By Ellie Smith
Originally from Salt Lake City, New York Times bestselling author Rio Cortez currently resides in Harlem, where she writes poetry and picture books.
Inscape: Who are some of your favorite authors or the authors who’ve inspired your work?
Rio Cortez: One of my favorite contemporary writers is a poet called Robin Coste Lewis. She’s writing in a way that feels really timeless, totally unique, and I’ve never read anything quite like it. She uses mixed media, and her newest collection is paired with her family’s collection of photographs. It’s genre bending and really exciting. And then more classically, my canon, I really like the science fiction writing of Octavia Butler. That was really transformational for me when I was a teenager. I think of that as part of my personal canon. A French poet and writer named Aimé Césaire who is from Martinique. He coined the term Negritude. I feel like I could go on, but those are three really foundational writers for me.
Inscape: I’ll have to look them up. I don’t know all of them.
RC: Yeah, definitely. Octavia Butler might be the most extreme of those three. They just adopted one of her books, Kindred, into television for the first time. It’s worth checking out if you want to do a reading and then a viewing.
Inscape: Yes. I love to see how things transform from medium to medium. Speaking of which, you’ve written in a couple of different mediums—poetry and children’s books. Why those two genres? And why the switch between them?
RC: I think of it as all poetry in a way, but for different audiences. I studied poetry in graduate school and before that I was interested in writing poetry as early as eight years old. But I never thought about writing for kids until I became a mom. I was in a unique position, working in an archive library called the Schomburg Center here in Harlem. It has an incredible collection of artifacts related to black culture and experience. The combination of becoming a new mother and being in that archive was the inspiration for The ABCs of Black History. The ABCs of Black History is a rhyming poem in verse. It’s a really friendly medium to write as a poet, picture books. If you’re interested in writing for the audience of children, a lot of picture books use poetry as a device to speak to children. All the picture books I’ve written so far, I think of as just poems, but for younger people.
Inscape: WThat’s really cool. Have you had to do a lot of adapting since those poems are for younger people, like maybe changing your vocabulary?
RC: Yes, totally. If you’ve read Golden Ax, my adult collection, it’s not very child friendly. So yeah, absolutely. It’s very important to speak to kids where they’re at. So, it’s really important to me in writing picture books that I’m talking in a language that children feel is direct, clear, and truthful. In my adult poetry, I think those words would not describe the way that I’m writing at all. I’m writing in a lot more of an ambiguous way. I’m giving adult readers a lot more trust to find the truth in the language somewhere else. So totally different approaches.
Inscape: Do you think you’ll ever experiment with other genres of writing?
RC: I am right now, actually. I’m writing prose for the first time. I’m working on a memoir, but it’s a lyrical memoir. So I would say that there’s still poetry hidden in there. It’s my first time really having to pull together complete sentences and paragraphs, and it is very hard work. I admire people who do it. I have a new respect for the discipline you have to have to do that type of writing. This memoir is my first foray into prose writing. I haven’t tried writing fiction, which is one of the genres I love to read. I can’t imagine how challenging fiction would be as a writer. It would be very different for me.
Inscape: How soon can we expect to see your memoir?
RC: It is a longer project, so maybe in 2025.
Inscape: I also noticed you’ve got another children’s book coming out this year. Can you tell us about that?
RC: It’s coming out next spring. But children’s books take a long time to develop because of the art. So, the picture book has been done for over a year, but the illustrator is working on the design and the art for the book. It’s called The River is my Sea and it’s set in New York. It’s about a grandmother and her granddaughter taking a walk on the Hudson River and spotting an Orisha named Yemayá. So yeah, it’s fun. I have a couple of books that have been written where the art is being done now and the book will come out in the future. It’s a long wait, but it’s really satisfying as the writer to just sit back and see those words come literally to life through someone else’s incredible illustration. It’s one of the more fun parts of writing picture books.
Inscape: You write a lot of poetry and you use a lot of different forms, like sonnet and free verse. What’s your favorite poetic form?
RC: I really like the sonnet. I would say that’s one of my favorite forms of poetry. There are a lot of sonnets in Golden Ax. I like it, because I’m not a very long form writer. Even in writing in the format of poetry, I tend to write pretty short, economical poems, and a sonnet pushes me a little bit outside of my instincts as a poet to write even shorter than 14 lines. But it’s within what feels natural to my writing style. So, I really like sonnets. I’m also interested in all kinds of new forms when I’m reading. In terms of writing, I don’t usually write in form other than the sonnet. Sometimes I write in a ghazal. It’s an Arabic poetic form. Free verse in lyricism is also just wonderful to read.
Inscape: Those are some of my favorites to write and read, because they’re a bit easier, but the sonnet does force you to do some cool things.
RC: Yeah. It’s not too regulated a form, so you still have a little bit of freedom.
Inscape: Yeah, there are some much harder ones, if you’ve ever tried like a Villanelle.
RC: Yeah, I’ve tried the Villanelle, not a big fan. I’ve tried the Pantoum also. I think they’re fun to get you out of like a rut, like a writer’s block—they can be helpful in that way. Even if you start following the rules of the form, once you know them, you can break the rules and make the poem fit more instinctually to how the poem itself wants to be. I appreciate that about forms.
Inscape: You’ve done a lot of writing about heritage—it features very heavily into your writing. Why is that such an important subject to you?
RC: I think it’s just part of my identity. It’s hard for me not to write what I know, actually. A lot of Golden Ax has to do with heritage, specifically my family’s lineage, ancestry, and genealogy. That is an important question that a lot of people ask. Most people ask themselves about where they come from and why they are the way they are and why they are where they are. That’s why I write about that in Golden Ax. It’s just important to me, my identity, and where I came from.
