As part of the 2020 Dear Poet project, students around the country and the world wrote letters to Raquel Salas Rivera in response to a video of him reading his poem “notas sobre las temporadas” aloud. Raquel Salas Rivera wrote letters back to four of these students; their letters and his replies are included below, along with several additional responses from students.
Raquel Salas Rivera also wrote a response to all of the participants of this year's Dear Poet project.
Because you are already poets, because you are making this world, I wanted to write you a letter about my poem, "notas sobre las temporadas/ notes on the seasons." When I wrote this poem, I didn't expect that many people would read it. I wrote it hoping it would help me understand my complicated, loving, and intense relationship with the place of my birth, my home, Puerto Rico. As you may have intuited, I am trans and I write primarily in Spanish. Most of my work deals with my transness and how it has been shaped by both my home and my later displacement from that home.
This poem was my attempt to answer the claims that there was no place for inclusive language in Spanish, and, more specifically, that there was no place for non-binary pronouns because Spanish was so binary. Every time I heard this argument, it infuriated me because it reminded me of even older statements that similarly claimed that being trans in not natural, that we don't exist, and that we can't exist.
Yet, here I am, existing.
And every time I affirm that I am alive, every time I write about this body and how it moves through the world, I am making room for others. How wild that something so simple could seem so radical!
Many of you asked about the lions in my poem. They are the lions that live in the Mayagüez zoo. They aren't originally from Puerto Rico, yet everyday they survive here and by now they are as much a part of my hometown as I am. I chose them because they are both rare and familiar, much like being trans in Mayagüez is rare and familiar. I chose them because I identify with their sad early afternoon roars, with their desire to be free. I wrote them a letter they will never receive, but which I hope comes true.
I wish I could transmit what Mayagüez is like year-round. I wish you could feel the midday heat, that we could eat Rex Cream together and see the City Hall Christmas display. Mostly, I wish there was a way to give you the love I feel for this place in the palm of my hand, so that you could suddenly understand why I yearn for its embrace, but not its acceptance.
I am sorry I could not answer each of your letters individually. Nothing would have made me happier, except maybe having you here in Puerto Rico for an evening, so you could see just what I mean.
Raquel Salas Rivera
Santurce, Puerto Rico, 2020
Raquel Salas Rivera reads "notas sobre las temporadas" for Dear Poet 2020.
Dear Raquel Salas Rivera,
My name is Amelia, I am a sophomore in Ms. Heinemann’s English class at Oak Park and River Forest High School in Oak Park IL. After reading multiple poems this week, yours stood out to me because of your unique perspective on oppression and the struggle involved with not conforming to the standards of society. I was able to relate to the part in your poem where you write about a lion being confined in a cage and transforming to a snake and then a spider who can finally escape confinement and be free. I interpreted this section as describing the struggle involved with being content with oneself and not being someone you don’t want to be just to fit in with other’s expectations. Your metaphor is so unique and very accurate. The lion is a symbol of strength and power yet it is also stuck. Every time it transforms it loses some of its stereotypical resemblance of power but it gains freedom. I have struggled with this idea throughout high school and middle school. There is a lot of pressure on high school students to fit in. High school can be a challenging time for many people because we are all growing and starting to figure out who we are as well as who we want to be. It can be hard to balance wanting to fit in and wanting to express yourself genuinely.
I’m curious to know if there is a specific reason you chose to use a lion, snake, and spider in your metaphor. Is there another interpretation of these animals different from the one I mentioned? I like the animals you chose because they all resemble power in a different way.
I was also wondering how society and media have affected your own process of self-discovery and how you became confident with who you are. I really appreciated reading your poem and having my own feelings validated and represented. I think more people should read your work because I think everyone at one point or another has been challenged with understanding and expressing their own self-identity.
Oak Park, IL
Thank you for your letter. I think there is something particularly freeing about being able to change shape, to transmogrify or transition toward freedom. Often, trans people such as myself are told that being different, being trans, is a weakness or a fault. Seldom are we told it is a strength, but experiencing radical change in the way we are perceived gives us additional insight. This makes us much like lions who become snakes that then become spiders. We know what it is to move through the world differently.
I went through a tough time during middle school, so I understand what you mean. If someone had told me back then that I’d be a poet whose words impacted thousands, I would not have believed them. It took many transmogrifications before I was able to believe in myself. I currently live in Puerto Rico. A great deal of the poem refers to my hometown, Mayagüez. The Mayagüez zoo has lions and at certain hours of the day, you can hear them roar. I often thought of them when I lived there, imagining their freedom and, in some ways, my own. There are no venomous snakes in Puerto Rico. I find snakes to be powerful and often misunderstood. There are also no venomous spiders. We usually don’t kill spiders in the house because they eat mosquitos. Each of these animals has a place in my heart.
