One day, I was starting to tell my kid sister a story that had happened to me lately, and she stopped me very soon after I started and interjected: “All of your stories start in a coffee shop!” What can I say? That’s where all my magic happens. That is where I met Raina Leon. I had linked to her blog from a friend and found that she was in my area, and I proposed we meet up and exchange writing, as I was in need of a writing community, and she agreed. We met on a rainy day in Chapel Hill. Caribou Coffee. I had brought this short story. She had a pen. She always has a pen. I said, I’m a fiction writer. She went to town on the short story. We sipped coffee (well, I did, I think she got a hot cider). We chatted. When we left, she invited me to join this writer’s group: The Carolina African American Writer’s Collective. I went with her to check it out. We became weekly writing partners. We became house mates. We became sisters.
Now, Raina is a giver. She has a lot to give: knowledge about teaching poetry, poems, stories, travel experiences, her time, her ear. When she was at Chapel Hill, in addition to getting her PhD, she ran 10 high school creative writing workshops, and conceived this program: The Day of the Poet, where she brought 11 poets from all over the US to Chapel Hill to hang and write with the kids. She’s in Germany now; I’m hoping she’ll return to the states soon. She stopped to answer some questions.
1. You moved to Germany over a year ago. Would you consider yourself an expatriate like in the tradition of James Baldwin and so many other Black writers who moved out of the states? Has it changed your perspective? Your writing?
I would not consider myself an expatriate in the way of James Baldwin, Nina Simone and Josephine Baker. While my apartment rises above cobblestones that have been there longer than I have been alive and though the place blends the medieval and modern seamlessly, I do not belong to Germany.
Sure, after two years, I can speak a little German. I understand much more than I speak. But I move among Americans much of the day. I work on an Army posting as a teacher. I suppose my position is unusual in that I speak more Spanish than English or German in my daily life. Still, I am constantly reminded of my identity as an American.
Politics aside, I have the rare privilege to support the families of those deployed and those who have just returned. These are mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, and children who may worry daily about the welfare of a loved one. At the same time, they have to juggle an adjustment to life abroad. They did not make the choice to come to Germany. The military soldiers and officers, their spouses and dependents were given a posting. I chose my life; I never forget that.
I have only begun to write the poems about my life here, a life which has been changed by this experience. I have become gentler in my work. Beauty unfolds in the simple things: in the bells that chime early on Sunday with full-bellied joyful sounds, the fields of fluorescent yellow rape seed whispering on one-lane German country roads, or in the traveling to places like Istanbul where the call to prayer makes the dust hop. At the same time, contradictions set themselves at my table. Now, more than ever, I feel myself a part of the world with all the rights and responsibilities that come with that. I am not satisfied to stay in one place. I want to see more, learn more, grow more. My writing begins to show that.
2. Because you are across the pond, and moved pretty recently after the publication of your first book Canticle of Idols, how does that change your relationship to the book? To your American readership? Have you done any readings or literary events in Germany?
Arranging book tours and readings for Canticle of Idols was especially difficult considering that two months before publication I moved to Europe. Unfortunately, my publisher does not foster a relationship overseas. My book, for example, is available on Amazon UK, but it still presents difficulties in shipping. I find that if I want to do a reading or sell books, I have to carry my work with me. I am just starting to enter into the literary domain in the UK and Ireland, because there is a limited market for poetry written in English where I am. In my areas, there is a yearly poetry event in English. Unfortunately, it is in the summer when I am often traveling.
In addition to my distance from the States, I have become distant from the book itself. I suppose that’s true of all writers. I was enthralled with the mission within the book – humanizing the saints – but now I have moved on to other missions.
3. What are you working on now?
My second manuscript, Boogeyman Dawn, was a finalist for the Naomi Long Madgett this year, so right now I am looking for a publisher. The collection of poems centers on the molding of a person by the elusive boogeyman, a representative of societal ills, and the results of that. While at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Annamaghkerrig, Ireland this summer, I completed a third manuscript, now entitled House of Ribbons, that is filled with poems concerning transformation and wonder.
4. I know you’re a big advocate, and have found it an important subject as of late, you can you speak on your stance with regards to arts education and literacy?
Through the arts, a person can transcend the self and find a communion with the highest aspects of humanity. I truly believe that arts education is essential to education and engagement. Young people crave poetry. They want to be involved in the imagination and physical motion of mural making. They glory in rhyme and song. They truly live in the experimentation of body in dance. Through the arts, so many subjects can be taught and young people can be engaged in a way that opens doors to fields of imagination, where the box does not exist; rather, they may think outside of worlds.
