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December 2022 Feature: Rio Cortez

Award-winning author of Golden Ax (Penguin Books), which was longlisted for the 2022 National Book Award in Poetry.

Rio Cortez is the author of the debut poetry collection, Golden Ax (Penguin Books), which was longlisted for the 2022 National Book Award in Poetry. She is also the author of New York Times bestselling picture book, The ABCs of Black History (Workman Kids), and the forthcoming picture book The River Is My Sea (S&S/Denene Millner Books). Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and The Miami Rail, among other places. Visit her website and follow her on Instagram.

As Cain

Until 1978, Mormons maintained that in a spiritual “preexistence,” Blacks were neutral bystanders when other spirits chose sides during a fight between God and Lucifer. For that failure of courage, they were condemned to become the accursed descendants of Cain.

I think of the earth that drank Abel’s blood

as I uproot foxtail from the garden.

Earth, not passive, but cursed by God, having

accepted death, and maybe, even, hoped

to grow from it. And Cain said to Abel,

“Let us go to the field.” I cut my own

thumb on a weed. I carry out a strict

ritual of healing: cold hose water and then

most Holy: mouth. Tell me, what mark has God

given me? I am paraphrasing here

when I say God told Cain to rule over

his own longing or else restless wanderer

shall he be on earth. First curse, then blessing.

God’s always changing his mind about us

The Interview

Your debut full-length poetry collection, Golden Ax, is stunning and deeply rooted in your family’s history. When did you first become interested in your family ancestry? Did you always know you would write about it?

Growing up in Utah, family history is really an essential part of the culture of Mormonism. It’s home to the Family Research Library, and some of the most gifted genealogical researchers, so that was one influence.

But personally, I think my family’s history became important to me early on, just as a way of sort of explaining my circumstances. The further into my adolescence I got, the more clear my differences were made to me (racially & religiously), and family history became a really natural first line of questioning.

Did you discover any surprises about your family while you were writing the book?

Yes! Lots, in fact. I think really researching family history, and measuring history against the stories you’re told about who you are, can be really heartbreaking in a way, as much as it can be liberating. So, some things I learned did that for me. One example was letters that I found from my grandfather’s ex-wife; I always thought of their separation one way. And then, it sort of evolved before my eyes through her words on the page.

Was there anything you left out of the book that might find its way into another collection?

Well, that story about my grandfather! But yes, I do think there is more to tell here, which I am currently working into a lyrical memoir.

What do you hope your readers will take away from Golden Ax?

I hope readers get a glimpse at what feels like a quiet story in the tapestry that is Black history in America, Black folks and their pivotal role in shaping The West. But I also hope readers encounter language they find exciting and new, different ways of considering lineage, and that they have some fun.

You’re also the author of the best-selling children’s book The ABCs of Black History. This book is a bright, inspiring, educational trip through Black history. What moved you to write it and do you think you’ll write more children’s books?

Thank you! My editor, Traci Todd, asked me to write a poem about Black history at the perfect time, perfect place in my life. I was pregnant with my daughter and working at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem; so I had this incredible experience of being surrounded by our stories every day, and starting to think of how to tell them in a new way for young minds. And yes! More picture books for sure, I have two lyrical picture books on the horizon with Denene Millner Books, the first one to come out is called The River Is My Sea and will be illustrated by the incredible Ashleigh Corrin.

If you could write a poetry collection focused on one historical figure who would it be?

Wow, I love this question. I think, a cowboy. Maybe Nat Love.

What are your top three must-do activities in Utah?

Okay, so, I think you simply must see the Spiral Jetty, which is an earthwork sculpture created in the 1970s by Robert Smithson. It’s like you’re on another planet. And it’s sustainable and changes with our climate, the weather, it’s fascinating.

K, then I always drink beer. Surprisingly, Utah has a ton of great microbreweries and it feels like a subversive act in a state with such restrictive liquor laws.

And finally, you should hike! Or buy books. I am a big fan of The King’s English, which is an indigenous-owned local staple.

It’s the gift-giving season. What’s on your wish list?

What I want is time! Haha, just time away from my loving family to write and stare into the sea. But, I also asked for some Brother Vellies shoes when they were hosting their winter sample sale.

What’s your favorite winter self-care practice?

I’m a scent and light person. I feel like those are big mood-changing elements for me. So I love to burn cedar and open all the curtains or turn on holiday lights alongside a woodsy candle.

How can people support you?

Buy Golden Ax, please!

Name another Black woman writer people should be reading.

Just one?! Well, definitely Robin Coste Lewis. I’m no critic, but the words I would use to describe her new collection are “WOW” and “masterpiece”.


Torch Literary Arts is a 501(c)3 nonprofit established to publish and promote creative writing by Black women. We publish contemporary writing by experienced and emerging writers alike. TORCH has featured work by Colleen J. McElroy, Tayari Jones, Sharon Bridgforth, Crystal Wilkinson, Patricia Smith, Natasha Trethewey, Elizabeth Alexander, and others. Programs include the Wildfire Reading Series, writing workshops, and retreats.


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