An interview with Raquel Salas Rivera

Sarah Timmer Harvey

Photograph by Kielinski Photography

In the months following Hurricane Maria, Philadelphia’s Poet Laureate, Raquel Salas Rivera, simmering with rage, threw themselves into realizing two ambitious projects. The first, in collaboration with Erica Mena, Ricardo Maldonado, and Carina del Valle Schorske, was a bilingual collection of Puerto Rican poetry from the island and across the diaspora. The second was Salas Rivera’s personal response to the hurricane and its aftermath, a text that would eventually become their remarkable new book, while they sleep (under the bed is another country).  

To read while they sleep (under the bed is another country) is to confront the crisis through two distinct lenses. The narrative of the English-language witness coolly dominates the page, while the Spanish-language “(hi)stories” of Puerto Rico’s survivors are relegated to the footnotes. There, underneath a bed occupied by the American settler state, and unrecognized by those who refuse to engage with the Spanish, these “(hi)stories,” Salas Rivera writes, are part of the “monsters” that have been surviving “in the shadows.” While they sleep (under the bed is another country) is dedicated to all who “continue fighting for a Puerto Rico free of the colonial yoke.” And yet, it’s difficult to imagine that even the visionary Salas Rivera could have foreseen that their writing would so perfectly capture Puerto Rico on the brink of a transcendent uprising, that it would depict the long breath before the “monsters" came roaring out of the shadows in resistance. Several weeks after the book’s publication, Salas Rivera would be back in Puerto Rico, protesting beside family, friends, and the hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans who mobilized in July 2019 to demand the resignation of former governor Ricardo Rosselló.

In the months after Rosselló and his self-appointed successor were ousted, as people’s assemblies were forming across Puerto Rico in order to continue the push for political and socio-economic reforms, I corresponded with Salas Rivera. Generously, they shared their recollections of the protests, thoughts on the structure of independence, poetry and language parity, femme boys, future-makers and the sights, scents, and sounds of their Puerto Pico.

—Sarah Timmer Harvey

You are part of what the Puerto Rican musicians Bad Bunny, iLe, and Calle 13 refer to as Puerto Rico’s “Generation I Won’t Allow It.” What has this meant for you over the past few weeks? And what does it mean for the future?

Well, as much as I’d love to be part of that generation, I’m part of the preceding generation. Joel Cintrón Abrasetti did an incredible job of describing that generation in his article for the Centro de Periodismo Investigativo, “La generación del ‘yo no me dejo’ exige la renuncia de Ricardo Rosselló.” These are the young people who cleared roads and buried the dead during Maria. They have rebuilt Puerto Rico. When I got pepper-sprayed in front of Fortaleza, they were the ones who poured Seattle Solution on my eyes and told me not to be afraid because it wouldn’t sting. They know what it’s like to have no government support, nothing to lose, and no fear. I am their eternal student. I completely and unashamedly romanticize them because they are Romantic! They are every poem I’ve ever written with the hope of revolution and everyone who ever died for the right cause.

Let me go on about them. They are beautiful, inventive, unafraid of pleasure, opinionated, and willing to listen. They get excited about throwing an adoquín at cops. They are the anti-fascist movement because they are the anti-colonial movement, because they are future-makers. I have no idea what the future holds or if there will be a future, but they give me hope that there will be a way out of worldwide fascism and ecological collapse. They are the poems, the poets, and the poetry.

You recently published a poem in The Puerto Rico Review titled the independence (of Puerto Rico). What does Puerto Rican independence look like to you? Is it in sight?

That poem is part of a larger collection titled antes que isla es volcán/before island is volcano. It was originally a manuscript solicitation from Puerto Rican poet and editor Cindy Jiménez-Vera. Cindy asked me to write a children’s book, which eventually became a book about the future of Puerto Rico. Like any book about the future should be, it has more questions and potentialities than answers.

The first section, “mar del poema/sea of the poem,” is rhymed and a sort of homage to work by José Martí and Federico García Lorca, both of whom understood the importance of writing poems for young people and who also understood that sometimes simplicity can be a way of condensing life. The second section, “volcán/volcano,” deals with the cumulative violence of colonial codependency. The third section, “isla/island,” uses short verses as a way to counteract the persistent notion that Puerto Rico is “small” or that Puerto Ricans are “insular,” an idea that can be traced back to Antonio S. Pedreira’s Insularismo. By writing deceptively short poems, I question why, for example, Puerto Rico is framed as small and New York as big, and how dimension is structured by power.