As for social norms and media. Yes, they have shaped me. I’ve also been shaped by family, friends and my own search for a different world. If only social norms had shaped me, I’d probably be very unhappy. It is important to break away and even invent new rules. I know and trust that in time you will continue to find your own way and words.
Raquel Salas Rivera
Dear Raquel Salas Rivera,
My name is Amy, I am a junior in high school and, I live in Hyattsville, Maryland. I am Salvadoran, but I was born in North America. I am a very responsible student and work my hardest to better my future as well as my family’s. I am very fluent in Spanish and a very helpful and caring person to all around me. I am the oldest role model for two out of four sisters but, also a role model to many who surround me in and outside of school. I have gone through a lot of hardships including sexual abuse and neglect with the situation. I have also been in a foster home and I have overcome these situations with working hard to better my future and please myself more than anyone else.
In your poem “notes on the seasons”, one thing I strongly related to in the poem was the part “I wrote them this letter because I know what it’s like to wait for transmogrification”. I could strongly relate to this because we all have a transformation into a different form of how we grow into who we are when we are older. As well as the transformation one may have for better or for worse. “I wrote them this letter because I know what it’s like to wait for transmogrification in captivity.” My transformation was in a sort of captivity within myself, my head as well as my setting and the people who I was surrounded by were my captivity. And my transformation has become beautiful but I am still questioning who I am and my purpose. Your poem has helped with knowing my captivity can be my liberty with my identity.
A few questions about the poem are how do you create a voice as a writer and how can the writer develop a unique perspective into a bigger point. As well as your opinions about culture and identity, I was able to find both aspects in your poem and was wondering how you are able to connect the two. My writing isn’t as great I think I have a problem with explaining my point and saying my thought without too much thought in it and was wondering if you could give me advice on that. Maybe one day you could come and visit DBCR and I could show you around during my senior year 2021. Hope you are staying safe during these hard times.
My mother was the oldest of five siblings. All my life, I've seen her take care of others while trying to carve out space for herself. Now, she finally has a thriving garden where she grows aguacate, plátanos, guineos, parcha, papaya, piña, pimientos, tomates, cilantro and perejil. Every day she sends me photos of the plants she has been growing, and some days I visit her and see them in person. Writing is much like my mother's garden, in that the plants don't belong to her or to anyone, but in caring for them, they thrive and she heals. But if she becomes too consumed by her work and responsibilities, the plants get thirsty or insects eat them, so she has to make time for the earth and for herself.
The more you write and the more you tend your garden, the more you will understand your own relationship to what you are growing: how you depend on the plants and they depend on you; how you have to make sure to protect them when there is a storm; and how you have to know what the weather will be like in order to water them more or less. You see how things are connected, and what seemed small depends on something bigger, and what seemed big needs what is smaller. I wouldn't worry about having too much thought in your writing, that just means you have something to write about. I also wouldn't worry too much about reaching the big things, they will unfold.
I hope sometime soon you get time for yourself, for your writing, for your garden. I also hope to visit your school sometime in the future, when the world has started healing.
Raquel Salas Rivera
Dear Raquel Salas Rivera,
My name is Meghana, and I am a junior from Kansas City, Missouri. I am writing to you about your poem, “notes on the seasons” which I read for my English class this year. As a queer person of color, your poem hit home in a lot of ways, and I wanted to write to you to thank you for sharing your experiences through your poetry. It’s hard to find stories that address the weird and confusing intersection of what it means to exist as both nonbinary and as a person of color. Reading your poem was, in a way, reassurance that people like me exist.
In particular, there are two lines in your poem that hit me especially hard. The first is the opening line, “in spanish, we don’t naturally occur.” I took this line to have a double meaning: the first, that within language, even the language of our motherland, nonbinary people and queer people are not supposed to occur. My family is Indian, and my grandma who lives with us only speaks Telugu. It’s been very hard trying to explain my queer identity to her, because it feels like the language to tell her what I am and I’m feeling doesn’t exist. The second meaning I think this line has is about the effects of colonization writ large. You reference that in the Carribean, “there are no seasons,” which is common in many areas close to the Equator, which coincidentally, also were colonized by Western powers. The presence of seasons indicates normalcy. In essence, something as benign as the weather patterns of our mother countries can isolate us from Western culture. That metaphor really illustrates how hard it can be to understand why Western culture isolates young people of color.
