The Academy of American Poets announced Wednesday that poet and translator Ricardo Alberto Maldonado will be its next executive director and president.
Maldonado, who was born and raised in Puerto Rico, will be the organization’s first Latino leader. He comes to the role from the 92nd Street Y, an arts nonprofit in New York City, where he co-directed the poetry center and founded a writing workshop for high school students.
Equipping young people with poetic language has always felt vital to Maldonado as a former teacher: “It’s not only that they have a right to set the terms that define their lives or what they see in their lives,” he said. “It’s what they can see in the future.”
I spoke to Maldonado by video about poetry — what first drew him to the form, the writers he loves to teach and finding poetry in the everyday. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Do you remember when or how you first were drawn to poetry as a reader?
A: I was young — I was about 15 or 16 — and my father had just died from cancer. My high school teacher gave me a copy of A.E. Housman’s “To an Athlete Dying Young,” which struck me as emblematic of all the questions that I was facing. Poetry made room for my questions, made room for my life.
I’m grateful to have had a pretty comprehensive education in Puerto Rico. In 10th grade, I was reading Don Quixote, for example, and “The Poem of the Cid,” an early Spanish epic. And I remember when Neruda spread like wildfire in high school — it just felt like the right time for him to stake claim in our hearts.
But the poem that transformed me was Housman. Because poetry became such an essential part of how I saw the world, and how the world made itself legible to me, I feel like it is my responsibility to make that happen for younger generations.
Q: What drew you to this position at the Academy of American Poets?
A: The opportunity to raise the Academy’s already elevated profile, and to serve communities that have not been served as intentionally in the past — say, Puerto Rico — felt very important to me, as did celebrating the linguistic diversity within and outside our borders. I have many friends who write in Spanish within the greater United States, and I can’t wait for writers in this country and around the world to engage with that work.
Q: What have been some of your favorite poems to teach?
A: Just last summer, I did a short master class on translation, and I began with a great poem by Aracelis Girmay, from her book “The Black Maria.” Aracelis’s poem is about asking permission from ancestors to share a story, and I talk about that with my students. The ethics of writing is something that I feel like the poetry scene is engaging with right now, because it has grown more inclusive and diverse. I also use Beyoncé, and songs from “Lemonade.” Something I really admire about Beyoncé is the clarity of the sources that she is sampling, and that is the work that a translator does sometimes — with permission.
I also teach Neruda, because he forces you to rethink the ordinary. There’s this great book of his, called “The Book of Questions,” which has just been rereleased bilingually as a children’s book. It is the most beautiful book I have ever owned. I’ve given it to all my friends who have had kids recently.
Q: In America, we tend to think of poetry — certainly its production, and sometimes reading it — as a very rarefied activity. It’s not necessarily seen as central to everyday culture or to civic life. What do you make of that gap?
A: That’s interesting to me, because as a poet in New York City, I see poetry everywhere. There’s a program where poems are posted on the train. But also, we live in words, and with words. I feel like every encounter with language has the potential to be poetry. Poetry is not only on the page; it’s also the work that we do to challenge language.
I like to think that, to quote the Salvadoran poet Roque Dalton, “Poetry, like bread, is for everyone.” I take that to mean that poetry can be made, and needed, by everyone. It nourishes us.
Q: If you were talking to someone who feels like they don’t get poetry, or maybe feels overwhelmed or intimidated by it, what’s your pitch about why they should read it, or where they should start?
A: A place where I would start is to see the work that is being published now. There is such diversity and variety — like in programs like “Poem a Day” — that you will find something that speaks to you. Here’s the great thing about poetry: Poetry can speak to you in its minutia, small details, imagery, language. And then it can speak to you in the way that it grapples with big questions of life, love, death, joy, sadness.
You will come across poems that don’t necessarily speak to you, but that doesn’t mean that the entire form is difficult or inexplicable. As with many things in life, all it takes is a careful ear and care. And as with many things in life, there are things you love and things you grow to love.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the number of subscribers to the “Poem of Day” series. It is 330,000, not 50,000. This version has been updated.
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