Philadelphia’s poet laureate position is both an honor and a civic duty. The selected poet is expected to perform certain tasks to promote arts in the city, but the Free Library of Philadelphia, which administers the program, offers very little money to support those tasks.
Which puts Raquel Salas Rivera in a pickle. The current poet laureate is paid a stipend of just $5,000 over the two-year appointment and is expected to create poetry events and workshops throughout the city.
“A lot of that work was unpaid work that I was doing, because I wanted to do it and felt responsible, that that was what a poet laureate should do,” said Rivera. “I wanted to have enough money to continue doing the work without having to figure out how to be worried about how to balance doing that work with living.”
Rivera is not alone. The nearly 50 poets laureate across the country are paid little if anything. This year the Academy of American Poets has stepped in to help by distributing about $1 million to secure poet laureate positions in 13 cities and states.
And Rivera, who uses the pronouns they and them, applied and won an unrestricted award of $50,000. It’s their money, not the city’s nor the Free Library’s.
Rivara will use a portion of the award to fund a summer poetry festival that will move poets between Philadelphia and Boston.
“I’m going to collaborate with Porsha Olayiwola, the poet laureate of Boston, where we will have two events – one in Philadelphia and one in Boston,” they said. “I think there’s a mythology around there being a beef between Boston and Philadelphia, and we want to recuperate the idea that histories of migration complicate that.”
Details about the poetry festival are not yet worked out – Rivera didn’t want to make plans until the money was in place. They hope to have something put together for midsummer.