Raina J. León on Inviting Poetry into Your Life in All Ways

An interview with Raina J. León, from The Write Stuff series over at SF Weekly:

Raina J. León, Cave Canem graduate fellow (2006), CantoMundo fellow, and member of the Carolina African American Writers Collective, has been published in numerous journals as a writer of poetry, fiction and nonfiction. Her first collection of poetry, Canticle of Idols, was a finalist for both the Cave Canem First Book Poetry Prize (2005) and the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize (2006). Her second book, Boogeyman Dawn(2013, Salmon Poetry), was a finalist for the Naomi Long Madgett Prize (2010). Her third book, sombra : (dis)locate will be published by Salmon Poetry, 2016. She has received fellowships and residencies with Cave Canem, CantoMundo, Montana Artists Refuge, the Macdowell Colony, Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, Vermont Studio Center, the Tyrone Guthrie Center in Annamaghkerrig, Ireland and Ragdale. She also is a founding editor of The Acentos Review, an online quarterly, international journal devoted to the promotion and publication of LatinX arts. She is an associate professor of education at Saint Mary’s College of California. She recently married (twice!) the love of her life, Matteo Monchiero, on a crisp October day in Philadelphia, her hometown. Check out her website and blogs (rainaleon.blogspot.com and teachtechworkshop.blogspot.com). She’s also at Twitter @rainaleon and @profesoraleon. These days she’s writing about ancestral and genetically transferred memory, trauma, joy, blackness, drought, and staying human in dehumanizing times. Sometimes, she keeps it light with skipping, running around the house with an imaginary cape, and singing made up songs.

When people ask what do you do, you tell them…?

I tell them that I am an associate professor of education and a poet, which means I have the great joy of teaching future teachers and witnessing/speaking/hoping to make better the world in which they will teach and children will learn through poetry. I listen and tell a lot of stories, some based on research, on connection with the contemporary, and on imaginary and spiritual work.

What’s your biggest struggle — work or otherwise?

My biggest struggle is rest. I am too eager to know and do and learn, so I generally engage in at least 5 things at any one time. In a meeting, it is not unusual for me to be knitting, monitoring the temperature, tracking conversation, answering email, writing in my journal, brainstorming a new poem, completing a task for the meeting and another task for work, crafting a to-do list, and texting my partner about dinner. My idea of rest is playing my cello (badly) or spending some time in the garden or binge-watching B zombie, vampire, Sci-Fi/Fantasy movies. I often don’t recognize that my body needs rest until I am literally unable to walk. I am always very angry that my body has failed my mind and spirit again … which makes me think that I should add exercise to my meeting habits … Rest is very difficult for me.

If someone said I want to do what you do, what advice would you have for them?

If someone says that they want to be a teacher, I happily sit with them to tell my story, learn theirs, and then help them strategize how to gain the credentials to be of service to children, families, and communities. If someone says to me that they want to be a poet, then I first ask, “Who are you reading?” I advise immersion in reading: the dead, white men of the Western canon and those writers of color from across the world that cannons cannot kill, those living and dead (though their work lives on). I also advise finding a group of like-minded folk who will set aside their own egos to workshop and focus on collective study, growth, and nurturing. I have had the benefit of working with longtime friends and organizations like Cave Canem, CantoMundo, and the Carolina African American Writers Collective. These are organizations filled with people who become family, who fully believe in all that we individually and together can do. I would advise the person to read, connect, write/re-write, and submit. I would also advise this person to support the work of others by buying books, reading and offering feedback to other writers, arranging readings, attending readings, starting journals, editing journals and anthologies, starting presses, going to conferences and getting rooms with two beds (just in case a writer needs a place to crash and can’t afford their own space), etc. If you want to be a poet, you need to invite poetry into your life in all ways. If you want to be a teacher, you have to learn and recognize that those you seek to teach are your best teachers.

Do you consider yourself successful? Why?

I have love. I consider that a great success. I work very hard as an educator and poet, as a friend, family member, and beloved, but in the end, it is love that is the gift I receive and give with joy and gratitude.

