Philadelphia's Poet Laureate Raquel Salas Rivera Wants You To Write & Read Poetry That Breaks You Apart

You may know Philadelphia for its cheesesteaks and historical sites, but right at the heart of the city is a buzzing, vibrant arts scene. Energized by a diverse array of neighborhoods and strong local identity, poetry is thriving in the City of Brotherly Love. Queer poet and translator Raquel Salas Rivera has just begun a two-year term as the city's new Poet Laureate, and they couldn't be more excited to amplify the city's local voices and advocate for arts funding.

"Philadelphia, I feel, is a place where there is an incredible amount of talent," they tell Bustle. "And it has a very complex and complicated and rich history that often is not as known outside of Philly. It has a relationship to the rest of the state which is political, and because it was a white flight city... there was always a lot of contention about what kind of funding Philly would get. Philly has been producing art for a really long time, often unrecognized."

The position of Poet Laureate is sponsored by Philadelphia’s Free Library, and it's intended to honor a poet that "demonstrates a commitment to the power of poetry to engage and inspire."

"Philly has been producing art for a really long time, often unrecognized."

"I feel that Philly has embraced me, now over the last five and a half to six years," says Rivera. "And I am so excited and I feel so lucky that I get to give back a little bit, honestly."

One of Rivera’s primary goals as Poet Laureate is to collaborate with Philadelphia’s different communities without exploiting their cultural offerings. “The arts is often used [...] in gentrification projects, and I'm pretty anti-gentrification, so part of my approach to the arts in Philly is to really advocate for public funding,” Rivera says. “I think part of my position, and what it allows me, is to have more of a platform to organize with communities rather than speaking over them."

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

Listening is key to this process, says Rivera. “I think something important to keep in mind is that it's true that we all come with different sets of tools and experiences and skills to every project," they say. "But chances are any community [...] is going to know more than you about spaces and the role art has had in that community."

One of the projects that Rivera is most excited about is the "We, Too, Are Philly" festival, which they are co-organizing alongside Raena Shirali, Ashley Davis, and Kirwyn Sutherland. The festival, which will take place this summer, takes its name from the Langston Hughes poem, "I, Too." Readers at the festival will be mostly of people of color, and the featured poets will all be local Philadelphians. "Usually when people do readings here, the feature is the out-of-towner," says Rivera. "We're going to bring people from out of town, but we're going to feature the poets in Philadelphia, as a way of saying we too are features."

Rivera also intends to include a poet that doesn't write solely in English in each of the festival’s readings. "Part of my platform is to say that Philadelphia is a city of many languages, and that it's a sanctuary city, and I really defend that," they say.

Rivera, who is originally from Puerto Rico, publishes their own poems in both Spanish and English. They are the author of the collections Caneca de anhelos turbios, oropel/tinsel, and tierra intermitente, with a new book, lo terciario/the tertiary, forthcoming in 2018. They are also co-editor of The Wanderer as well as Puerto Rico en mi corazón, a collection of bilingual broadsides of contemporary Puerto Rican poets.

"Part of my platform is to say that Philadelphia is a city of many languages, and that it's a sanctuary city, and I really defend that."

Rivera says that a lot about the poem changes for them as they move between languages, and they see a lot of power in how a poem is translated. "There are words that I don't translate because I don't feel that they should be translated," Rivera says. "I think most things are translated imperfectly anyways. That's the point of translation. But there are definitely words that I refuse to translate because I think there's a lot of power in refusal. Because I think translation that represents itself as total transparency does a disservice to the work."

"But there are definitely words that I refuse to translate because I think there's a lot of power in refusal."

Rivera also feels that translation is inherently politicized. "Puerto Rican dialect in Spanish is my language, and so I translate myself, but it's also like I translate myself every single day as I navigate a city," they say. "I translate my past, my experiences, my life, my formation, my identity in a way that makes me palpable to others... Part of my being able to talk to you like this is me translating. I think it's important to acknowledge that that's something that's already loaded for me, but I learn a lot from doing it.

They add: "Yes there's a lot of pain, there's a lot of history, and there's a lot of refusal, and there's also joy and the potential for understanding each other in our misunderstandings. Or holding space for each other as we misunderstand.”

Rivera’s writing deals heavily with the impact of this translation. Their forthcoming book, lo terciario/the tertiary, draws the titles of each poem from Pedro Scaron's El Capital—a Spanish translation of Karl Marx’s Capital—which was commonly used by left-wing politicians and activists in Puerto Rico during the '70s and '80s. As Rivera writes in conversation with the text, they explore how Marx takes many things as a given that are not necessarily so.

"My talking with this text is my kind of like giving my respect to the text, but also being like, 'Where am I in this text though? And where's Puerto Rico in this text? And where's the colony in this text? And where's my queerness in this text? And where are trans people in this text?'" Rivera says. "And in a way it's very playful. I'm making fun of him sometimes, and I'm kind of angry sometimes, and I'm really deeply acknowledging he was right sometimes."

Rivera views their work as Poet Laureate as a social service. They believe poetry has a lot of power to do "imaginative work" that has an impact on the real world. "I see poetry as something that can in the best case deepens who we are, and kind of expands our ability to feel and experience the world, including ourselves. It can heal trauma. It can allow us to create magic," they say. "It's something that allows each of our organs to do something new. Like, as a whole being it heightens who we are."

Additionally, part of Rivera's role as Poet Laureate is to mentor the city's Youth Poet, as well as engage with Philadelphia's citizens. So, what's their advice to young and emerging poets?

"I see poetry as something that can in the best case deepens who we are, and kind of expands our ability to feel and experience the world, including ourselves. It can heal trauma. It can allow us to create magic."

"This is about basically finding something that breaks you apart. This is about self-knowledge. This is about poetry. There are no rules in this," they say. "Someone can tell you to like something. Someone can tell you this is bad or this is good or this what you're supposed to be reading or this is what you're supposed to like, but none of that matters. Read and create your own standards of discernment."

Rivera also stresses that it's important to find the joy in poetry. "This world is really hard. It shouldn’t just be another job. there should be something that you find in poetry, and I hope that they can find it in my work and the work in others."