Roque Raquel Salas Rivera, 2019 Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellow and the 2018–2019 poet laureate of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, has released his latest collection antes que isla es volcán / before island is volcano (Beacon Press, 2022). Rivera, the recipient of several awards, including the 2019 Lambda Literary Award for Transgender Poetry and the 2018 Ambroggio prize, lives and teaches in Puerto Rico.
Poets.org: How were you looking to challenge predominant views about Puerto Rico, both formally and contextually, in this collection of verse?
Roque Raquel Salas Rivera: I wanted to challenge some of the arguments put forth by writers such as Antonio S. Pedreira in Insularismo, and the general idea that we fail when we are insular, closed in, and not open to a kind of universality. It reminds me of how certain dialects are offered as examples of the universal, while others are seen as erroneous or derivative. This kind of “universality” naturalizes a standardized dialect, while contributing to the erasure of other dialects or even languages. In the Caribbean, this kind of universality can lead to the erasure of experiences, languages, and peoples.
In Puerto Rico, there is a history of cultural protectionism that has understandably been criticized by subsequent generations, but in working on El proyecto de la literatura puertorriqueña / The Puerto Rican Literature Project, I have found that alongside a striving to be seen by others, Puerto Rican poets have repeatedly expressed a desire to keep a poetic record of what colonial history renders invisible. In our relentless desire to come together without state sponsorship or imperial approval, we often focus on the particularities of place, sound, or shared experience. We leave a record of smallness. I think of Angelamaría Dávila's approach, in Animal fiero y tierno, to Puerto Rican Spanish and our use of the diminutive “-ito” and her attentiveness to the interstitial, the cracks, the places where moss and river meet moss and stone.
Since moving back, I’ve found this depiction of our smallness even more unnerving. There is an inherent contradiction at the heart of some writers’ desire to belong to “universal” literature. Poets can strive and strive to be read in more than one register, but the very conditions of production and circulation imposed by colonialism make it so those “universally” written books almost never leave Puerto Rico. Firstly, because we mostly write in Spanish on the archipelago and, secondly, because production and circulation are made difficult thanks to our colonial relationship with the U.S.
Then there is the classic saying “Cada guaraguao tiene su pitirre” (“Each guaraguao has his pitirre”). The pitirre, or the Puerto Rican gray kingbird, is known for being very territorial and protective, small, and fierce. It is common to see a guaraguao (a red-tailed Puerto Rican hawk) being chased out of an area by a persistent and pissed-off pitirre. This is obviously a metaphor about empire and the misconception that, because one bird is bigger, it is also more powerful.
Something else I wanted the book to address was the independence of Puerto Rico. Sometimes we discuss it in ways that are abstract. Rather than situate that independence in a cut-off future, I wanted to bring that future more solidly into the present. The model for this was the Puerto Rican anarchist Luisa Capetillo, who argued that the utopian exists in our everyday lives. Similarly, in our everyday lives, Puerto Ricans can find a decolonial future.
Poets.org: In the second section of before island is volcano, titled “island,” you reappropriate Shakespeare’s The Tempest and create a series of dialogues between Caliban and various other figures from the play, while ending with a poem that contemplates the impact of psychological colonialism. What are your thoughts on the lingering problem of psychological colonialism, both in the contexts of Puerto Rican independence and in the work of poets?
RSR: That is an excellent and difficult question. I feel Frantz Fanon was more equipped to answer it than I am. Jajaja. I can ultimately answer it only as a poet, as someone who lives here. I think the fact that we are constantly self-translating, but never call it that, is an example of internalized colonialism. The fact that sometimes we are harder on each other than on settler colonialists is internalized colonialism. The belief that we fight each other too much to be able to come together and fight against a common enemy is internalized colonialism. The idea that there is more corruption here than in the U.S. is internalized colonialism. The notion that the U.S. is more progressive is internalized colonialism. Anti-Blackness is internalized colonialism. Anti-trans attitudes and policies are internalized colonialism. The rejection of our dialect is internalized colonialism. The instinct to get along with our oppressors, to be well-behaved, to act “proper,” to reach a compromise in situations of oppression where we always end up losing, to always quote European or U.S. academics...all these are examples of internalized colonialism. I could go on all day. But just as there are many examples of internalized colonialism, we have many examples of ways in which (despite all the propaganda and impositions) we have resisted colonialism throughout our history, ways in which we have rebelled, and it is equally important to name those. antes que isla es volcán/before island is volcano grapples with both our internalized colonialism and our riotous beauty, the tricks we play on power, and our capacity to sustain ourselves.
