An Interview with Dorsía Smith Silva

By Keinana Shah

What does it truly mean to drown? According to Dorsía Smith Silva, it means more than you would think. Her upcoming debut poetry collection, In Inheritance of Drowning, explores the devastating effects of Hurricane María in Puerto Rico, highlighting the natural world, the lasting impact of hurricanes, and the marginalization of Puerto Ricans. These poems also focus on the multiple sites of oppression in the United States, especially the racial, social, and political injustices that occur every day. The book is set to be published by this fall, November 2024. Yet I had the privilege of a sneak preview as well as a chance to talk about Dorsía’s writing process and ideas.

KS: What inspired you to write this anthology of poems?

DSS: I wrote In Inheritance of Drowning because I wanted readers to have a deeper understanding of Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico is too often depicted by glossy photographs of beaches and sunshine. Readers are probably unaware of the extent of the damage Hurricane María caused in Puerto Rico and that Puerto Rico suffered the longest blackout in U.S. history. It took about eleven months for all of Puerto Rico to have electricity. Over two thousand people died, and several flattened buildings and homes have never been repaired. The response for aid to Puerto Rico was and still is lackluster, so you can imagine the widespread devastation and the emotional, physical, and mental toll on us. The roots of Puerto Rico being under the thumb of colonialism with the U.S. are crushing. Some of the poems in In Inheritance of Drowning also explore the experiences of those that had to leave Puerto Rico after Hurricane María because they became homeless and jobless.

I also wanted to examine oppression in the United States, which was bubbling to the surface with police brutality, Black Lives Matter, immigrants’ rights, toppling of racist monuments, and COVID-19 while I was writing the book. In Inheritance of Drowning enters this conversation of how these moments can drown/undrown disenfranchised communities.

I think the poems In Inheritance of Drowning are essential. We need more BIPOC stories, and we need to tell our own stories that are intersectional and move across disciplines. So, In Inheritance of Drowning, is a story that I want to tell, and I hope readers enjoy it.

KS: Many of the poems are written in a first person narrative, such as “Widow” and “Ghost Talker Poem”. Are any of the poems based on your real life experiences?

DSS: A few of the poems are based on my life. For instance, “Ghost Talker Poem,” is based on a time when I wondered why there was a dearth of media coverage on missing Black and Brown girls. It was very hard for me to understand as a young child why the media would not cover our disappearances, especially when there were so many stories about white women and girls that had disappeared. I wondered, “Weren’t our stories newsworthy too? Why were our cases going untold? Where was our respect and justice?”

“How I Lost My Name” is also based on a personal experience when a teacher didn’t want to call on me because this person thought my first name was “too difficult” to pronounce. I was nervous about being stereotyped as the “difficult black girl” in class and the repercussions of telling the teacher something without being called on, so I politely waited to be called. However, I kept waiting for my turn to speak and I was kept waiting. Some readers may be able to relate to this experience and recognize the tactics to dismantle our identities, keep us silent, and try to make us feel invisible.

KS: In “Widows”, your use of enjambment is significant. What were you trying to convey through this structure? How does it enrich your poem?

DSS: In “Widows,” I wanted the poem to have a certain flow that would encourage readers to continue reading until they reached the end of the poem. I hope the effect creates more tension in the poem and builds a certain momentum and fluidity. The poem has some sprinkles of narrative qualities and colloquial language too, where I can envision the speaker contemplating disaster capitalism, social injustice, and violent hurricanes with others. Overall, I think enjambment emphasizes the important details of the poem and engages the reader in the beauty of the transitions, especially as the poem moves from the color black to FEMA’s irresponsibility, complex physical and emotional damage from Hurricane María, and drowning.

KS: Your book is named after “The Inheritance of Drowning”, why did you decide to name it after that specific poem?

DSS: I knew right away that the title of my debut poetry book would be In Inheritance of Drowning. I love the title because it encapsulates the confrontation of the survival of BIPOC communities and how we are constantly inheriting a world that unfortunately is grim—a world that keeps trying to drown our identities and blame us in the process. The title poem “In Inheritance of Drowning” was originally published in this journal in 2021, and I was beyond thrilled when it was accepted by Cream City Review. The poem delves more into the historical moments of how Black and Brown bodies have been drowned, such as the Taíno and African slaves, and links to our contemporary drowning when the poem asks at the end, “How many ways can we drown?” It is asking, “How many ways do the systems of oppression (try to) kill us?”

KS: There is a recurring theme of drowning throughout the anthology. It serves as the overall focal point. What does the concept of drowning mean to you? In your eyes, is it a physical or physiological burden?