Look at a great essay, one that moves you to quaking, and you will be reading the words of someone in tune with something greater than him or herself. This is the type of participant experience that we all crave. College professors, AP scorers, those who score an assessment are looking for those experiences, but our education system continues to kill the very activities that might inspire greatness. Art programs, music programs, writing instruction beyond essay composition … all these are slipping away. Educational researchers and theorists are calling for imagination within curriculum to address the changing economy. Those researchers and theorists rightly point out that as time progresses the lapse between technological innovations becomes shorter and shorter. Citizens of all nations have to be able to adapt; unfortunately, rather than teach to the fluidity that comes from an appreciation and understanding of the arts, many states have moved towards teaching to an assessment and allowing that assessment to be the measure of one’s success in school and in life. I, personally, am invested in engaging young people, and, in my practice, guiding young people to think out of the box by joining their home literacies (which are often based in a multicultural and/or creative way of knowing) with those of school.
5. Who are you reading currently? Who’s on your to-read list?
During the school year, I generally don’t have much mental space for anything other than school. I run a writers workshop, supervise the newspaper, guide the Spanish Club, etc. I also just finished my PhD in education through the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, so before now, my brain was really mush unless it was doing something in regards to my dissertation, classes or clubs. On the weekends, though, I read. After a very hot bath with lots of foam and bubbles, I’ll wrap a towel around me, start the iPod player, grab the remote, and settle on the window seat to read. It could be 10 minutes. It could be three or four hours that pass by. It is all about what I need on that day, at that time. Usually, I get through about three books a week on if I don’t have fundraisers or trips going on. Otherwise, it’s about a book every week or two. I devour books and in the summer, my thirst for them is nearly unquenchable.
In poetry right now, I’m reading Brendan Cleary, Mary Dorcey, John Murillo, Karen An-hwei Lee, and Tara Betts.
In education, I’m reading or rereading Paulo Freire, Henry Giroux, and Peter McLaren.
For this summer, some of the books I’ve read are the Sookie Stackhouse series (10 books thus far) by Charlaine Harris (I’m a big True Blood fan), the Vampire Kisses series by Ellen Schreiber (my students love the series), Lighthead by Terrance Hayes, Running the Dusk by Christian Campbell, So Much Things to Say: 100 Poets from the Calabash Literary Festival, edited by Kwame Dawes and Colin Channer, The Book of Night Women by Marlon James, An Exaltation of Starlings by Tom Conaty, and Amorous Shepherd by Dante Micheaux.
Goodness, my to-read list? I have crazy varied interests. The Black Automaton by Douglas Kearney (I skimmed through and it’s just electric. I can’t wait to have a sit down), The Meaning is in the Shadows by Peter McVerry, Nothing was the Same by Kay Redfield Jamison, Touched with Fire: Manic Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, Whip Smart: A Memoir, Alpha and Omega series by Patricia Briggs, The Hollows series by Kim Harrison, The Time Traveler’s Wife, Critical Literacy and Urban Youth by Ernest Morrell, Sold by Patricia McCormick, among others. Since I have strict financial goals this year, I’m retiring my Amazon account until December once school starts, so I’ll be going through my stash of books quickly… so what I’m saying is, buy a poet a book, or if not, buy a school one. I think that would be just as killer good.
Raina J. León, Cave Canem graduate fellow (2006) and member of the Carolina African American Writers Collective, has been published in The Sixers Review, The Externalist, Minglewood, The Cherry Blossom Review, Natural Bridge, African American Review, OCHO, Spindle Magazine, Black Arts Quarterly, Poem.Memoir.Story, Womb, Boxcar Poetry Review, Salt Hill Journal, Xavier Review, MiPoesias, Torch, Poetic Voices without Borders, Gathering Ground: A Reader Celebrating Cave Canem’s First Decade, Growing Up Girl: An Anthology of Voices from Marginalized Spaces, AntiMuse, Farmhouse Magazine, Furnace Review, Constellation Magazine and Tiger’s Eye Journal among others. Her first collection of poetry, Canticle of Idols, was a finalist for both the Cave Canem First Book Poetry Prize (2005) and the Andres Montoya Poetry Prize (2006) and is now available through Wordtech Communications. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She headed the High School Literacy Project at the University of North Carolina and is currently teaching English and Spanish at an American high school in Germany.