Raina Juanita León

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Q: Where do you currently live/reside?  Berkeley, CA

Q: How do you self-identify? Afro-Latina, Afro-Boricua, Black. She, her, hers

Affiliations: The Acentos Review (co-founder and editor); Saint Mary’s College of California (professor); fellow of Cave Canem, CantoMundo, Macondo, VONA, Carolina African American Writers’ Collective; teacher with The Speakeasy Project


  León, R. J. “Poet:  Code’s Story”. Nevertheless, She Persisted anthology. March 2017.

Q: Can you tell us a little bit about what inspired the poem above?   

I was in an MFA program, writing a poetry manuscript that explored concepts of Afro-futurism and Afro-pessimism through the lens of fictional characters, immortals of African descent, who could pass their memories on to their human child.  What must it be to be a child, inheritor of the memories of 5000 years of struggle and survival, and grow up within our world? What might knowing the intricacies of the past inspire in viewing today?

I was writing challenging poems in the voices of these characters, predominantly women, as I found myself trying to make sense of my sorrow and rage as I saw, over and over again, black and brown peoples being killed by the police through state-sanctioned violence.  Social media was inundated with these lynching images. Digital lynching is what a colleague, Whitneé Garrett-Walker, calls the phenomenon, which extends to the images themselves and, I think, to the extended effect that they have on those who watch them, particularly those, like me, from the same cultural background.  

The poem shares a story told to me on my wedding day, one that I really had heard all my life, of lynchings within my mother’s time.  I remember, in bringing poems about what was happening in the news and within communities of color to workshop, the workshop leader essentially saying that the world was not so dire.  I took great offense to this, as it seemed an undermining of my experience and those of others within my communities as well as a type of unintentional gaslighting. The poem came as a resistance to that.  

Q: How did you get your writing/performing start?

I got my start writing when I was 8 years old.  I remember writing a formal poem, a diamante, in Mrs. Mazzucca’s class in 3rd grade at Saint Clement-Irenaeus School in Philadelphia.  It was about trees and the movement of the wind. I decorated it with a tree, colored in crayon, and put it in a photo album. I still have that poem somewhere in my files, because I keep everything.  I was writing before that, my mother recounts, but that was the first poem that I remember deeply; it was the first time that I identified as a writer.

Q: How would you describe your writing style? 

I’ve been influenced by a great number of poets.  I am an occasional formalist through the influence of Robin Becker and Marilyn Nelson.  I enjoy looking at the form of poems I love, unpacking the construction techniques within them, and attempting to emulate those patterns.  I often will create new forms or write within received forms strictly or break them with a particular purpose in mind. Marilyn Nelson was the first person to tell me how choosing a vessel for the poem, engaging in the intellectual puzzling work of the poem, can be an entrance point into the topics that one cannot seem to write about otherwise.  That effort can be the key to the place beyond the wall the mind has constructed.

Through the influence of L. Teresa Church, I also have this intense love for crafting new words through the practice of literally jamming two words together.  Having lived in Germany for a spell, this seems to also be in line with a common German linguistic practice; it’s a beautifully visual language that often reveals new realities through how two very different words are placed strategically together.

Finally, I’m a bit heady/nerdy.  I’m as likely to reference an obscure passage in a book by Octavia Butler as I am a particular phenomenon only witnessed in bioluminescent bays, as likely to talk about Jean Luc Picard in a poem as I am to invoke Critical Race Theory.  

Q: How does your identity shape or influence your work, writing process, or writing life?

It’s just in everything.  My stories and my life extend from the stories and lives of my people so I talk a lot about heritage, family, and legacy in my work.  My peoples are storytellers, jokesters, warriors, dancers, travelers, and this extends through all that I do.

To write, I need to have mental space, which is hard when I am always so incredibly busy.  I have to force myself to sit and be still, either independently or through the structure of a workshop or writing residency.  Once I carve out the time and space, though, then I fully immerse myself in the work of imagination, reading and writing obsessively while also trying to find time to interact with the world and people.  I’m too social to truly write unencumbered as a hermit.

