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#NPRPoetry: A former Poet Laureate of Philadelphia shares his latest collection

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, you know we must have our poetry. April is National Poetry Month, and to celebrate, we invite you to submit your original poems via Twitter and TikTok using the #nprpoetry hashtag. Of course, we love to read them, but we also invite an accomplished poet to come and select a few entries that stood out to them. Today, we've called on Raquel Salas Rivera. He is the former poet laureate of Philadelphia. He writes and performs in English and Spanish. His latest collection is entitled "Before Island Is Volcano." And he is with us now to tell us more. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

RAQUEL SALAS RIVERA: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: So before we jump into listener submissions, I would love to learn more about you. You've been writing for some years now. You've published a few collections. Could you just tell us, when did you first start writing and do you remember why?

SALAS RIVERA: Yes. I was 12. I lived in Houston, Texas. And I read Langston Hughes and fell in love with poetry. But my mother was also a poet. And my grandfather was also a poet.

MARTIN: Well, that's a wonderful legacy to have and also a lot of pressure, I might think.

SALAS RIVERA: A little bit (laughter).

MARTIN: Your latest collection is called "Before Island Is Volcano." It's - first of all, I love the title.

SALAS RIVERA: Thank you.

SALAS RIVERA: It is bilingual. The first half is in Spanish, the second half in English. How did the decision come to you to share your work in this way?

SALAS RIVERA: Well, I actually wrote my first books in Spanish only and published them in Puerto Rico. And then I moved to the United States, in particular in Philadelphia. And in moving here, I - maybe like a year or two after living here realized that it would be interesting and to my benefit to have at least some translations for my work. And I, after a lot of consideration, decided to begin self-translating.

MARTIN: Did you find yourself struggling more over the Spanish or the - you, as I understand, you write first in Spanish and then you translate to English, correct?

SALAS RIVERA: Yes. Yes. I'd say it's harder in different ways, right? In Spanish, it's hard because writing poetry is hard, and the more you read, you think it gets easier, but it actually doesn't.

(LAUGHTER)

SALAS RIVERA: But yes, the translating into English is also very difficult because you have to think about not just meaning - right? - but also what sounds good in another language.

MARTIN: So let's get into some of the submissions. And you picked a few poems, so thank you for that. Let's start with one from Twitter. Do you want to read it?

SALAS RIVERA: Sure. I chose by William D. Davies Jr. (ph) "The Necklace." (Reading) Like costume jewelry left on the dead, daffodils clasp their sunny economy around the ruins of a farmhouse.

MARTIN: Tell me. What struck you?

SALAS RIVERA: I was very struck by the imagery and sort of the core metaphor. I really like poems that are able to, like, carry a metaphor all the way through - right? - The sort of - the economy, the rural economy then sort of being something in ruins, but also like this beautiful thing - right? - that then sort of frames it, you know. And just every - I feel like every part of the poem works towards the end.

MARTIN: And then there's one from TikTok. We can play that. Here it is.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Reading) They ate at my life like a piece of chocolate cake clutched in a tiny, chubby fist. I'll give myself over to the delicious chaos of my children.

MARTIN: Well, I can relate to that.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: What stood out to you about this poem?

SALAS RIVERA: I think I really just sort of - I really like the idea, but I also felt something was interesting in the poet's sort of choice to - I don't know - talk about something very daily and very commonplace. I think a lot of my poetry goes for that, so I enjoyed it. And it also made me laugh.

MARTIN: Yeah, me too. There's one more here, I think, from Ash Evan (ph). Do you see it? Do you have that one? You want to read that one?

SALAS RIVERA: Yeah. (Reading) Stars in the tire tracks, paths we took barefoot when we were kids.

MARTIN: Tell me why you liked this one.

SALAS RIVERA: I really just - I liked the fact that it's not telling us what the image is, right? It's not saying, OK, these are stars reflected in the puddle made by a footprint. But it sort of leads us there. And I just really liked that idea (laughter).

MARTIN: Well, thanks for for reading these. And one of the things I've always appreciated about this, you know, this is something that we try to do every year to celebrate poetry. And what I like is that people tell us that many of the people who send poems aren't writers by training or trade. They - this is just something that they like to do. And I just appreciate that. And I also appreciate that people have different forms. Some people embrace, like, these very classical, you know, forms. And people just try different things. Did you have fun reading the different submissions?

SALAS RIVERA: Absolutely. And I also think that, you know, a poet, you know, doesn't have to be a professionalized thing. To be a poet can also be, you know, anyone can call themselves a poet. I'm very broad in my definition of what that is, so it was beautiful to read these poems.

MARTIN: Do you have any advice for people who want to write but maybe don't know where to start? Is there - I mean, gosh, you've been writing for so long, maybe you don't even remember what it's like not to. But what do you think?

SALAS RIVERA: I think that poetry is about desire. You know, you - if you love any aspect of poetry, read and write it. And don't be afraid to write it. You know, I think it shouldn't belong to one person. It's very much about - I don't know - what works for you. So my advice is read and just do it. Don't hold back.

MARTIN: That is Raquel Salas Rivera. His latest collection of poetry, "Before Island Is Volcano," is Bilingual, and it is out now. Raquel Salas Rivera, thank you so much for joining us.

SALAS RIVERA: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: If you'd like to participate in our celebration of Poetry Month, you can post your original 15-second poem to TikTok with the hashtag #nprpoetry. Please remember to keep it radio friendly and 15 seconds or less. Of course, we are still appreciating your original Twitter poems. You can tweet those @npratc along with the #nprpoetry hashtag. The original Twitter rules apply. Poems must be 140 characters or less. And as you've heard, every weekend this month, an accomplished poet is joining us on the air to talk about some of the submissions that caught their eye. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.