Who did you admire when you were 10 years old? What did you want to be?

My mother and Judith Jamison. I wanted to get my doctorate (I didn’t know what subject), be a writer, and be a dancer. I got my doctorate; I am still a writer; and while not a professional dancer, I still love to dance.

Describe your week in the wilderness. It doesn’t have to be ideal.

Glorious, technologically un-tethered, wake with insect chatter and sun swelter, ocean-spray and cliff side wandering, bug bitten (because I have the sweet-sweet blood) time, time, time, time, time to write and breathe and chat with my partner (because I don’t do wilderness alone) and think and dream and wonder and and and and

Would you ever perform a striptease? Describe some of your moves. Feel free to set the mood.

I’ve been wanting to find a class actually as I know that pole dancing is athletically challenging and mentally engaging. I don’t know what my moves would be, but I want to find a class to liberate myself from my own body-shaming mind, have fun, and do one thing that I love, which is dance. I can’t add another thing, though, until I learn to effectively rest. Rest is hard.

How much money do you have in your checking account?

Not enough to pay off my student loan debt, also known (by me) as the house I’ll never live in.

What’s wrong with society today?

That it imagines and attempts to realize that nightmare in which people of color are not people but automatons, robots, slaves, dehumanized and dispirited shells to be used rather than dream-makers as all within the continuum of time and space and cosmos have the possibility and promise to be. I recognize that’s probably too New Age-y. Let me be more clear: that people of color can be mis-educated, brutalized, murdered, and blinded by rage within a society that continues in these practices to dominate and control us. I pray that I see the day when that changes for the good of us all. I do not think I will live long enough to see all that is wrong with this society come to right.

Are you using any medications? If so, which ones?

I am highly sensitive to any medications; even ibuprofen can cause internal bleeding for me. Depending on the day, I blame it on not being breastfed, bad genes, genetically-transferred and society-inflicted continuous trauma (particularly towards women of color), or not going to doctors while young and so not developing a tolerance to medications early. I’ve been in conspiracy theory mode for a few years. Option 3. I also know that fulfillment of that conspiracy is to believe that I am being flighty or that I am wrong about naming what is reality.

What is your fondest memory?

Being the navigator as a child for my dad when we went to Atlantic City on his rare days off. Those were the only times I seem to have ever been able navigate effectively.

How many times do you fall in love each day?

At least 50. I just got married! Ever since I met my partner, I’ve been prone to being especially sappy and loving it. Yesterday, he changed the sheets, did the laundry, and told me to just watch TV. It was beautiful. Or, it’s when he pours me green tea or today he reminded me that “The Librarians” is on TNT tonight. He doesn’t even like the show, but he binge-watched 5 episodes, because he knows how much I love shows at the intersection of nerdy and supernatural.

What would you like to see happen in your lifetime?

Just modest hopes for myself: publish some more books; win a few prizes (like a Nobel or something like that); be a good partner, daughter, sister; teach well and with love; make a difference in someone’s life with kindness and bravery; be a mother, share what I learned, and nurture in a way that allows a child choice in that child’s path. You can’t see it unless you speak/write it.

I would like to see humanity cherish the bounty of our humanity, to offer the space to grow and be to every person. I would like to see us learn that we are not alone and that we are far more similar than we believe. I would like to see our rage at horrors lead to collective action to enact justice and make positive change. I would like to see joy and community lead rather than blood and isolation.

When you have sex, what are some of the things you like to do?

Laugh. As a child, I learned that being ticklish often made me victim of someone else’s whim. I learned to deaden my senses and not respond to tickling. You take away someone’s way to control you, and eventually the person gives up. You gain the ability to control yourself. I knew that it was love when me and my body trusted my partner enough to be ticklish, to laugh under his touch, knowing that he would never violate my trust. The sexiest thing, the loveliest thing, is being able to feel and to laugh with him in the most mundane and most intimate of times.

What are you working on right now?

