Meet the Utah poet long-listed for a national award for her collection on Black pioneerism

Rio Cortez is from Salt Lake City and says growing up as a Black woman, particularly as a teenager, in the state was isolating.

(Paul Tran | Penguin Books) Rio Cortez, Utah-born poet, has published her first collection, "Golden Ax." Some of the poems are centered on her growing up Black in Salt Lake City, and the connections she makes between her family's journey west and the migration of the Mormon pioneers to Utah.

Rio Cortez was introduced to poetry the same way she was introduced to other expressions of representation: Through screen media, not from what she experienced around her as a Black girl growing up in Salt Lake City.

When she was 8, she first saw “Poetic Justice,” John Singleton’s 1993 movie that starred Janet Jackson as Justice, a hairdresser who wrote poetry. For the film, Singleton called on the legendary Maya Angelou to write Justice’s poems.

“It was the first time I’d heard language like that,” Cortez said, adding that the words were so inspiring that she checked out every one of Angelou’s books from her school library.

“I’ve used poetry as a way to process and put down what I was feeling ever since then,” Cortez said.

She applies that process in her debut collection of poetry, ”Golden Ax” (Penguin Books, paperback, 80 pages). The book was released nationwide on Aug. 30, and is on the longlist for the 2022 National Book Award in the poetry category.

With the poems in the book, Cortez said she wants to “excavate narratives” she’s never heard before — narratives that she says would have been beneficial to her when she was growing up in Utah.

“It was a way to process my upbringing,” Cortez said in a recent interview, “but also a way to celebrate Black people in the West.”

The poems in “Golden Ax” have been 10 years in the making, she said. In that time, she said she has taken a deep dive into her own background and Black pioneerism in the state — or, using the term she coined, Afropioneerism (“a way to think about Black people venturing into someplace new”), as contrasted with Afrofuturism (“which seeks to imagine a future while not forgetting about the Black past”).

Growing up as a Black woman, particularly as a teenager, in Utah was isolating, Cortez said. Often, in high school, she was the only Black student in her classes, so she started feeling lonely.

“Seeking to define myself was hard to do,” she said, adding that she didn’t have the language then to express how she was feeling when she experienced microaggressions.

“In order to survive socially, I accepted some comments and things from my peers that, as I get older, I cringe thinking about,” Cortez said. She tried to pass it off then as “different things that we do to survive as teenagers.”

That said, Cortez admitted that Utah is a beautiful place to grow up — but having a singular Black experience is something that weighed on her when she was writing her collection.

“I come back every summer, and I bring my daughter and my partner,” said Cortez, who lives in New York. “We think a lot about what it would look like to have her there. But it’s really impossible to divorce [the issues of race] from what I loved about growing up in Salt Lake City.”

Elevating overlooked narratives

In “Golden Ax,” Cortez masterfully elevates the experiences of Black people in the West through her poems — and frequently uses her own family history to do it.

“I grew up with the language of pioneerism,” she said, pointing to the role that word plays in Utah’s history, with the arrival of Brigham Young and Mormon settlers in 1847.

“But I also grew up with the term ‘Negro Pioneer’ in our household.” That’s the name of a booklet published by the Daughters of Utah Pioneers, in which some of Cortez’ ancestors’ testimonies for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were recorded, along with their experiences as early Black settlers in Utah.

In the author’s note of “Golden Ax,” Cortez writes of how her family was once enslaved in Louisiana, then freed after Reconstruction. She theorizes that her second and third great-grandfathers went West, inspired by the California Gold Rush.

Paul C. Howell became the first Black police detective in Utah, and his son Abner would become one of the earliest Black converts to Latter-day Saint faith. Cortez writes that Abner’s testimony would become an “important narrative” for the church in its efforts to attract more Black congregants.

It wouldn’t be until 1978 — 113 years after the end of the Civil War and the beginning of the Reconstruction era — that Black men were allowed to hold the priesthood as Latter-day Saints.

The title of the collection, too, has historical ties to Utah. It’s a play on “The Broad Ax,” the name of a Black newspaper operated by Julius Taylor. The paper was quite politically outspoken for its time, Cortez said.

Cortez intertwines threads of science fiction throughout her poetry as well, a nod back to the difficulty of imagining her family settling in a place where no one looked like them.

“The language of the church lends itself very naturally to the language of science fiction,” Cortez said, with references to such things as the Celestial Kingdom. Along with that, Utah’s landscapes — she points to the Bonneville Salt Flats (which doubled as Area 51 in “Independence Day”) — often can be otherworldly, she said.

‘Representation can’t be what you can’t see’

Many of Cortez’s memories of writing “Golden Ax” are of herself at her laptop, her face illuminated by the screen, as her daughter slept next to her in bed — as Cortez worked through a poem “that feels like it comes out of nowhere.”

The mental image brings Cortez full circle: Writing about her roots, with the next generation of her family next to her, as Cortez offers a narrative and representation that she needed to hear when she was younger.

“Representation can’t be what you can’t see,” she said.

In a wide-ranging collection like this — which includes a juxtaposition of Latter-day Saint leader Brigham Young’s quote “This is the place” with cosmic jazz composer Sun Ra’s declaration that “space is the place” — Cortez said she can’t pick a favorite poem.

But there is one, “Visiting Whitney Plantation” that she said she’s particularly proud of.

“It recounts the experience I had traveling back to Louisiana where my family was enslaved,” Cortez said. She was given a grant to make the trip, she added.

“I had these big ideas of what that trip would yield,” she said. “I thought I’d have an epiphany or revelatory moment where I would be standing on the dirt that my family had been enslaved on, that it would move up through my feet and change me in some big way.”

That’s not what happened. Cortez said it’s impossible to find out where enslaved people really were or who they were, for that matter, in their lives because of the nature of slavery in America. It’s difficult to track down histories, because of nicknames, changed names and a lack of general record keeping — an entire generation of Black people, forgotten and lost.

“I felt like I didn’t get close enough to where they might have been and what their realities would have looked like,” she said. So she got one “good poem” out of the trip, about a plantation where her family may have been enslaved.

“I like to read it at readings because I feel like people connect with it, just the experience of hitting a wall when you’re looking back at family history and wishing you could push further,” Cortez said.

She said she “would love” for young women of color and kids of color to look at her collection and see themselves, but Cortez said she also hopes more broadly that “Golden Ax” will get people to think about the history of the West in a new way.

The book is good, she said, for “anybody who has an outsider experience, anybody who wants to learn more about lesser-known Black American history, or wants to use it as an exercise to do the same thing in their own lives.”

As Cortez writes at the end of the book’s author’s note: “Over a century later, I am claiming this name and this space for them. The land where Utah exists haunts our story, but we are even more vast. And we know that because we imagine ourselves into existence.”

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