In Class with Professor Dr. Raina J. León
A primary mission of Frontier is to provide high quality resources and practical help for serious poets—so we’ve been reaching out to poetry professors to help give clarity to this strange journey and stranger craft. This month, we got the chance to hear from Raina J. León, Professor at St. Mary’s College of California.
Who were your early influences/role models (if any) in terms of teaching creative writing?
Dr. Raina J. León: I only worked with Sonia Sanchez once in a workshop many years ago, but her approach was one that centered the community. We began and ended in a circle, considered how the body can be an instrument held within the poem. We were guided to see one another as poets, no matter how we came to the circle, and when the circle closed, it felt like a benediction. I went to a reading/performance after that workshop and the line for her to sign her new album was all through the building, partly because of how many came and partly because each person, she gave her whole attention to. It was as if you were the only person in the world, and when the conversation naturally ended, she blessed you by calling you family. When I approach the writing space, I try to create structures where we can see one another as whole human beings, spaces where we can acknowledge our struggles with creating work and share and support one another in a commitment to keep doing this thing that brings us joy, this practice that is so necessary for the world. From Sonia Sanchez, I learned how much even one being matters, how we belong to one another, and how we can show love to one another and all generations to come.
What is the most common piece of writing advice you find yourself giving your students?
Recently, I have lately been telling writers I coach to dream more and write those dreams into actualization. We have great mentors for this, such as Octavia Butler. Everything, and I must repeat everything, she wrote for herself, she achieved in her writing, on this side of the veil and beyond it. Write your list of writerly goals. Then, write your acceptance speech for one of the awards or honors you have already claimed. Record your acceptance speech (ideally video) and watch yourself. Write about that process. Trust me. It will change you. You are already changed even reading this prompt. Create your dream into the real, because you absolutely can (especially with the help of your communities). After you watch your speech and write about it, then, and only then, do I want you to watch this acceptance speech from Nikky Finney, from when Head Off & Split won the National Book Award. Who did she remind us are already in the room? Who will you bring with you into the room where you accept your award?
Who are some of your favorite poets to teach? What are some of your favorite craft books to teach?
I could list names forever: Sarah Rafael García, Aracelis Girmay, John Murillo, Nikky Finney, Octavia Butler, Martín Espada, Oscar Bermeo, Tara Betts, ire’ne lara silva, Barbara Jane Reyes, Pamela Santos, Bao Phi, Shin Yu Pai, Lee Herrick, Faith Adiele, Malcolm Friend, Terrance Hayes, Elizabeth Alexander, Lucille Clifton, Marilyn Nelson, Vievee Francis, Aerik Francis, Gregory Pardlo, Antonio López, Laurie Ann Guerrero, Leticia Hernandez Linares, Jasminne Mendez, Lupe Mendez, Denice Frohman, Raquel Salas Rivera, Oliver Baez Bendorf, Urayoán Noel, Reginald Dwayne Betts, Patricia Smith, Tyehimba Jess, Jericho Brown, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Krista Franklin, Alberto Ríos, Mahogany L. Browne, Amanda Johnston, Elizabeth Acevedo, G. Yamazawa, Ebony Noelle Golden. For a book on craft, I LOVE Enzo by Shin Yu Pai, which is an interdisciplinary text that incorporates lyric essays, memoir, poetry, essays on craft as well as embedded book art. I recommend it to anyone doing anything that explores hybridity.
What advice do you have for poets who plan to pursue teaching creative writing?
It is not enough to be a brilliant writer yourself. Teaching creative writing is an art form that requires that you care more for the human being who creates than the creative product. If you center the human being, then you will also structure your teaching in a way that brings about the best for those in the community you are establishing together. Creative writing workshops are communities; they can be functional and inspirational and they can be highly dysfunctional and cause harm. Before anyone ever starts a workshop, the creative writing workshop leader should know who they are (how they identify themselves), what they want to work on, what their hopes are as a writer, what they are eager to learn, how they learn best in a group, and their workshop fears. With that knowledge, the workshop leader can construct dynamic learning experiences that include culturally responsive, culturally relevant, contemporary texts, small group learning tasks in which all are dependent upon one another, and practices that communicate that the community begins and ends with joy. I do that by starting classes with uplifting music and ending with “much loves” or a shared gratitude practice in which all have an opportunity to give a much love to someone in the class or someone supporting the class to be present. Someone else may have a different technique; what’s key is being able to smoothly facilitate the group.
Also, I think folks take this practice for granted: before every workshop I do, I have at least 15 minutes to a half hour that I devote to centering myself and summoning my energy to hold space for all who come. If I’m having a bad day or the kids are sick or my partner forgot to clean the stove after cooking, whatever, I name it, thank it for coming to my attention, and tell that thing that I will give it attention after the workshop is done. That simple act allows me to be genuinely joyous and centered with the community. After every workshop, I am tired, so tired that I could sleep the rest of the day. Truly being attentive to every human assembled is tiring, especially when you are caregiving on either side, but for the briefest of moments, I feel that I could glow with how much joy I also receive, particularly when someone starts to let down the burden of their own self-doubt and truly see themselves as writers, not only possible, but present.
What’s the best thing about teaching poetry and creative writing?
I often share the poems that I have loved and felt shaped by over and over again; I find such a gift, though, to be surprised in every workshop I teach by the poems within the group. I’ve never had a workshop in which my body didn’t respond in praise in some way, whether through weeping or laughing or tremors throughout my limbs at reading a piece that is a miracle of being. And I got to see it in its earliest draft form! There are some poems that haunt me for years after workshops with how changed I was in reading them. That’s the best thing: being witness to change and celebrating the writer without bounds.
Raina J. León, PhD is Black, Afro-Boricua and from Philadelphia. She is the author of three collections of poetry, Canticle of Idols, Boogeyman Dawn, and sombra : (dis)locate and the chapbooks, profeta without refuge and Areyto to Atabey: Essays on the Mother(ing) Self. Her fourth collection, black god mother this body, will come out from Black Freighter Press in 2022. She’s currently at work on a multigenre exploration of blackness in color, academia, art as resistance, and the preservation of a whole and humanized spirit. She is a founding editor of The Acentos Review. She educates our present and future agitators/educators as a full professor of education.