Raina León went to school “to diversify journalism, focusing on diverse issues and the arts,” she said recently by phone. But as an undergraduate at Penn State, she says, she experienced a series of frightening wake-up calls: among them, death threats against black leaders that included the shooting deaths of two black men and a 10-day student live-in protest. Ensuing conversations often included commentary on the general lack of and need for multicultural education, and before long León enrolled in a teacher credential program at Columbia University.
After obtaining her doctorate in education at the University of North Carolina, she applied for a position at St. Mary’s College, where she has worked for about 2 1/2 years. She says she remembers thinking, “I don’t know if I’m ready to do this work yet, especially because I think it’s really important.” She’s now an assistant professor, teaching future middle and high school teachers at the Kalmanovitz School of Education.
León has written poems since she was 8. Her mother, also a poet, introduced her at an early age to the poets of the Black Arts movement like Sonia Sanchez, Amiri Baraka and Nikki Giovanni – poets, as she says, “of revolution and transformation and change.” She points to her fellowship with Cave Canem, a writer’s center with a focus on African American poets and writers, as a major turning point.
“My first year at Cave Canem, when I left I could have sworn I radiated light, that I could levitate,” she says. “I was just so filled with joy from that experience, and not having to explain a lot of my influences or background, that I could use English and Spanish within the same poem and people would understand and just go with what the poem was doing rather than having me explain my whole ethnic history.
She laughs. “So that was truly liberating.”
Her first book, “Canticle of Idols,” was a finalist for both the Cave Canem First Book Poetry Prize and the Andres Montoya Poetry Prize. Her second book, “Boogeyman Dawn,” was published two months ago on the Salmon Poetry press. A collection of traumatic experiences – including racism and school shootings – it makes no attempt to soften their blows.
“Oftentimes we push aside those stories,” she says. “They’re on the news, and we hear it so often we don’t hear it anymore, or we see it so often we don’t see it anymore, or we just have ignored it totally. So this book puts a lot of that up close, up front and center says: Here is the trauma, it is hard, it is depressing. It is weakening, it is challenging. It is a bloodletting, in not the best of ways. But at the same time it says pay attention, pay attention, pay attention, and if you see you can possibly transform.”
The book is written, she says, in response to a question: “What happens to the boogeyman when dawn comes? Does he really disappear, or does that figure disappear into the darkness within us?”
To León, the boogeyman represents a tendency to shift blame onto a figure that doesn’t exist. “Hurting people – that must be the boogeyman. That must be the evil within you that’s not you. It’s the boogeyman. So (the book was written as a way of) taking ownership over that and naming it as something beyond just a mythological part, but actually something that is part of us and something we have to look up and face and challenge.”
IF YOU GO
Thursdays at Readers Poetry Series: With Joe Napora and Raina León. 6:30 p.m. Thursday. Readers Bookstore, Fort Mason Building C, S.F. (415) 771-1076.
Photo by Thomas Sayers Ellis