The second line that really affected me was, “if i’m going to explore my nationality, i have to be recognizable.” I think this line basically sums up what it’s like being nonbinary and a person of color. I feel like in order to truly embrace my cultural heritage, I have to fit certain gendered norms. It feels impossible to be both queer and Indian because there are so few people and role models I can turn to to see how it is done. In many ways, I feel like I have to pick between embracing my gender identity and embracing my cultural heritage. It is reassuring to know that I am not alone in these experiences.
In many ways, your poem was kind of a call to empowerment for me. I took the letter within the poem as an affirmation of my potential to exist authentically, and the possibility of escaping two places I feel trapped in. I want to thank you again for writing this poem. Thank you for helping me better understand my own experiences and for giving me the hope to realize my potential.
All the best,
Kansas City, MO
Sometimes, confusion just means we are working within structures that are stale, with codes that aren't made for us, and moving through spaces where many others may also feel unwelcome. Sometimes, it only takes one other person who we identify with in order for us to verbalize what we have long felt. Other times, we can't seem to find an exact fit, so we take from here and there and invent the language.
Your reading is extraordinarily close to what I wanted to convey. It confirms that sometimes to really "get" a poem, we have to share some life experiences with the poet, and that language can't be abstracted from that experience, since the two are entangled.
I also love that you mention escaping the places where you feel trapped. This poem was in some ways a placeholder I offered a younger self. I reminded myself that I wouldn't always have to fit in the cages set up for me, and that transmogrification would eventually free me. I also wanted to remind myself that being trans in a transphobic world will continue to be a violent experience until the very conditions for survival change. This would mean the end of colonialism and all oppressive structures. I know it seems like a big task, but every day it becomes more obvious that we have nothing to lose and everything to gain. If we kill the king, we kill the game.
Thank you for your letter. It means the world.
Raquel Salas Rivera
Dearest Raquel Salas Rivera,
I have never been one to write letters. They are indefinitely unfulfilled and structured, with words like dear, sincerely, and please not meant in the slightest. I prefer to speak through the broken up lines of a poem or scattered character traits among pages of a story I forgot I wrote; communication comes easier that way. However, after reading your work, I found that the opportunity to write to you was too inviting to pass up.
Not to say what's inevitably already been said, but your work is beautiful. Each line transcendently honest and uncompromising, yet still it feels personal even when transcribing the fate of an entire territory. The shifts between your exploration in identity and revolution, revolution and mosquitos, mosquitos and ribbon, flow so seamlessly but still mark a hard thump in the hollow of my chest. After reading, I was not left speechless, but rather with ten thousand more things to say.
Particularly on the concept of transmogrification, because, this year especially, I have realized identity is a tricky thing. For every person I know there is a different version of me, and the more I can recognize myself, the less I fulfill those expectations. Lion, spider, or snake is a tricky question, but even more so when you are a Chimera. Every time I write, I get further from who I thought I was and closer to someone I haven’t met yet. I hope it’s not too bold to say that you might understand.
Through reading your work, I have found solace in the beauty of language- which is one thing I know well. (Although after six years of Spanish classes I can only read the English translation.) There is a deficit in the translation of words; concepts that never quite carry over borders. It is a secret passion hidden behind opaque curtains that can’t be torn away. It is bewitching.
I suppose you may have already seen this but it took me hours of deep concentration to realize that it is the unknown in language that is beautiful, as is in identity. Blindness can be a blessing when there is always a new part of yourself to discover. The bane of existence, the blessing of being alive, is never knowing exactly who you are. Knowing that there is always a new version of life to feel, to love, to change. Knowing you are only what you know, and you know nothing.
In summary, thank you. Thank you for your work, your honesty, your not knowing. Your work has inspired me and give me safety; two things that rarely occur simultaneously. I hope this letter hasn’t bored you or been as utterly confusing as it feels.
Keep killing the game.
Sincerely (and meant),
I agree the language of letters feels forced. There is a formality and distance in the premise of a letter that seems unfit for a correspondence between writers, especially since poetry is so often about radical vulnerability, but I believe these rigid formal structures can sometimes act as containers, the way a hug is sometimes what we need in order to let go and cry. To be held with a firm touch by a structure with clear boundaries can be freeing.
I also understand what you mean when you think of transmogrification as adapting to others, especially at your age when it becomes most clear we are expected to change who we are according to different social situations. This is often unjust if no reason is given for these expectations, or if rules are stated as having intrinsic value whether or not they are justified. I wish I could say this because-I-said-so logic goes away. Often, survival means finding ways to resist that aren’t overt. Sometimes, it means remembering you will eventually transmogrify.
I love this part of your letter: “The bane of existence, the blessing of being alive, is never knowing exactly who you are. Knowing that there is always a new version of life to feel, to love, to change.” I couldn’t agree more. This is why I love poetry and why I love translation, both acknowledge language is rooted in process, not outcome.
