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First Latino head of Academy of American Poets on bringing poetry to more people


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Geoff Bennett: Founded in 1934, the Academy of American Poets is one of the nation's leading literary organizations and the largest funder of poets. Its new leader wants to emphasize and expand the linguistic diversity of poetry and boost interest in poetry by average Americans.

Jeffrey Brown reports for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: Ricardo Alberto Maldonado in English:

Ricardo Alberto Maldonado, President, Academy of American Poets: I find myself on my feet with 15 leaves. Everything carries its own light on the walls.

Jeffrey Brown: And in Spanish man.

The Puerto Rican-born-and-raised, New York-based poet embraces the bounty and diversity of languages in his own life and work. And now he has an opportunity to spread the word and words more widely, as the new head of the Academy of American Poets.

Ricardo Alberto Maldonado: I want to be intentional as an administrator who is also a poet, who understands what it means to write in more than one language.

We are in a unique position to reflect the diversity of the poetry field and the readers of poetry across America and across the world.

Jeffrey Brown: At 42, Maldonado has known the thrill of seeing and hearing his work in exciting ways, including set to music and performed at the opening of the Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center in New York last year.

He has had an influential poetry platform as head of the prestigious program at New York's 92nd Street Y, on one occasion breaking into song. But he first came to poetry as a teenager in Puerto Rico through mourning the loss of his father.

Ricardo Alberto Maldonado: Poetry came to me when I needed it. And...

Jeffrey Brown: Meaning what?

Ricardo Alberto Maldonado: My father had died, and I felt very much alone, even though I was supported by my family. But I felt like there were things I did not understand. My teacher gave me "To an Athlete Dying Young" by A.E. Housman.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes, a famous poem.

Ricardo Alberto Maldonado: Very famous poem.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes.

It's also one of more than 2,500 poems that are part of the academy's popular 10-year-old digital series Poem a Day, which highlights new work by contemporary poets. It is received its received by more than 330,000 daily subscribers and read by tens of thousands more every year.

The academy also offers a K-12 education program, including the Teach This Poem series, the Poem in Your Pocket Day, when people of all ages read, share, post, create art using poetry. And it gives $1.3 million a year to poets through prizes and fellowships. Maldonado has taught literature in high schools in both Puerto Rico and New York.

He first wrote his poetry in English. But watching from afar the devastation in his homeland by Hurricane Maria in 2017 changed his life.

Ricardo Alberto Maldonado: I wanted to write poems that would make my world legible to my family in Puerto Rico. I felt like I had to speak to them to say, if nothing, you are not alone, and I am living with you even from afar.

Jeffrey Brown: And that had to be in Spanish?

Ricardo Alberto Maldonado: It felt like it had to be in Spanish. And since then, I have realized that my poems in Spanish have a deeper resonance that they would ordinarily in English.

They just strike something very important within me that I cannot define.

Jeffrey Brown: His bilingual book of poems is titled

"The Life Assignment," many poems in English, others in Spanish, only some translated to both.

One important audience, his young nephews in Puerto Rico, who were excited to read recently of his appointment to head the academy. In his new position, he says, he wants to champion and celebrate the linguistic diversity of the country, through translation, grants and other programs.

He himself is part of a group creating a bilingual archive of Puerto Rican poets and poetry.

You are the first Latino to head this organization.

Ricardo Alberto Maldonado: Exactly.

Jeffrey Brown: What's the significance for you?

Ricardo Alberto Maldonado: When I was a kid, I never knew I would occupy a space like this. I knew that poetry meant something to me.

What I'm hoping is, 10 years from now, a young Puerto Rican poet on the island or somewhere else knows that this is a possibility, that living a life with and through poetry is an honorable way of engaging with the world.

Jeffrey Brown: That young person could come to poetry in new ways, as Maldonado himself has.

Ricardo Alberto Maldonado: It is often that I go to Twitter to find a new poet or a new poem. Many of my friends find themselves sharing screenshots of the most recent poem they fell in love with.

They embrace the limitations of a platform as a kind of invitation. A poem can exist within the limits of Twitter. A poem can exist within the visual limits of other platforms, such as Instagram or TikTok.

Jeffrey Brown: So, you are bullish on poetry?

Ricardo Alberto Maldonado: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Jeffrey Brown: I guess you have to be in your position.

Ricardo Alberto Maldonado: Or as a human being, or as a former teacher, or as a poet myself too.

Jeffrey Brown: All right, Ricardo Maldonado, congratulations on this. And thank you very much.

Ricardo Alberto Maldonado: Muchas gracias.

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