The fourth section is “la independencia (de puerto rico)/the independence (of puerto rico).” It opens with the following quote by Fanon:

Monde compartimenté, manichéiste, immobile, monde de statues: la statue du général qui a fait la conquête, la statue de l'ingénieur qui a construit le pont. Monde sûr de lui, écrasant de ses pierres les échines écorchées par le fouet. Voilà le monde colonial. L’indigène est un être parqué, l'apartheid n'est qu'une modalité de la compartimentation du monde colonial. La première chose que l'indigène apprend, c'est à rester à sa place, à ne pas dépasser les limites.
This argument blew my mind. The idea of all these colonized subjects immobilized and sort of bound by the colonial status, unable to move from their assigned positions was very evocative. Then I began to imagine these immobilized positions as what they are, entire lives within a confined role, entire universes, each with its own future. What if each of these futures intersected in the independence of Puerto Rico? This is why each poem in this section is titled “la independencia (de puerto rico)/ the independence (of puerto rico).” They can be read together or separately, as a series or out of order.

As for what that might look like, I think decolonization has to go beyond (but include) political status. Decolonization needs to be about thinking through all the ways we direct our identities toward whiteness, towards the colonizer, and how we build according to what José Esteban Muñoz called “straight time.” Prospero shouldn’t structure our desires, our ways of being, even in anger. This is why one poem in the section begins with “the independence (of puerto rico)” and ends with just “puerto rico,” because we will be fully independent when we aren’t caught in a colonial dynamic. 

After Hurricane Maria, you collaborated with Erica Mena, Ricardo Maldonado, and Carina del Valle Schorske to produce a bilingual collection of Puerto Rican poetry, which has culminated in the production of a book, Puerto Rico en mi corazón. Can you tell me how the project came together and your collective intentions for it?

Erica and I started talking about how we could help after the hurricane. They suggested a fundraiser using broadsides. We knew from the beginning it should be bilingual, and I knew a lot of Puerto Rican poets on the island and in the diaspora since my first books were published in Puerto Rico.

I immediately began asking poets if I could copy-paste their poems and translate them. I quickly explained the project. Because most folks on the island didn’t have signal, they answered yes when they could. It wasn’t until much later that we got all the legal permissions. Carina and I had been collaborating as translators for a long time, so I asked her to join in. Erica invited Ricky to participate. After that, we became inseparable.

As for our intentions, we were all on the same page from the beginning. We wanted to help by raising funds and by amplifying Puerto Rican poetry. Often, in the United States, it’s more comfortable to think of colonized people as suffering bodies, rather than as musicians, actors, theorists, poets, etc. We didn’t want to reinforce that binary.

In the introduction to the collection, you make clear that you are not declaring the “equality” of English and Spanish or initiating a “cross-cultural” exchange. Can you speak to the significance of this?

I like to quote this moment in Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist’s translation of Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin’s The Dialogic Imagination: “[P]rior to [the] moment of appropriation the word does not exist in a neutral and impersonal language […] but rather it exists in other people’s mouths, in other people’s contexts, serving other people’s intentions.” Language exists in mouths, in the materiality of its being spoken. This means that Spanish as it is spoken in Puerto Rico relates to English on unequal terms because most Puerto Ricans on the island don’t speak English, and because English was a language the colonizers attempted to impose. It is important to recognize and contextualize this inequality before translation. An obvious way in which this difference continues to reinforce linguistic colonialism is the use of English-only requirements for many literary contests, which excludes not only Puerto Ricans, but also immigrants and indigenous people alike who do not write in English.

We wanted to make sure it was very clear that placing voices in conversation through translation does not mean they are entering the conversation on equal terms. Acknowledging that is a way to tip the scale a bit in favor of those who have less power.

The collection was named after the slogan of the Young Lords (the radical Puerto Rican liberation group), which was “Tengo Puerto Rico en mi corazón” or “I have Puerto Rico in my heart” and it is suggested in the introduction that the untrained eye might interpret these words as overly simple or sentimental. It made me think of Leslie Jamison’s interrogation of sentimentality and how the word can be used as an accusation or a way to shame deeply felt and expressed emotions, something I think the English of North America and England often strives to avoid. Jamison said:

I think the understanding of how sentimental affect can be working in art that I want to defend or make a case for, is: [When] art makes us feel deeply, often in ways we can’t explain, there can be a sort of second stage to that feeling where we reflect on why those feelings happen and how they might guide us going forth. It’s in that second stage or second layer that I want to offer something to what sentimentality can be or how it can play out.

What are your thoughts on this? If you consider the concept of sentimentality outside of the English language, does your resistance to it change?

