R. Flowers Rivera is a Mississippi native who did her doctoral studies at Binghamton University. In 2009 she was awarded the Leo Love Merit Scholarship in Poetry in association with Taos Summer Writers Conference. Her work has been anthologized in Mischief, Caprice & Other Poetic Strategies and published in journals, such as African American Review, The Beloit Poetry Journal, Columbia, Feminist Studies, Obsidian, and The Southern Review.
Troubling Accents Book Synopsis
“Troubling Accents” is filled with the subjects of race, gender roles, women, charming children, not so charming children, and most importantly troubles people face.
In the poem, “Green Pods” by Raquel Rivera we get a taste of history, cleverness, and truthfulness. Told by a narrator with a young sister of two-years-old that makes the statement “white people lie,” the poem “Green Pods” has very real and relatable characters. Just as she does in “Green Pods,” award winning poet R. Flowers Rivera expresses many assorted personal experiences in her first collection Troubling Accents.
Jessica Chavez: What inspired you to write your collection of poems in Troubling Accents?
Raquel Rivera: I started writing as a form of purging both the questions and emotions I had surrounding my sense of identity, my sense of home. Then, I wanted to enter into a dialogue with my singular perspective of the world as well as how others viewed women like me—Black, Southern, educated, bisexual. The United States, however, now seems so much more progressive, yet my day-to-day interactions in society have a tendency to reify what I consider provincial notions of respectability. For example, “Green Pods” arose from one of my first encounters with race and the economic and social consequences of living in the South; the poem especially highlights my naïveté and fragility (even while being the older sister) juxtaposed against my younger sister’s steely, matter-of-fact way of seeing coastal living in Mississippi. Whereas, “But Never Seeing My Eyes” intentionally enlists a fixed form to help me control sentiments about fluid notions of sexual orientation that, nevertheless, still lead to the same kind of objectification, where one person simply exists as a placeholder in a relationship, a commodity for use. Ultimately, I wrote Troubling Accents as a means of maintaining control of my surroundings while figuring out my specific questions of loyalty.
JC: Did you pick the cover for Troubling Accents? What made you pick it?
RR: Yes, I selected the cover. The painting has been in my extended family for, at least, forty years. It belonged to a beloved uncle, a paternal figure, who died while I was abroad in Singapore. (I was unable to attend the funeral.) Upon my return, during my family’s first attempt at gathering for Thanksgiving without him–yet in his home–my first cousins presented it to me quietly after dinner as we all, exhausted, sat around talking and stifling tears. They owed me nothing. Their generosity left me speechless.
JC: As a writer, do you have any habits or a special process that you go through to write your poems and short stories?
RR: I need both order and quiet. I am sensitive to sound but have learned how to control that quirk for social purposes. In terms of writing, I need silence and stillness, which means I have to shut myself away, wait until the house is empty, or write while everyone else is asleep: Its been the only way I can follow the abstract thought and ephemeral imagery.
JC: Do you have any interesting stories behind writing a particular poem?
RR: I wrote “Legacy to Our Daughters” while living in Memphis. My two boys were still young, meaning in diapers, and I was struggling to be a mother, a wife, a career woman. I also had household guests for the weekend but needed to grade papers. Regardless, the images and phrasing had been collecting in my mind for weeks. I had been trying to figure out how my mother and aunts had survived their impoverished backgrounds to raise children who thrived. I had been contemplating how my grandmother’s resilience and refusal to allow pervasive domestic violence and continual adultery in her first marriage enabled her to defy her community and divorce a man she loved, no matter that doing so would leave her with four young children. I wanted to understand what being faithless would look like—as a means of survival, exactly what systems of support would be required, what interventions and when. I guess I wanted to understand how the women in my life endured such complicated lives, what gave them the strength to persevere. I went upstairs to my study and shut the door—even before my guests had gone. I barely acknowledged their goodbyes for fear of losing the dueling voices that fueled the personas of Aurelia and Consuela. A couple of hours later, I had the bones of the poem.
JC: What do you wish for your readers to get from your poetry?
RR: Like so many other writers, I write more for an extension of myself, the work I originally wanted to find but couldn’t. Really, there’s nothing to get. I do want to foreground certain types of experiences and engender questions. Maybe, I’m trying to push back against alienation, to show that that struggle is valuable.
JC: As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up? Did you have an early love for literature?
RR: As a young child, a nun (no laughing). I could teach and travel and not get married. In high school, a journalist, but I dislike direct confrontation; it’s not in my nature. Because of my family’s focus on education, we were allowed to read virtually anything and frequently passed what we considered exceptional books around between my girl cousins. We still do that—lugging books cross county in suitcases, shipping the right book to the right cousin at the right time via snail mail. Random recollection: My cousins and I would frequently walk to the library, spend the afternoon reading, lounging in the air-conditioned space, then pick blackberries before purchasing Slurpees at the 7-11 for the long, hot walk back home.
JC: Who’s your favorite poet?
RR: I don’t believe in absolute favorites. I believe certain poets make more sense to you, either because of content or form or both, depending on what’s happening in your life. Generally, the list would include the following: Ai, Natasha Trethewey, Charles Wright, Audre Lorde, Marilyn Hacker, Carl Philips, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Lee Young-Li, Angelina Grimke, Jane Hirschfield—too many to list here.
JC: What’s your favorite poem you’ve written? Or work you’re most proud of?
RR: My favorite from Troubling Accents is “I Wanted to Take You Home.” The one I’m most proud of from that collection is “Exegesis”; however, I have a second collection Heathen, primarily revisionist mythology, which includes poems that have supplanted those. In terms of fiction, the story titled “Human Body, Human Mind.”
JC: In college, what classes did you most enjoy?
RR: One particular poetry workshop with Milton Kessler as I sought my PhD at Binghamton–SUNY. I enjoyed other classes and their content. However, Milt knew I was ready to leave the program, by any means necessary—with or without the degree when I had had enough. He called my apartment, he invited me to tea with his wife at his home—told me explicitly that he hadn’t witnessed talent like mine in years. He died before I graduated, which made me push even harder and take on even more degree requirements sooner than I normally would have because I felt I owed him.
JC: I noticed you received awards and many nominations for your poetry and short stories, what was the most special?
RR: The awards and nominations are infrequent, and although nice highs for a day or two, the quest is for publications that share your work, your writing vision.
JC: What advice would you give a young writer?
RR: Be prepared for the long haul and keep writing—and submitting. If you’re going into academia, you need to have hard conversations with your partner about what that actually means in terms of education, finances, resources, time, and locale. If you choose to have children, bless your soul, your work is tantamount to another child, which deserves to exist but will, for more than a decade of your life, receive so little of your attention and time. But, then again, you may be able to multitask well; I—most certainly—cannot.
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