuse to engage with their own complicity in colonialism, their own lack of knowledge of what’s happening in the U.S. colonies in terms of literature.
I’m definitely a fluke. Like this never happens, you know? There’s never a writer from a U.S. colony that gets that much recognition in the U.S. Maybe diasporic writers, yes, but one that lives in a U.S. colony, that’s writing? Maybe there’s an example I don’t know of, but it just doesn’t happen. I wish more people would be more curious about what that’s like, what’s it’s like to come into a world where you don’t see anyone, or almost anyone, who’s a writer like you, and what that experience is like. I don’t see myself reflected in the concerns of this particular writing world, or the concerns of these circles, and that I experience a lot, that sort of disjuncture. Where in Puerto Rico, what writers are talking about just doesn’t look anything like what they’re talking about here. In fact, I feel that in Puerto Rico, most writers are understandably confused and baffled by whatever I’m navigating in the U.S.
BR: Are you saying they’re confused by your choice to navigate the writing world in the U.S., or by what you’re actually navigating? Or both?
I don’t think they’re that confused by my choice to navigate it. I think they literally don’t know. I have some friends who, for the first time, their work has been translated, so now they’re going to AWP (the Association of Writers & Writing Programs national conference), for example, but this is the first time. Even for me it’s very new. Even the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts), there’s a very complicated situation with applying. But grant writers in Puerto Rico don’t apply for NEA grants, and many don’t even know they can. It’s such a different world and set of conversations. Puerto Rican poets are reading other Puerto Rican poets, or maybe they’re reading Mexican poets or Latin American poets or Caribbean poets. But I get why they don’t feel drawn to necessarily read poets from the U.S., because there is a sense that they don’t read us.
It does feel weird sometimes, especially since I’m living there again, to come from there to here and be just a split––sort of, there’s this world and then there’s this world and they really don’t talk to each other.
BR: What are you excited to work on, now that you’re back living in Puerto Rico?
RSR: Honestly, I would like there to be a huge kind of writers’ conference in the Caribbean, across languages. They do have Caribbean conferences but they tend to be limited to a language. I would just like to see one that’s not just the Caribbean, but also U.S. colonies. Hopefully one day in the future I will [organize one], but it would be nice if there were funding in the U.S. for something like that. There’s funding for so much nonsense.
I’m working on my grandfather’s stuff. It is scary but in a good way, and I’m still acclimating to being back, to be honest, especially with all the earthquakes and everything. Ah. Puerto Rico is still a colony so there’s still a lot happening. But I’m happy I’m back too. I missed it.
Raquel Salas Rivera was born in Puerto Rico and grew up there and in the United States. They received a BA from the Universidad de Puerto Rico and a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania. From Poets.org: Rivera is the author of several collections of poetry, including x/ex/exis (poemas para la nación) (poems for the nation), which was selected for the 2018 Ambroggio Prize and is forthcoming from Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingüe in 2020; while they sleep (under the bed is another country) (Birds, LLC, 2019); and lo terciario/the tertiary (Timeless, Infinite Light, 2018), which received the 2019 Lambda Literary Award for Transgender Poetry and was longlisted for the 2018 National Book Award in Poetry. In 2019, Rivera was named an Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellow and served as the 2018–2019 poet laureate of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. During 2020, they will be growing trinitarias in Santurce, San Juan, Puerto Rico, as La Impresora’s first poet in residence.
Hope Jordan is a 2020 MFA candidate at UMass Boston. Her work has appeared most recently in the Blue Mountain Review, Stone Canoe, and Split Rock Review. She lives in NH, where she was the first official poetry slam master.