Recently, The New Inquiry published a public conversation I had with Carina del Valle Schorske called “How It Feels to Be Free.” We delved pretty deeply into this second stage, particularly in the question of feeling free or feeling free. I think Carina writes it best:

I think of “Father Stretch My Hands” in counterpoint to Nina Simone’s version of “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free.” (The jazz musician Billy Taylor originally wrote it for his daughter.) Superficially the sentiment might seem similar, but grammar matters here, as ever. She is not willing to stop short at feeling free; she wants to know what it would feel like to actually be free, to “remove all the chains holding me” and “all the thoughts that keep us apart.” Somehow in articulating the truer and more difficult ambition for actual liberation, we’re closer to it. Her driving piano accelerates towards an event horizon where feeling meets being.

Now as to having to justify sentimentality, I think it’s only sentimentality according to those who are skeptical about the sincerity of feeling. I guess what I’m saying is that people love, feel, and cry. These are material things. They don’t need to be justified or explained. I always get a little lost when there is a proposed critical distance from feeling. It’s true that the second stage can be generative, but I don’t think we feel or love in order to learn. I think we do it because, because yes, because who doesn’t want to feel? Lo terciario/ the tertiary deals with the violence of that distancing gesture, of that desire to not feel.

“No se cambia una chaqueta por una chaqueta” or “coats are not exchanged for coats” is the title of your own contribution to Puerto Rico en mi corazón, a poem originally published as part of lo terciario/the tertiary, seems to resist the idea of being an exact English translation of the Spanish or a Spanish translation of the English. Can you share your process of writing in two languages? 

To be honest, it is an English translation of the Spanish. This doesn’t mean the English isn’t its own poem or that it is lesser or, dare I say, secondary. By saying it is a translation, I am acknowledging that something is lost in the English (even when other things are gained). That is an important acknowledgment. Recently, a writer asked me if I needed my work translated into Spanish, which was shocking because I realized he had no idea I had books published only in Spanish. It made me think about the assumptions around proficiency. Somewhere in there I felt there was an unexamined belief that if one fluently speaks a dominant language, it would only make sense to write in that language. Why would I want to write in Spanish if I am fluent in English?

Another common assumption is that writing in Spanish is a kind of symbolic gesture. I find that many English speakers in the United States believe that everything is translatable into English, a strange and colonial assumption. So much about Puerto Rican Spanish is untranslatable and that’s ok. There are parts of me I have no interest in translating. So, as powerful as it is to have the Spanish alongside the English, and to not succumb to the pressures to make myself English-only, I don’t do it because I want to make a point, I write in Spanish because that is my language. My process is as follows: I write a poem in Spanish, then I translate it into English. Sometimes I just write the poem and don’t translate it. I wish it were more interesting.

You have written that “to translate is to be the illegible witness of oneself.”

That’s one of my favorite lines from my new book, while they sleep (under the bed is another country). I’m a self-translator. To translate oneself is to self-other in order to move through a space dominated by another system or code. To successfully self-translate you must fold yourself into self and a projected self that is mediated by another’s gaze. In this sense, one must also witness the limits of self-translation. In order to self-translate, I must to some extent face my colonizers and turn my back on my unknowability, but since I never stop being whole, I am also able to witness my estrangement, my refusal, and my doubling. 

This book deals with Hurricane Maria and that distance between the translated and translating self. After the hurricane that fold became a gash, so “witnessing” in this context also refers to witnessing a part of myself (Puerto Rico/my mother/my family/my friends) become completely illegible to the outside world. Even though the bounds of legibility shift, there is always a doubling, and, in doubling, a difference, and in difference, a distance, and in distance, what cannot be known.

In while they sleep (under the bed is another country) that distance is replicated in the gap between the languages and narratives on the page. Was the book’s unique form something that evolved organically?

I was angry and devastated when I started writing it. Hostile Books asked me for a chapbook, and I thought, “Ok, I’ll give you a chapbook.” The original selection was even less accessible. Hostile Books took copies of the chapbook to the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP), but no one was allowed to buy them. Instead they were closed shut with red duct tape and displayed. I called them closed objects. One of my favorite things about being a poet is that I get to break with the bureaucracy of linear process. Usually, I become obsessed with a mood, a fury, and then I write. To answer your question, I started writing these a few minutes after Hostile Books asked me for a chapbook. After a while, I realized I was writing a full-length book.

Where or when are you most yourself?

When I’m talking shit with my friends in Puerto Rico or Philly.

When you are not in Puerto Rico, what are the sounds, sights, and scents that have the capacity to transport you there?

