Philadelphia names new poet laureate

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Philadelphia's new poet laureate Raquel Salas Rivera.

Philadelphia's new poet laureate Raquel Salas Rivera. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Raquel Salas Rivera is relatively new to Philadelphia, having moved here from Puerto Rico for grad school — staying for love — and keeping rooted in both places.

“Many people who immigrate to the U.S. have more than one home,” said Rivera a few weeks ago during an interview at the Free Library of Philadelphia, just before jetting off to visit family in Puerto Rico. “They have multiple allegiances. My home is Philadelphia, and my home is Puerto Rico.”

That movement between two things is something Rivera explores in poetry and in life. The poet identifies as neither male nor female, rather as non-binary. Rivera prefers to be referred to as the gender-neutral “they.”

The poet likes to keep things fluid — and thinks deeply about what is gained and what is lost by changing nationality or gender.

Rivera writes in Spanish and only later translates to English, if at all. The poet often reads the work in the original Spanish, even when the audience is mostly nonplussed English speakers.

“I believe the discomfort can be a teaching movement,” said Rivera. “You might have to briefly experience what so many people experience when they first move here, no having power.”

The poet is very firm on political and cultural issues regarding Puerto Rico — not just the current recovery efforts following last year’s devastating hurricanes, but the century-long struggle to retain a cultural identity as an U.S. territory.

“I have been mourning for a long time, even though I don’t want to say Puerto Rico is dead. It’s not,” said Rivera. “People are living there and fighting every day because it’s their home. I will say it’s being radically transformed, and there is a pushback against that transformation. In any radical transformation or translation, something dies or is lost.”

“follow me fully.
if you follow me, you have to cover yourself
well with homage.
dress like them,
like men on horseback.
dress like a charging demon,
assume it,
because they assume you.
make yourself visible to ours
and invisible to theirs.”

— from “the vejigante’s flight” (2017)

Rivera applied to be Philadelphia’s poet laureate, but did not expect to be selected. “Puerto Rican poets are used to having the U.S. not know anything about Puerto Rican poetry,” said Rivera. “So the idea that I would become the poet laureate of anything in the U.S. was surprising.”

Rivera is the first poet laureate selected by the Free Library, which adopted the program from City Hall last year. The laureate position comes with the expectation that the poet will be a civic leader — a cultural instigator to tie together the Philadelphia’s citizenry through poetry.

The library’s director of enrichment and civic engagement, Andrew Nurkin — who administers the laureate program and sits on its selection committee — said Rivera was selected, in part, because of the poet’s eagerness to engage with Philadelphia as a sanctuary city.

“Raquel’s vision was very clearly around using poetry to engage and push political conversation around diversity of Philadelphia communities and, in particular, the Puerto Rican community,” said Nurkin. “That was very appealing to the committee.”

The poet already has ideas about how to use the laureate position. Rivera wants to start a series of poetry readings called “We Too Are Philly,” taking cues from Langston Hughes poem “I Too Am America.” The readings are meant to juxtapose a wide diversity of voices.

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