Poets.org: You’ve said in an interview that you try to “imagine a world where nothing has to be a violent either/or.” How does your process of writing poems in both Spanish and English contribute to that vision?
RSR: It’s tricky because people often interpret my writing in Spanish and my translations into English as an example of bilingualism, but my aims are far more specific. I don’t lament untranslatability as a failure or a language problem. It simply is. It would be megalomaniacal to want to know every single thing about another human. Yet, so often the attitude of empires is just that—totalizing. I don’t want my poetry to play into that idea. If I agree that everything can be translated, then I am agreeing that there is a translation for jangeo that isn’t a form of erasure. There just isn’t, and that isn’t sad or wrong. Right now, so many people are moving to Puerto Rico that aren’t from here and they are buying up our homes, our lands, and it’s so rude. These settler colonialists say things like they want to “look Puerto Rican” and they never will. Because even if there is no such thing as “looking Puerto Rican,” there is such a thing as looking, acting, and being a settler colonial. This distinction is an either/or, but not a violent either/or. Not all either/or’s are oppressive—some are about protecting our spaces, homes, and lives from appropriation and theft. When I say “a violent either/or,” I don’t mean to say that all either/or’s are violent, but rather that there is a certain kind of exclusionary language that says I can’t be trans and Puerto Rican that is violent to trans Puerto Ricans.
This was a long way of explaining that when I translate into English, I don’t do so in order to be more legible to all English speakers. I attempt to remain true to what I am doing in the poem in Spanish, and that means a certain illegibility. Why then translate into English? Because I want to be able to connect with English-speakers, just on my terms. I also want to connect with Puerto Ricans in the diaspora who may not speak Spanish. This is incredibly important to me and something that should happen more often. I also think in English sometimes, and something about having poems in English is beautiful. It transforms them into new poems with new potentialities.
Poets.org: Speaking of your imaginative process, you’ve also noted that cinema has played a role in your poetry. Can you say a bit more about that and, particularly, how that art form may have influenced the development of this work?
RSR: I looooove movies. I spend so much time watching them, discussing them, obsessing over them. I probably spend more time watching films than reading poetry, but I don’t have those statistics. Jaja. Andrea Arnold is my favorite director. One day I hope to meet her and tell her how much her films mean to me. Fish Tank and American Honey are the closest to a quotidian sublime I’ve seen in a film. There is a sensorial hyper-materiality, a kind of cinematic synesthesia in her work I wish I could replicate in my poems. One of my favorite recent films is Perfume de Gardenias by Puerto Rican filmmaker Gisela Rosario Ramos. I’ve been trying to integrate my knowledge of cinema more into my poems. Sometimes I feel like a closet cinephile. It’s like movies and poems have moved on parallel tracks throughout my life. I have no skills as a filmmaker, just a fandom that comes from a lifelong obsession. I’m not sure how my poems formally draw from films. They don’t feel particularly audiovisual. I will say cinema queers time and has a sort of immediacy I hope to create in my own work.
I also confess I feel freer with cinema, maybe because I’m not a filmmaker. There is something about loving an art form you don’t practice that is freeing. You are less critical, I think. You are more open to senseless attachments. It’s not that I don’t have these with certain poems, but the proximity that comes from being a working poet creates a certain pressure that is necessary for writing, but sometimes stressful when it comes to enjoyment or just being chill. At least a few times a week, I sit with my partner and we watch movies together, discuss them, and eat munchies. I look forward to that more than almost any other activity.
Poets.org: Your book dedication reads, “for the futures that once dreamt me and for our exponential imaginative capacity.” How can poetry help to heal generational trauma caused by colonialism in Puerto Rico as the land looks to the future?