Sometimes when I am making out with someone I am really into, I get flashes. Sometimes if I smell a perfume my uncle wore or if it rains, I’m back in Mayagüez. Sometimes I listen to music from Puerto Rico and I start missing it terribly, or when I talk to my friends back home, I get sad. I wonder where they are, dónde jangean esta noche. Other times, when I talk to my mother and she tells me the coconuts are growing in the yard, I ask myself how I ended up so far from home, why I am here, and none of it makes sense. Usually any kind of pleasure transports me there, even if the smells, sounds, and sights don’t relate to home. It is the feeling of being heightened, of everything being in me suddenly, of being situated. I know not everyone has felt this. I also know not everyone has been in love. I can’t speak much to that. I know both and yearn for both. In fact, I associate them so much that sometimes, when I’m in love, I almost don’t miss Puerto Rico, but, most times, I wish I could be back there being in love. This helps me imagine a world where nothing has to be a violent either/or.

In your published correspondence with Carina del Valle Schorske, you regularly reference the musicians who influence your writing and thought. How do you engage with them while you are working?

Well, most folks at this point know I’m a Bad Bunny fan. I think he was the first popular musician I saw who had my gender, so I have a soft spot for him. I’m a big fan of Mima, Hurray for the Riff Raff, La Macha Colón, ÌFÉ, Intifada, iLe, etc. I listen to a lot of salsa gorda. I also spent most of my teen years obsessing over hip-hop. While I’m working, I sometimes put music on, but it depends on what I’m doing. I also sometimes have a favorite movie on in the background. Cinema plays a huge role in my poetry.

Can you share with me how Bad Bunny reflects your gender identity?

I’ve long identified as a femme boy. I also feel my femme-ness is very Caribbean, very Puerto Rican, so the models I was seeing around me in the US, didn’t really make sense for my gender. I need colors, an excess of gender. Too deep a voice, too many colors, too much nail, or maybe just the right amount, but for my gender. I need to feel like something is confusing in the way I come together, because I want too much, beyond what is deemed acceptable wear for work. And, of course, I like being seen as attractive. It feels nice to be liked! So, when I see Bad Bunny becoming a sexual icon, it feels affirming. It feels good that my gender can be sexy, not just confusing. These are some of the things that come up for me, but clearly whatever I’m seeing in him in terms of a queer aesthetic is more than just this. I don’t know if I would say he reflects my gender as much as he has a gender that felt close enough to mine that gave me clearer language for what was already there.

Bad Bunny has said, “If I have the chance to say something, I will say it—but that doesn't obligate me to always say something. . .” Does this resonate with you? In the context of conversations around gender, do you feel an obligation or responsibility to translate your lived experience and identity for others?

That is an interesting quote that could be read in different ways, but if we read it as relating to gender, yes, absolutely. I don’t have to explain my gender. I don’t have to explain myself. I don’t even have to like it. I don’t have to justify my existence or translate my lived experiences. The desire for limitless access is very colonial, very neoliberal. Having the access needed in order to possess and control others is not freedom. Having an encyclopedic, superficial, and stale knowledge of all things is not admirable. Refusal remains quite powerful as a way to resist colonialism. I say this and immediately think about how a company called Zavana is selling parts of Loíza, how the exploitation of resources is destroying all that is beautiful about my home, and how this kind of unlimited access brings death. I feel obligated to say something in cases where there is injustice, but I do not feel obligated to explain my gender.

Your work often grapples with inheritance (cultural inheritance, literary inheritance, the inheritance of debt, or even “irrelevance”). With your writing, your activism, and in your role as Poet Laureate of Philadelphia, you have the potential to pass on a legacy of your own design. You have spoken of inheritances that end with you, but is there anything you hope to pass on?

It’s hard to admit I care about inheritance. Maybe it’s the fact that I’ve been watching Pose and writing about my grandfather, but yes, I’d like to leave something behind, not a legacy per se, but something. It makes me incredibly happy to see queer Puerto Ricans into my work and answering back. I also believe in redistributing resources and power. As long as I can, I will give others spaces and platforms. If people leave my work with anything, I’d like it to be the feeling that they can create their own poetics. I want my writing to be confrontational, freeing.

Your year as Philadelphia’s Poet Laureate is coming to an end, what are your next steps?

I’m spending most of 2020 in Puerto Rico. Being Poet Laureate has been an incredible honor and experience, but it has often left me with little time to focus on my writing. I am beginning to work on an epic poem about my grandfather called Las diez muertes de Sotero Rivera Avilés/ The Ten Deaths of Sotero Rivera Avilés. I’ll be spending a lot of time interviewing my grandmother and visiting the places where my grandfather lived, especially his hometown, Añasco.