DSS: Someone told me that drowning functions as an extended metaphor throughout the book. I really like this explanation of how drowning links throughout the book. Overall, drowning is a physical and physiological burden. It is what keeps us shrouded in doubt. It weighs us down, so that we never reach our potential. It keeps us from achieving our dreams. It overwhelms us. It robs us of our identities. It rips apart communities and families. It keeps us tied to complex trauma and oppression. You can think of the literal history of how people drowned during The Middle Passage, and how others drowned as victims of police brutality in In Inheritance of Drowning. There is also how certain places like Puerto Rico are drowning in debt because colonial oppressors have exploited them and stripped them of making decisions that would give them autonomy.

KS: A lot of the poems deal with heavy topics such as death, oppression, and trauma (as seen in poems like “Ghost Talker Poem” and ““The Inheritance of Drowning”). I am curious to know what your headspace was like when writing this. What was the most challenging aspect of writing this book and why?

DSS: I have been told that I am very serious as a writer and poet. In keeping with what I think is an accurate description of myself, I wrote in the mindset of creating protest poetry. Therefore, In Inheritance of Drowning is not light verse. I would not be true to myself, if I trivialized the impact of Hurricane María in Puerto Rico. Many people died, and others lost their homes and businesses. Puerto Rico’s colonial relationship to the U.S. was also strongly enforced, as Puerto Ricans got tired of waiting for aid and started removing debris and trees on their own; people started looking after their own neighborhoods because FEMA’s response vacillated between slow and non-existent. Puerto Rico is still recovering in many ways, and Hurricane María was almost seven years ago. There is also no way for me to address the current state of oppression in the United States without a solemn mindset. The current state of events makes me apprehensive for historically marginalized people. I wonder what the landscape will look like as there have been more barriers—more drowning—for BIPOC communities.

KS: There are many themes of generational trauma and family within your work. Are these themes important to you? How have they shaped your writing?

DSS: Yes, generational trauma and family are very significant themes to me and influence my writing. For example, I have edited and co-edited several texts on mothering and motherhood, including Latina/Chicana Mothering (Demeter Press), and a part of my research on Maternal Studies has been exploring how the trauma that the birth mother carries—this may be done consciously or unconsciously—can impact the child. I write about this cycle of trauma in In Inheritance of Drowning as inherited trauma that is largely due to the sinister legacies of discrimination and oppression. I think many of the poems reflect the harm of generational trauma and how “we wake up drowning.” Of course, there are ways to have something more than a promise of coping and achieve actual healing. I am exploring how these tensions become resolved in some new poems.

KS: What was the process of writing this book?

DSS: Hurricane María hit Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017. We lost electricity a few hours after María struck, and we lost water a few days later. I started keeping a journal as a way to record my feelings and unravel what had happened. I had many questions that had no answers— When would the electricity be restored? When would the birds return? How were others coping? Eventually, I had filled several notebooks, and I revised these initial thoughts/manifestations of the mind into poems.

Then, there were movements like Black Lives Matter, several high-profile cases of police brutality, and the pandemic. I started writing poems that grappled with these topics, and asked more questions, such as where is justice for those that have been historically marginalized and when will society be ready for a social transformation.

When deciding the structure for the book, I knew that I had wanted the poems about Hurricane María to frame the book, and to be the first and third sections. The other poems that focused on the different forms of oppression in the United States would then compromise the second section of the book.

KS: Your poems present a history of colonization, racism, and feminicide, leading to a legacy of “drowning”. You seem to raise questions about generational trauma —and by extension, the inheritance of pain. With all that being said, what would you like readers to take away from this book?

DSS: My hope is that readers are prepared to have a candid conversation about the need for social transformation. By the end of In Inheritance of Drowning, it would be wonderful for readers to demand an end to what drowns us and call for what enriches and sustains BIPOC communities and Puerto Rico.

Dorsía Smith Silva’s debut poetry collection, In Inheritance of Drowning, with a foreword by Vincent Toro, will be published this fall (November 2024) by CavanKerry Press. It is now available for pre-ordering at  https://www.cavankerrypress.org/product/in-inheritance-of-drowning/.



Dorsía Smith Silva is a Pushcart Prize nominee, Best of the Net finalist, Best New Poets nominee, Obsidian Fellow, poetry editor of The Hopper, and professor at the University of Puerto Rico-Río Piedras. Her poetry has been published in the Denver Quarterly, Waxwing, Cream City Review, and elsewhere. She is the author of Good Girl, editor of Latina/Chicana Mothering, and the co editor of seven books. She has a Ph.D. in Caribbean Literature and Language, and her primary interests are ecopoetry, social and racial justice, mothering and motherhood, and migration. She has also received scholarships and fellowships from Bread Loaf and Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing and is a member of the Get the Word Out Poetry Cohort of Poets & Writers in 2024.


Keinana Shah is a UWM graduate of English Literature and Cultural Theory, and Business Administration. In pursuit of exploring her various passions, Keinana is learning skills through many types of creative mediums, with a focus on her dream of pursuing art and history.