Poet Of The Week

Rio Cortez

     August 14–20, 2023

Rio Cortez is the New York Times–bestselling author of the picture books The ABCs of Black History (Workman, 2020) and The River Is My Sea (S&S, 2024). Her debut poetry collection, Golden Ax, was longlisted for the 2022 National Book Award for Poetry and the Pen America Open Book Award and was a finalist for Poetry Society of America’s Norma Farber First Book Award. It is available now from Penguin Books. On Friday, August 25, Cortez will read for the Brooklyn Poets Reading Series along with Noah Arhm Choi and Terrance Hayes.

Family Tree at Earth’s Surface


After looking, and not looking without

using all the tools on the table:

expert, archive, attic, passed word, hunch, self

I come to Nameless mother and her son.

in one matter of seeing, they lived not

long ago, but for me, Unnamed

mother is just as well the moon, tidemaker.

Blackness does not begin there but first breaks

into a boy they call Jackson, leaver

of his last name, farmer, coffin builder.

Of course, we know there is another tool,

another knowing that we arc forever

an arc in which the moon herself

is affectionately mothered, and so

comforted, I lose the impulse to keep

counting, recording their names at all


—From Golden Ax, Penguin Books, 2022.

Brooklyn Poets · Rio Cortez, "Family Tree at Earth’s Surface"

Tell us about the making of this poem.

This is a poem that comes toward the end of my book, and came to me toward the end of making my book. It’s a poem about the archival journey that led me to these poems, but more, about the acknowledgement of its futility when set against the power of the knowledge that exists within our own bodies and our own intuition.

What are you working on right now?

I just finished a picture book manuscript about a child’s relationship to the mountains, and I’m working on a memoir that addresses many of the themes in Golden Ax.

What’s a good day for you?

Oh, a good day is an easy day. A quiet day, where I feel calm and safe and my daughter is laughing.

What brought you to New York?

My father grew up in the Lower East Side and I always wanted to go to school in New York, so I did—I went to Sarah Lawrence for undergrad and stuck around for the rest of my life.

Where’s home for you? How long have you lived there? What do you like about it? How is it changing? How does it compare to other places you’ve lived?

Home is two places. Home is here, in Harlem, where I live with my family and in the city I’ve lived in for seventeen years. And home is also Utah, where I came up and where I’ve had family for five generations. I love them both. Everywhere is always changing, but I do think New York City changes faster. It’s innate and complex change. And in Utah, it feels like environmental change is happening fast. Both can be violent, and both are rooted in capitalism.

Spent any time in Brooklyn? If so, when and where? Share with us your experiences, impressions, etc.

I have! I’ve always lived in Queens or Manhattan, but of course I’ve spent time in Brooklyn. Friends, poetry, music, food—it’s all so good in Brooklyn.

What does a poetry community mean to you? Have you found that here? Why or why not?

I have found it and even lost it! And found it again. So many good organizations have helped to cultivate poetry community for me, including Cave Canem, Poets House, NYU’s creative writing program and the homies introducing me to other writer friends.

Tell us about some Brooklyn poets who have been important to you.

So many! A couple of poets whose work I’ve really admired are andriniki mattis and zakia henderson-brown, both Brooklyn natives.

Who were your poetry mentors and how did they influence you?

Brenda Shaughnessy, Yusef Komunyakaa, Kevin Young, Tina Chang, Suzanne Gardinier—all different influences, and some reluctant mentors, others friends, but all have critically impacted the way I think about writing.

Tell us about the last book(s) and/or poem(s) that stood out to you and why.

I’ve really loved J. Mae Barizo’s Tender Machines, Robin Coste Lewis’s To the Realization of Perfect Helplessness and Ama Codjoe’s Bluest Nude.

What are some books or poems you’ve been meaning to read for years and still haven’t gotten to?

Not years, but I’m really excited about Omotara James’s collection Song of My Softening and So to Speak by Terrance Hayes.

Describe your reading process. Do you read one book at a time, cover to cover, or dip in and out of multiple books? Do you plan out your reading in advance or discover your next read at random? Do you prefer physical books or digital texts? Are you a note-taker?

As a parent of a young child, I’m an opportunistic reader. I like to keep poetry by my bedside and dip into a few poems at bedtime. I like listening to an audiobook with my partner, so we have that shared reading experience. And then, I like to read a novel when I’m on the train.

What are some Brooklyn spaces you love? Why?

What I love most is the experience of visiting friends and loved ones at home in Brooklyn. Whether that be in Carroll Gardens, Bed-Stuy, Crown Heights or Downtown Brooklyn, it’s an honor seeing the sacred spaces loved ones make for themselves.

Fill in the blanks in these lines by Whitman:

I celebrate our home,

And what I mend you mend,

For every break in you as good a break in me.