As for thanking, I thank you. This letter! It made me want to read more. The not knowing is crucial, but the other ways of knowing guide us through the somatic, intuitive, and unnamable. So much of poetry embraces what falls outside the constraints of mappable possibility. May you keep killing the game and building furiously atop the ashes.
Raquel Salas Rivera
Dear Raquel Salas Rivera,
I read your poem, “notas sobre las temporadas” and I loved it! It was cool how you showed how one animal is part of another, each with new opportunities, which made me think that we are all a part of each other in a way. I liked how you said that you have to know yourself to be able to know where you come from. My favorite part of this poem is, “i know that right now you are lions, and you’ve spent a lot of time in the heat, but when you become snakes, no fence will be able to contain you. they’ll have to put you in a glass cage. they call this cage a fish tank. they’ll decorate the cage with rocks. you’ll no longer be able to roar. but don’t worry, when you become spiders, you’ll be able to leave the fish tank. you’ll climb up to the roof. maybe it’ll take you many weeks to find a window, but in the interim, you’ll eat mosquitos, since these are abundant, despite the aromatic candles.” This is the part where I felt like we are all connected. I liked how you can make everything connect when you think about it.
The last stanza of the poem spoke to me. There are so many different things that I thought it would have meant, but I just don’t know how to put it into words. It’s like how there’s always another way to get to the top. It shows how if you can’t get what you need from the room, go to the zoo. If you can’t get what you need from the zoo, go to your hometown. And if you can’t get what you need from the king, become your own king and get what you need. Anyway, I really liked how you used all these different examples to show your feelings.
My questions for you are, what experiences made you feel this way about yourself and the people around you and when you said that you knew what it was like to wait for transmogrification in captivity, what did you mean? And I know that everyone sees things differently, so what was your idea that you wanted people to take away from this poem?
Dear Raquel Salas Rivera,
My name is Bea, I go to school at the Packer Collegiate Institute in Brooklyn, New York. I’m in 7th grade and I want to write slightly more than I want to do most things in the world. I’ve been writing poetry since before I knew how to spell non-medievally and when I read your poem I felt seen. We had to read all these poems and pick one and if I’m really being honest I didn’t fully read them at first and I got to yours and the line that stood out was “i wrote them this letter because i know what it’s like to wait for transmogrification in captivity,” because when I read that I didn’t know what transmogrification was but I felt like I related to the line and I like big words so I looked it up, and then I knew that this poem was a hand outstretched in the universe for me to hold on to. I am writing to you because I don’t know what you meant when you wrote these words but I know what I felt when I read them and I don’t know what’s more important.
Your poem said all of what I have felt about being not as I was meant to be. That little piece about needing to be recognizable really spoke to me, it’s a funny thing to know who you are when no one else can see it. It’s an even funnier thing to want people to recognize who you are and they can’t, or won’t. When I read the letter to the lions I didn’t get what you meant at first, maybe I still don’t, but on the fifth or sixth read through I started to think about how impermanent being a person is. How each state only lasts a little while and each time you change you become something different and new and that it’s okay to not want to be as you are or were. And then those precious lines about transmogrification. That feeling of needing to evolve, be whole, be different or better or more normal felt personal. I spend far too much of my time waiting to grow up and out of everything that is wrong with me, I wrote that in a poem once.
That first part of your piece, the part that is almost stream of consciousness but poetic and refined, reminds me of writing that I used to love but haven’t done in years. The way that the lines kind of tumble together is powerful, almost like you’re trying to get all the words in before someone interrupts you. I get that. It feels like you’re trying to get all of your thoughts into the world before someone decides that they don’t matter enough to be said. But they sit in my brain anyway, you ask two questions “who uses a xylophone? and who wants us?” and at first I didn’t know what you meant and then I read them in context with “every time you think these questions aren’t the same, you recognize that you never met me, despite the i’ve seen you before and somewhere.” And that’s why it’s not a stream of consciousness, because a stream of consciousness will tell you what it’s saying whether or not you want to hear it, to know what you’re saying, you have to want to know.
Each time I read this poem I understand something new, so thank you for making something that doesn’t only teach once. How do you do that? Better yet, how do you feel safe enough to speak (or write) the truth? That’s what I’ve never been able to figure out, how do you find the courage to say it out loud? I hope that someday when I have achieved a slightly more whole form than a thirteen year old girl I’ll be able to say what I think, or who I am. Anyway, thank you for writing this, I am constantly searching for people who are saying things that aren’t trying to appease the world and I think you’re one of them. At least now I have a poem to hold onto as I wait for transmogrification.