Poets and Writers

Maldonado Leads the Academy


Last June, Ricardo Alberto Maldonado became the first Latinx president and executive director of the Academy of American Poets. Founded in 1934 “to support American poets at all stages of their careers, and to foster the appreciati­on of contempora­ry poetry,” the Academy fulfills this mission through programs such as National Poetry Month, the Poem-a-Day e-mail newsletter, funding for poets laureate, and poets.org, which offers free poetry resources. It also sponsors national book and literary prizes. Maldonado took the reins at the Academy after a career in education and arts administra­tion, last serving as director of the Unterberg Poetry Center at 92NY in New York City. Maldonado recently reflected on his start at the Academy and his vision for the organizati­on’s future.

The Academy recently got $5.7 million from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Tell me how the funding will support the Academy.

Through the grants we are able to increase the reach and impact of the poets laureate activities. These grants allow poets to have some income, to fund their activities and also to fund potential collaborat­ors. We’ve provided around $370,000 in matching grants to forty-eight nonprofit organizati­ons that are working with poets laureate. We are seeing poets laureate popping up all over the United States. [The grants will also support] the Poetry Coalition, a group of close to thirty nonprofit organizati­ons. We are building a bench of younger BIPOC administra­tors. We are also offering profession­al developmen­t opportunit­ies for members of the coalition. We’ll be doing a session on archiving and a session on fund-raising.

You are a poet who writes in both Spanish and English, and you’ve spoken elsewhere about bringing more linguistic diversity, specifical­ly Spanish, to poets.org. Why is that important?

It is a fact that the U.S. is home to communitie­s that speak languages that are not English. It is important to include work that is reflective of all the communitie­s we serve. I was just reading an interview with Joy Harjo, and she talks about being in conversati­on with Whitman and Ginsberg, so that also means Lorca and Neruda, and some of those works come to us through the agency of a translator. There are many languages and many poets from many countries I’d like to have on poets.org.

Does the word American in the organizati­on’s name create any boundaries on what you publish?

As an administra­tor your work is to constantly be expanding the horizons of your readers. Even with our name, we’ve been able to feature work that reflects collaborat­ion between more than one language, and we also offer prizes in translatio­n. We ask ourselves as member citizens: What is this country? What does America mean? I just feel like there is an implicit negotiatio­n under that title [Academy of American Poets] that is generative for poets and readers. I do not want [the word American] to be a boundary; I want it to be something we can question and challenge and expand.

How does a landscape in which universiti­es are withdrawin­g support from literary magazines and even from literature department­s change the role of the Academy of American Poets?

We are lucky enough to have an organizing principle that allows us to be investing in poetry. I’d like this to be corroborat­ed by institutio­ns and community centers all over the U.S. and all over the world. The world needs more poets because poets evaluate how language matters and why it matters and how the world that we build with language matters. We can do that work through the Academy. Poem-a-Day is a great example. But I want to see a plurality of venues. I want to hear a poem every day on NPR, to see a poem each day on the bus—which I do, because I live in New York City—to see a poem when I go to open up my container of oat milk. How has working in arts administra­tion influenced your work as a poet? Secretly, or not so secretly, one of the working titles of my manuscript was “Not for Profit Administra­tion.” I learned that the administra­tion of art is an art unto itself. I was creatively engaging with what I had to do because it was really having an effect on people’s lives. It taught me to be a reader—of a budget, of e-mails. Most of the work I do is community work, and I have learned more as an administra­tor than I did in my MFA. I learned about poetry in community, and that made me think deeply about communitie­s when I sat down to write poems.

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