RSR: We are living in very violent times, and conflicts will increase as more settler colonialists move here and continue to displace us. Finding an apartment has been hard for many of my friends because of all the people moving to Puerto Rico from the U.S. who don’t seem to care whose house they are taking or whose land they are privatizing. The future feels bleak. But I still believe the only possible way forward for us is to dream wilder dreams, to imagine more than we are allowed, to amplify our demands. The more they take, the more we take back. More than a utopian aspiration, it is a necessity. The more they take, the more we need, because the taking leaves new traumas, new wounds, new losses we now have to deal with.
This book aspires to be healing. It doesn’t treat the future like something predictable, but rather something we can only plan once the power to truly choose is in our hands. It is an invitation to imagine what we could create if we were free, to imagine together. So often we stop imagining a different world because we don’t believe it is possible, but I think that’s the wrong way of looking at things. First, we have to imagine, to imagine beyond possibility. It is as essential as life itself. Then we change the world, because if we don’t have a reason to make the world different beyond our pain, then what we make will only reflect that pain. We have to have something to fight for, not just something to fight against. That’s part of what poetry should also be, something to fight for, something worth remaking the world for.
Poets.org: As part of your Academy poet laureate fellowship project in 2019, you launched the monthly Lo Nuestro Poetry Series, as well as facilitated numerous community workshops throughout Philadelphia, and organized the We (Too) Are Philly poetry festival. You were recently awarded a three-year grant from the Mellon Foundation for El proyecto de la literatura puertorriqueña / The Puerto Rican Literature Project, a digital portal featuring Puerto Rican poetry for readers and teachers to access for free. How has engaging communities inspired you, particularly while working on this collection?
RSR: Poets are a strange breed. It’s one of the things I like most about us. Our communities are fragmented, but our encounters almost always feel meaningful, charged. It’s hard for me to talk about community. The truth is I feel part of a community most when I am sharing with other poets. This makes my community limited. I also feel like I am in community when I am fighting alongside others at a protest, or cuando estoy jangeando con mis amistades, but communities can be violent in their exclusions. For example, quite recently a well-known leader of a women’s rights organization, a cis woman, made openly transphobic and trans-exclusionary comments about trans women. It felt horrible that a person in charge of an organization that serves trans people would negate that we exist or treat us like we are stealing from cis people. Moments like this make me feel like community is a fragile notion, more momentary and contingent than fixed, but that doesn’t mean I will stop fighting for my right to feel I belong in Puerto Rico. I will fight for community spaces, despite this precarity, because it is our right, as cuir and trans people, to have some place we can call home.
While working on this book, I had to think a great deal about what community means, the community we can be during some of our best moments. I didn’t want to over romanticize, but I also didn’t want to reduce us to our worst choices. I like the idea that despite the exclusions and pain we inflict on each other, we might share a common decolonial project. Reading the poems in public has been central to my writing process. I wanted to make sure they were pretty accessible. This has been less of a concern in other books.
I should also mention that the book itself is the product of conversations with friends, loved ones, and family. Xavier Valcárcel created the cover art. Gaddiel Francisco Ruiz Rivera, Nicole Delgado, Cristina Pérez Díaz, Yolanda Rivera Castillo, and Carmen Marín have all edited the book or given me feedback. Luis Negrón, Mayra Santos Febres, Yolanda Segura, and Daniel Borzutzky were kind enough to blurb it, and so many loved ones read early versions of what would eventually become antes que isla es volcán/before island is volcano.
Poets.org: What are you working on now?
RSR: I just finished a manuscript for a book I am only going to publish in Spanish called la bella crisis. I’ve been working on it on and off since 2015. More recently, I’ve been writing a trans epic that centers around a character that appears in lo terciario/the tertiary, Cenex, whose name comes from Ceanus, a trans figure in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Part of what I’m doing is finding what I call trans “moments” in Puerto Rican literature written by cis people and reclaiming and rewriting them as part of this epic.
Poets.org: Is there a specific poem on Poets.org that inspires you and your work?
RSR: Willie Perdomo’s “That’s My Heart Right There.”