A Q&A with Raquel Salas Rivera
Raquel Salas Rivera’s star has risen swiftly in the poetry world, and antes que isla es volcán/before island is volcano, his sixth book and the second volume in Beacon Press’s Raised Voices poetry series, promises to cement his status as one of the most important poets working today. In sharp, crystalline verses, written in both Spanish and English versions, this collection daringly imagines a decolonial Puerto Rico. Associate editor Catherine Tung caught up with the National Book Award-nominated and Lambda Award-winning poet to chat about it.
Catherine Tung: You’ve used the bilingual flipbook format for several of your poetry collections, including antes que isla. How does this format complement and serve your work?
Raquel Salas Rivera: Not all my work is meant to be translated, but when I do self-translate, the flipbook is perfect for a bilingual edition. It doesn’t give priority to either language, and that feels truer to both my process and my readership. In many ways, my readers in Spanish and those who read me in English don’t always overlap but they do correspond, to borrow a term from Jack Spicer. They do relate in complex ways. The flipbook allows for there to be a clear distinction without hierarchy and without denying a connection between the two texts.
CT: Rather than working with a translator to produce the bilingual edition, you write Spanish and English versions of your poems, and you avoid using the word “translation” in reference to your work. Can you say a bit about the difference between a translation of a poem and a version of a poem, and why this is important for your work?
RSR: That’s interesting. I didn’t notice I was avoiding the word “translation”. I guess I do, yes, but mostly because I think most poems are in some sense already translations. I also think of translation as a mode, as a way of navigating and, at times, negotiating—not just a practice in the narrowest sense. Each book is simultaneously the work of the author and a collective product. Like Derrida (in translation), I say, “I only have one language; it is not mine.” In other words, I do think of the versions in English as translations, but only because they bear such a clear and direct correspondence to the versions in Spanish. Yet, when I first sit down to write in Spanish, I have the voices of others, the things I have lived and seen, the books I have read, all populating my mind.
CT: Your friend, the artist Xavier Valcárcel de Jesús, created the gorgeous illustrations featured on the two covers of antes que isla. Can you talk about the meanings and symbols contained within his illustrations and how his art relates to your poems?
RSR: I think Xavier can speak more directly to that. He read the book and responded to it, and I wouldn’t want to comment too much on his art. But I will say I can recognize many of the images in the book: the kites, the bullets, the flor de maga, the hurricane, the kaleidoscopic. We wanted one of the images to have space that could be colored in, like a coloring book. This points to a future that we make together. The other side is more colored in, but it operates in a way that is complementary. Both sides need each other and dialogue with each other.
CT: One of the many things that I love about your poetry is your powerful use of repetition—both on the level of the line (“we are more tender than roots with earth; / we are more tender than downpour’s tremor; / we are braver than stalking anguish; / we are more beautiful than universal monarchies”) and on the level of the poem—such as the seven identically titled poems that make up the series of the same name, the independence (of puerto rico). How does this technique help you express yourself in poetry?
RSR: That particular section is a multiverse that branches out of the Fanon quote I use as an epigraph. The idea is that although our individual trajectories are different and oftentimes constrained by colonialism, they could all be leading to a shared future, a future where we have decolonial independence and true freedom. Repetition, or what Jackobson called “parallelism” in poetry, does not do the same thing in each instance. It can create contrast, irony, repetition with a difference, harmony, etc. In the case of this series, each instance is different, but each trajectory leads to the same outcome.
CT: One of the other series in this collection, island, alludes to William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. How do your verses engage with the play?
RSR: There is a long history in Latin America and the Caribbean of answering back, identifying as Ariel, but most especially as Caliban. I am partially writing out of this tradition. It speaks pretty directly to moments in the play which have taken on a historical significance for the Caribbean. My poems not only answer back; they also question the very production and writing of the play and the ways in which the Caribbean served as inspiration, but also source material for Shakespeare’s characters.
CT: At the heart of this collection is the vision of a decolonial Puerto Rico. What do you want readers to know about this vision, this concept, of a decolonial Puerto Rico?
RSR: It depends on the reader. This book is about the future of Puerto Rico, and that future belongs to Puerto Ricans and no one else. In that sense, although different readers may identify with the book, this is a future only we (les puertorriqueñes) can develop, change, and decide what Puerto Rico will be. More than a concept, it is a yearning, a place and time when we will finally have decisional power over our own futures, without forced tutelage, imperial control, or saviors.
About Raquel Salas Rivera
Raquel Salas Rivera is a Puerto Rican poet, translator, and editor. His honors include being named the 2018-19 Poet Laureate of Philadelphia and receiving the New Voices Award from Puerto Rico’s Festival de la Palabra. He is the author of five previous full-length poetry books. His third book, lo terciario/the tertiary, won the Lambda Literary Award for Transgender Poetry and was longlisted for the 2018 National Book Award. His fourth book, while they sleep (under the bed is another country), was longlisted for the 2020 Pen America Open Book Award and was a finalist for CLMP’s 2020 Firecracker Award. His fifth book, x/ex/exis, won the inaugural Ambroggio Prize. He currently writes and teaches in Puerto Rico. Connect with him at raquelsalasrivera.net and on Twitter (@rugamarspr) and Instagram (@raquelsalasrivera).