Meet the first Latino leader of the Academy of American Poets

‘I believe that the words we use to define ourselves are flexible and aspirational,’ says Ricardo Alberto Maldonado, the new president of the Academy of American Poets.

The Academy of American Poets in late June announced that Alberto Maldonado was selected as its executive director.
(Illustration by Diana Ramirez / Los Angeles Times; photos by Eric McNatt / For the Academy of American Poets)

For poet and translator Ricardo Alberto Maldonado, writing in Spanish has allowed him to “communicate with a deeper sense of self.”

In “The Life Assignment,” Maldonado, who was born and raised in Puerto Rico, examines concepts of love: “romantic love, love of family, love of country, self-love (or lack thereof)” in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria and the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Fla. His 2020 collection of poems was lauded by Publisher’s Weekly as a “quietly furious bilingual debut.”

Now, Maldonado is stepping into a new role.

The Academy of American Poets in late June announced that Maldonado had been selected as its executive director and president, making him the first Latino to fill the position since the academy’s founding in 1934.

A national and member-supported organization, the Academy of American Poets annually awards more than $1.3 million to more than 200 poets at various stages of their careers. It produces, a publicly funded website for poets and poetry, and established April as National Poetry Month. It also publishes the Poem-a-Day series, which has more than 330,000 subscribers.


Maldonado previously served as the co-director of 92NY’s Unterberg Poetry Center in New York City, where he produced a reading series and a curriculum of workshops for emerging writers. He also founded a teacher’s workshop to make poetry more accessible to young readers.

In his new role, Maldonado plans to continue making poetry more attainable to the masses.

“We have poets of all backgrounds speaking and writing in all sorts of languages, which means they’re also bringing with them traditions and histories that are part of our conversation, either directly or indirectly,” said Maldonado, 42. “That’s something that I find very exhilarating.”

The following interview has been edited for clarity.

What does it mean for you to be the first Latino to head the Academy of American Poets?

Latino voices have been absolutely necessary to the cultural output and community output in this country. For many years, we have been contributing to discourse. We have been quite present in all sorts of national conversations, and so it’s great to be part of that continuum. I may be the first Latino president of the Academy of American Poets, but I am certainly not the first Latino poet to be part of the academy. We’ve had chancellors like Victor Hernández Cruz, a Puerto Rican, or Juan Felipe Herrera and Alberto Ríos. So, I’d like to think that I am part of this ongoing conversation that we’ve been having as Latino writers and poets, specifically, about poetry and the role of poetry in our personal lives and in the lives of our communities.

How do you define Latinidad?

Oh, my God, that’s ‘the’ question. I feel like Latinidad is a work in progress because we have to do the work of identifying those communities we intersect with, and with kindness, understanding and compassion in mind. Moving to New York in my 20s, it has been a gift to see the spectrum of expression of Latinidad, and those Latinidades that I had rarely encountered in Puerto Rico. I’ve been able to really approach my community with an open heart because I understand that knowing them intimately, as a member of that community, makes me a better person. I believe that the words we use to define ourselves are flexible and aspirational. I feel like I always have an expansive sense of defining who I am and who I can be, therefore, who we are and who we can be.


Since launching (De Los), we’ve been engaging with readers on their relationship with Spanish. What’s your own relationship to Spanish? How does it factor in to the way you think and write poetry?

I am a queer Puerto Rican, and a translator, who understands what it means to live with what feels are two impulses. There’s the impulse to honor the part of me that thinks, loves and breathes in Spanish, and similarly in English. Understanding that there are certain circumstances that will make space for one of them, and not both, which means generally, that I find myself at the center of these negotiations. It is not language that makes us. It is not just language that makes me a Puerto Rican.

Perhaps what I can say is that it is the understanding of the colonial histories that Spanish brings, the colonial histories that English brings, that makes me sensitive to what it means to be Puerto Rican and to the spectrum of Puertorriqueñidad, and therefore, Latinidad. It is the understanding that that negotiation was to some degree our inheritance, but that there is a spectrum. The negotiation of that spectrum feels very much a part of this complicated, ever expanding “us.”

In “The Life Assignment,” you first write in Spanish, and at times you mistranslated into English, how and why did you take that approach?