I am working on a larger project that explores ecopoetics, the lyric, and generational/genetically transferred trauma in a (predominantly) immortal and matrilineal group of black people, currently living in the Bay Area, though they are transnational. They have an insatiable thirst for water to sustain their humanity and blood to sustain all of the spirits by which they are possessed. Wherever they go, drought follows.

As a way of not going mad or losing my own humanity and caring under the onslaught of terrorizing images of black and brown peoples brutalized and murdered, I have created an entire cosmology and overlapping character narratives. It’s my way of mental shielding; it is also my way of channeling my grief and rage.

What kind of work would you like to do? Or: what kind of writing do you most admire?

I admire work that dares to speak truth and innovates, that uses form and turns it on its head, that reaches into the otherworldly and pulls out sometime that evokes the thrill and rush of goosebumps.

If there were one thing about the Bay Area that you would change, what would it be?

The expelling of long time residents, particularly people of color, from their own neighborhoods and homes.

A night on the town: what does that mean to you?

Going out to dance lindy hop with Matteo and his parents. They are incredible dancers, and though my Italian is absolutely awful, I enjoy hanging out with Matteo’s family and dancing.

What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever seen?

Rather the strangest thing I didn’t see. When I lived in Germany, I soon learned that my apartment was haunted. The spirit within it shorted out electrical outlets, liked to play with lights, turned the television on and off (sometimes when I had guests over for dinner), call my name at late times of night, knock on the front door, and scratch at my face while I was sleeping. I had a few friends stay in the haunted room, thinking that it must only be me, and, though I had not told them any of the details, they reported the same happenings (happily not the scratching part). I eventually had to have the place exorcised … twice. About a year after the first exorcism, it all started happening again. I suppose, like cars need maintenance, my apartment needed a regular blessing/exorcism. Considering its location in a city with over a thousand years of history, in a building that was stood over salt tunnels where the plague-dead were buried a few hundred years before, and near the site of “witch” burnings, it was pretty light in the haunting department.

What are some of your favorite smells?

Although I can’t eat them any more — developed gluten intolerance as an adult — Philadelphia pretzels. When I was in elementary school, we used to have them delivered to the school for recess. They would arrive in each class, enough for the class with a few extra, in these large brown paper bags. I remember when they cost only 25 cents. Sometimes, if the teacher was kind, she would have regular and spicy mustard to use. I always loved them with spicy mustard or — delight! — dipped into the frosting of a butterscotch Tastycake. I would press the plastic casing to the frosting and with just the right pressure in the rub, upon opening, the frosting would stick to the plastic and the cake would separate. The pretzel pieces, especially the softest part in the center, dipped into the frosting was the chief delight of my childhood. I still remember the smell of freshly baked Philadelphia pretzels wafting through school hallways. On occasion, I almost catch that scent again, and it always fills me with warmth and longing. It’s the smell of school and home.

If you got an all expenses paid life experience of your choice, what would it be?

I would first pay off my student loans so that I could enjoy the experience (student loans have removed a great deal of choice from my life) … but that said, then I would buy an “around the world” series of tickets (flight in an Emirates suite, train tickets, cargo ship tickets, and an Antarctic Research voyage) with stops in Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Okinawa, Japan, India, Tibet, China, Russia, Tanzania, Ghana, Kenya, Egypt, Palestine, Italy, Spain, Sweden, Iceland, El Salvador, Brazil, Argentina, Galapagos Islands, Antarctica, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Cuba, and other places … and end it all with a month long stay in Vieques. In each of the places, I would stay a month, renting a small apartment near a town center and near a river, so that I could meet people and also enjoy some of the wonders of nature. I would want to do some community work, learning from people in these different spaces about what issues communities are mobilizing to address and how I could be a part of that strength and connection. I would want to attend cultural events and learn enough of the language to appreciate the place and, if possible, a brief poetry, which is a rather high aim. I don’t really like tourist jaunts and large groups; what I would want is to be immersed in the local cultures, to learn some of the local languages and customs, and do some writing about my experiences in these different spaces. Perhaps I could do some good by supporting good around the world.

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