August 13, 2021
Raquel Salas Rivera, a Puerto Rican poet who writes in Spanish and English, is featured in the University of Arizona Press Fall 2021 catalog with his collection x/ex/exis: poemas para la nación that poet Willie Perdomo deftly describes as poetry “… guided by an almost surreal imagery, [that] teaches us how to write from the silence of captivity with a nuanced bilingualism. The lines in these poems work off Salas Rivera’s beautifully decolonized logic and turn until they ultimately construct a nation of truth or cut you until you bleed into a new body.”
One: Salas Rivera’s x/ex/exis: poemas para la nación is the first recipient of the Academy of American Poets’ Ambroggio Prize, a $1,000 publication prize given for a book-length poetry manuscript originally written in Spanish and with an English translation. Ambroggio Prize winners are now published by the University of Arizona Press. x/ex/exis was selected by Alberto Álvaro Ríos in 2018.
Written in the early days of the rise of world-wide fascism and the poet’s gender transition, x/ex/exis accepts the invitation to push poetic and gender imaginaries beyond the bounds set by nation. From teen dysphoria, to the incarceration of anticolonial activists Oscar López and Nina Droz Franco, to the entanglement of church and state, these poems acknowledge the violence of imposed binaries. For Salas Rivera, the x marks Puerto Rican transness in a world that seeks trans death, denial, and erasure. Instead of justifying his existence, he takes up the flag of illegibility and writes an apocalyptic book that screams into an uncertain future, armed with nothing to lose.
Two: Salas Rivera was Poet Laureate of Philadelphia, 2018-2019. He holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and Literary Theory at the University of Pennsylvania.
“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.”
Three: Salas Rivera is part of a collective of Puerto Rican authors and poets with El proyecto de la literatura puertorriqueña/ The Puerto Rican Literature Project, with the University of Houston’s U.S. Latino Digital Humanities and support from a three-year Mellon Foundation grant. Salas Rivera is currently creating the projects online archive of Puerto Rican literature. Alongside Claire Jiménez, Ricardo Maldonado, Enrique Olivares, and the University of Houston’s USLDH team, he serves as investigator and head of the translation team. The archive is a free, bilingual, user-friendly open access digital portal that users within and outside academia can use to learn about and teach Puerto Rican poetry.
“So often, Puerto Rican poets and writers are forced to share our various knowledges and archive these without the necessary resources, keeping alive precarious traditions, driven by our love of literature and sheer force of will, carving out time where there is none to create, document, and uplift each other. The PRLP is a long overdue post-curational archival project that we can all access, which we hope will aid us in a centuries-long mission to celebrate our literary achievements.”
Four: Besides being named a Poet Laureate, Salas Rivera has an impressive list of awards and grants in his work as a poet. He is also the author of five full-length poetry books besides x/ex/exis. His sixth book, antes que isla es volcán/before island is volcano, is an imaginative leap into Puerto Rico’s decolonial future and is forthcoming from Beacon Press in 2022.
Awards: 2020 Firecracker Award in Poetry Finalist; 2019 Big Other Book Award for Poetry and Translation Finalist; 2020 Pen America Open Book Award Longlist; 2019 Premio Nuevas Voces del Festival de la Palabra de Puerto Rico; 2018 Lambda Literary Award for Transgender Poetry; 2018 National Book Award Longlist: Poetry; 2018 Ambroggio Prize from the Academy of American Poets; 2018-2019 Poet Laureate of Philadelphia; 2010 First and Second Place in the Polytechnic University of Puerto Rico’s Literary Contest; y/and 2010 First Place in the University of Puerto Rico’s Queer Festival’s Poetry Contest.
Grants and fellowships: 2021-2024 Mellon Foundation grant for El proyecto de la literatura puertorriqueña/ The Puerto Rican Literature Project; 2021 NEA Translation Fellowship; 2019-2021 Writer for the Art for Justice Fund at the University of Arizona Poetry Center; 2020 University of Houston and Arte Publico Press US Latino Digital Humanities USLDH Grant-In-Aid; 2020 Nadya Aisenberg MacDowell Colony Fellowship; 2020 La Impresora Poet in Residency; 2019 Playwright Fellow at the Sundance Institute Playwrights and Composer Retreat; 2019 Laureate Fellowship from the Academy of American Poets; 2018-2019 Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts Jazz Residency; 2018 CantoMundo Fellow; y/and 2004 Scholarship to attend Naropa University’s Summer Writing Program.
Five: Salas Rivera’s roots are poetry.
His grandfather Sotero Rivera Avilés was a poet, and with the support of a 2021 NEA Translation Fellowship, he is translating his grandfather’s poetry.
“On April 28, 1933, my grandfather, Sotero Rivera Avilés, was born in Añasco, Puerto Rico. Like most Puerto Rican towns, Añasco was built around the production of sugar cane. Rivera Avilés was the descendant of enslaved sugarcane workers. … Rivera Aviles’ work is extraordinary in its scope. He most often writes within the more traditional lyrical style that was typical of the Guajana Generation. Yet he wrote about being a post-war veteran in a rural Puerto Rican town and the broken promises of Luis Muñoz Marín’s populist modernization projects. He demystified the jíbaro archetype of the naïve, but good-hearted field laborer saved by mass migration to urban centers, such as San Juan and New York. He wrote openly about his disabilities, delved into the seldom described experience of post-war return migration, and left a record of regionalisms from a world that no longer exists. His is some of the only poetry written about Humatas, and the breadth of his work never overshadowed the importance of the life he led before acquiring a formal education.”
Currently, Salas Rivera writes and teaches in Puerto Rico.