The poems in Spanish came between the shooting at Pulse and Hurricane Maria — two very difficult moments for Latinos, specifically Puerto Rican communities.

Writing in Spanish felt like I could communicate with a deeper sense of self, a deeper song that touched every organ in my body. It just felt very much akin to my breathing, and it felt psychosomatic in many ways. It affected something in my body that I had no access to, before I started writing in Spanish. The decision to translate into English was at first a practical matter … I felt like I wanted to communicate this inner being with friends and presses, organizations that were dedicated to advocating for poets.


To be a poet means to constantly reassess how language plays a part in your life. I realized that I needed to somehow take account of the political nature of a Puerto Rican poet who speaks, writes in both languages, but who has made a conscious decision to write in Spanish first, and then translate into English.

In teaching poetry, what are some of your favorite lessons or poets you tend to turn to?

Julia de Burgos has been instrumental in my development as a poet because she is ours. I remember being at a reading at the Whitney [Museum in New York], coinciding with an exhibit on Puerto Rican art after Maria, and there was a marathon reading and the poet [and] close friend Raquel Salas Rivera, started the reading with a poem by Julia de Burgos and the space automatically became a home. Julia de Burgos is in my DNA. She was a Puerto Rican who moved to New York, and there is some kind of resonance between her life and mine. When I teach her work, I teach the ways in which she makes space for movement, but also love, loneliness and this idea that feels so essential to her work, which is how a beloved can provide corroboration.

Neruda is someone I go to, specifically “The Book of Questions” because there is no better strategy in life than to lead with questions. To question your place in the world and the relationship between things, which is, of course, what a poem does. For older poets, I bring someone in like César Vallejo, whose poems spring from a sense of bewilderment at the world. I love talking about ways in which the world can seem very confusing to us, but poetry can actually provide answers, even if the answers are temporary. I love that.

You’ve talked about your introduction to poetry when you were in your teens after the passing of your father. A teacher gave you a copy of “To An Athlete Dying Young.” At a young age, how did you understand poetry as a way to cope with your emotions, and how does it continue to make room for you in that way?

Poetry came to me at a time where I felt like I was surrounded by bewilderment, which made me feel very lonely even though I was in community. Poetry gave me the opportunity to put into words something that escaped my comprehension. It’s an attempt to use words in the service of, in my case, grappling with uncertainty. The older I grow, the more I am aware of my place in the world, the more uncertainty I see. The work of a poem, the work of writing a poem, or reading a poem, suggests to me that the attempt is an essential part of my day. It’s not just passive contemplation, but it is active contemplation. It is activated space that allows you to look at yourself in the world three-dimensionally, and that is what poetry has given me, day in and day out.

Ricardo Alberto Maldonado is head of the Academy of American Poets.
(Eric McNatt / For the Academy of American Poets)

For people who may not be immersed in poetry, who are some poets that you’d recommend they get started with? How can they enter this space?

A place where I go to find poems is “Poem-a-Day.” But, I just feel like the spectrum is so wide that you will eventually find a poem that will speak to that inner part of you, a poem that makes the world legible to you. In many cases, that’s the job of every poem, to make the world legible for a potential reader. But, we’re also talking about a spectrum of form — the page, spoken word, poems written on Instagram or poems specifically written with, say, Twitter in mind. All of that is formal work. All it takes is the understanding that the work is out there. I would encourage young readers or people who haven’t found those really life-changing poems to start within their communities.

A poet, who is also a friend, whose work teaches me a lot about how you can use the body in the production of a poem, in the service of a poem — Denice Frohman. Every time I hear a new poem from her I feel very excited. Yesenia Montilla does that as well. Sheila Maldonado, not related, but we call each other “Los Primos.” I have been lucky enough to be a part of this growing community of Latinx writers. We all met at CantoMundo, which is a national organization dedicated to promoting the work of Latine or Latinx poets. It was a revelation to be in community with all these poets.

How do you think poetry continues to evolve on social media?

I’m really encouraged by the ways in which poets are engaging with technology to craft their own work, or using forms. We’re seeing folks write sonnets again. It’s the return of the American sonnet, and there’s something really exciting about seeing Latino writers, Latine writers, Latinx writers, as well as poets of color, re-engage with these traditions and channel their voices through the demands that forms can bring, while also introducing new demands.