Inscape: You spent about 10 years researching and working on Golden Ax, discussing black pioneerism. Are there other aspects of black history in Utah that you want to research and then write more about?
RC: There’s probably a lot of fascinating stuff about black history in Utah that I would like to know. I don’t have anything specifically. Right now, I’m still focused on my family’s story. I think what’s interesting is thinking about the context of my family. The context for them being the story of other black communities within Utah, and how they saw themselves. I didn’t grow up in Utah with a black community, though I know other people had different experiences. The question of community and black community in Utah is something that’s been really interesting to me over the years. I think there’s probably a lot more to know, and I love that.
Inscape: With that in mind, there is a lack of diversity in some ways in Utah, but we want to help promote and make people feel welcome so that no one feels lonely when they’re growing up in Utah, especially if they are a little bit different. What advice do you have for people who want to help do something about that?
RC: Yeah, that’s a really nice question. It’s a very friendly question. It’s probably got a lot of different answers, depending on the person that you’re thinking about making feel included. When I think about when I was younger, and about some loneliness that I felt in terms of Utah not being a very racially diverse place, what would have helped was some acknowledgement of that from my peers. And for people to do their own kinds of education. I think sometimes it can unduly fall on the shoulders of a marginalized person to educate other people about who they are. If folks around them proactively found ways to expose themselves to different types of people and didn’t put that burden on the one marginalized person in their community, it would go a long way.
Inscape: Sure. Are there any books or media that people can look at specifically to help educate themselves about this?
RC: Yeah, there are all kinds of really great nonfiction writers and journalists who are writing on the subject of race that might be worth checking out. And there are some really fantastic documentaries out there. You know, a lot of people talk about Ava DuVernay’s 13th or Nikole Hannah Jones’s The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story. If you’d like different media formats, there’s a book of The 1619 Project, there’s a Hulu series, and then my favorite version is the podcast. It started at the New York Times and it has really excellent interview footage and sound qualities. Those are two quick places, but I feel like any library or school library should have some sort of curation around these types of writers that you would be able to check out.
Inscape: That’s awesome. I know I want to educate myself, and I don’t know as much as I wish I did. Are there any other things that people can do that might have helped you as you were growing up to feel less alone? Or to help with the community?
RC: That’s so sweet. There are probably things that I wished I had more from my teachers, such as specifically assigning books by different authors of color. If I had the opportunity to read books by black writers in middle school or high school that might have made a difference in terms of how I saw myself in the world. But not just me reading those books, my peers and classmates being exposed to work by different writers of color would have been really helpful. Things like that. I feel like I’ll probably sit with that question and think a lot about how things might have been different. But it’s hard. I think the biggest service is obviously helping somebody find a community of people that look like them. But if you don’t have that then it’s a really challenging question. I think the best you can do is to be a bright community that’s exposing yourself to the art, culture, and history of other people as much as possible.
Inscape: You did grow up in Salt Lake, so I have to ask, has the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints been a part of your life? And if so, what role has it played?
RC: No, I didn’t grow up in the church. I went to Catholic school mostly, but I’m not Catholic either. It seemed like a non-secular place because Salt Lake has such a ubiquitous LDS population. The Catholic school I went to had a lot of faith diversity. It felt different than the public school system there, which didn’t have as much faith diversity. The LDS church played a role in my life because it’s part of the culture of Salt Lake City and of Utah. I feel like it was always around me. I felt very aware of the beliefs since a lot of my neighbors were LDS, so I was exposed to some of their church teachings and practices when I was a kid growing up. They were very welcoming; I would go over to my LDS neighbor’s house on Sundays for their family home evening. I have early memories like that of the LDS faith being part of my cultural community. Then I have one relative who I write a little bit about in Golden Ax, and who I’m writing a lot more about now: Abner Howell. He is my great, great grandfather and he’s a well-known LDS person in our family. Otherwise, not a lot of LDS members. I grew up thinking a lot about his conversion to the LDS faith, his testimony, and what that did for him—how that served him as a black man at that time in Utah. Those are the ways that I’ve worked around the faith in Salt Lake but it’s definitely new for me. I’ve never been to BYU, and there are a lot of things I’ve been on the outside of.
Inscape: So, you’re not quite Catholic, not quite LDS—do you have a faith? Or has faith in general been something that you have had in your life or want in your life?
RC: Yeah, I do. I have a belief in God, but I don’t think of myself as a religious person. I think of myself as more of a faithful, spiritual person. My dad’s Puerto Rican, he’s from New York, and he was raised Catholic. My mom was raised by a former LDS father. My parents were happy in whatever I believed. I always had that understanding and was able to explore God and religion and spirituality, which was a really big gift for me as a young person. And now, I have a faith in God that isn’t rooted in one specific religion, which is important to me.
Inscape: I love that. Do you have a favorite line from the poetry that you’ve written?
RC: Oh my gosh, that’s impossible. I don’t know. I feel I can’t answer that because it’s my poetry. I feel like it would be a weird thing to say. There are some poems that I’m really proud of that took longer to arrive than others. Sometimes you write something where you feel like, that’s exactly what you meant to say. And that’s the best feeling as a writer. Other times you’re trying to get to something, and even if you can’t quite name it, you know it’s not there yet. And then there are the times when you arrive at language in exactly the right way, the exact right order of words that you need to say something and that’s the best feeling ever.