Q: Can you tell us about a time you think your identity (Afro-Latinidad/Afro-Caribbeanness) helped or hindered your writing or writing career?

For awhile, no one would publish my work that included Spanish or anything that referenced my identity.  Poems with formal maneuvers or those that cultivated a distance in observation, those were snapped up. Poems that explored intimacies could not find a home.  I think the first journal to ever publish a poem that used Spanish in it was Salt Hill Journal back in 2009.  That was the year after I started, with Eliel Lucero, The Acentos Review, with the goal of publishing and promoting the work of Latinx writers.  Since then, The Acentos Review, has published over 500 Latinx artists and writers.  I like to think that my work as an editor counters the what I experienced as a writer earlier in my career and that this work has had a positive effect on the Latinx arts community.  

Q: Tell me about your current writing project:

I’m working on a manuscript, which engages in Afro-centric, Afro-futurist, and Afro-pessimist creation myth-making as a sociopolitical act of resistance against the erasure of blackness, Black histories, Black legacies, and Black godliness.  The poems take on the personas of immortals of African descent, who, through their travels, have come to identify transnationally with specific linguistic features and cultural expressions. In addition to this, there is a poet’s voice who comments on the creation of these personalities as lenses to view the disintegrating and unstable current world.

Q: What else are you working on or what future projects do you have in mind?

I would really like to make this the above project interdisciplinary with a multileveled website, a photo exhibit populated by women of African descent depicted with ancient trees, and a dance/chorepoem.  In addition, I’m working on the 10th Anniversary Anthology for The Acentos Review.

Q: What have been some of the highlights/defining moments of your writing/performing career?

Starting The Acentos Review has been one of the greatest joys of my writing life, supporting emerging writers and working alongside incredible guest editors.  Personally, when my first book came out and I had a book release at the Bowery Poets Cafe with dear friends reading alongside me and my parents and brother came up from Philadelphia, that was a pretty magical night.  My first book came out soon after I had moved to Germany, so I flew in to go back home to my New York/LouderArts/Acentos literary community and celebrate the book’s release. I’ve had some incredible experiences from there, like a reading at JazzVerse in London as part of the book tour for my second book, and I think that book release was the blessing on what was possible for me.  2008 was when both The Acentos Review started and when my first book, Canticle of Idols, came out.

Q: Who are some of your biggest influences and/or mentors?

Marilyn Nelson on form and just on walking in the world with openness; Patricia Smith in her vitality and giving to others; Lenard D. Moore and L. Teresa Church, my Carolina African American Writers Collective mentors, who taught me about the bounty of paring down and creating new concepts with illustrative words; Kwame Dawes, who continues to be there always and model building community wherever he goes; Brenda Hillman, who has supported my vision and asked deep critical questions of my work.

Q: What’s the one piece of advice you would give new writers/performers?

Find your community, the people who will celebrate with you, connect you with new opportunities, offer you the critique that you need, etc. And as you find community, invite others into that community and build spaces for more.

Q: Who/what are you reading now?

Eve Ewing, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Patricia Smith, Evie Shockley, Jasminne Mendez, Jerri Lange, Parneshia Jones, Tina Chang, Paul Ortiz, Bao Phi, Patrick Rosal, Barbara Jane Reyes, Tongo Eisen-Martin, Cassandra Dallett, Natasha Marin, Vanessa Mártir, Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, Rohan DaCosta, Linda Tuhiwai Smith … I have a lot of books that are on my desk right now.  

Q: What’s your favorite platano dish/recipe?

Pastelón or maduros.    

Fun Fact 1:  Jean Luc Picard is my favorite Star Trek captain followed closely by Benjamin Sisco … in other words, I watched and watch a lot of Star Trek, once wore an earring like Kira Nerys, and actually have a paper that talks about Star Trek, zombies, and Latinx poetics.    

Fun Fact 2:  Because I have 5 out of 9 points of hyperflexibility, I can bend both legs behind my head.  When I had better arm strength, I could also walk on my hands while in this position. Every now and then, I contort myself into this position just to see if I can still do this.  My physiotherapist who is helping me prepare for birth does not approve.

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