“Who knows why the sun beats us into considering it glorious”
---Raina J. León
1. Various poems in Canticle of Idols, such as “Voz: Sweet Child” & “Three Women and a Man” weave biblical passages or reference biblical names. Can you tell me about the importance of this text growing up, in your poetics, and how it has shifted through the years if so?
I grew up with copies of the Torah, the Qur’an, and the Bible (King James and New American). As a very curious child, I would flip through all of these texts. As a student at a Catholic school, I had intensive study of the Bible as part of my faith formation process. Although I have explored many religions, including those outside of the Abrahamic tradition, I often return to Catholicism. A dear friend once asked me why, and I responded, “I know the stories. I can read the stained glass.” There is something magical about that. Just put yourself in one of those cathedrals, those sacred spaces, with all the light transformed through colored glass. Every fleck tells a story. Churches, indeed all sacred spaces, have always had that mystery and magic for me. Going back to another anecdote, as a child, I didn’t understand sound systems. When the responsorial psalm or the Alleluias would be sung, I would look to the ceiling of my home church. The whole ceiling formed this multilayered cross. I kept looking for the faces of sisters in habits as they peeked over the cross’s barriers. I just KNEW that such heavenly singing had to come from cloistered nuns hiding in the ceiling. The singing was mystical, mysterious. Such has been my experience with the divine.
When I was writing Canticle of Idols, I was recovering from a break up. I had moved to North Carolina for love, which I discovered was totally one-sided. I had been admitted to a PhD program there as well, but I had this summer of hardship to go through. It was a hot summer, one in which I was desperately poor. I could pay my rent and utilities, but there was one week during which I literally ate two peaches and a few ramen noodle packets. One day, I passed out from the heat and my self-imposed starvation. Pride wouldn’t let me ask others for help. It was reading the psalms that captured my imagination. It drew my attention from my gurgling belly to something higher. I took to opening the Bible and the Qur’an to random spots, looking for clarity. My emotions were still all muddled. I had a singular purpose of beginning my PhD process, but everything else was an Impressionistic painting through which I was walking, lost. I am definitely not the best Catholic – my beliefs are far more syncretic after all I have learned over the years – but reading sacred texts helped me then.
I have only recently rediscovered a regenerating faith, mostly because of my beautiful goddaughter. My sister trusted me and our other sisters enough to be her daughter’s godmothers. I take that very seriously, so I go to Mass every week now at a Black Catholic church, which feeds my soul in that it draws so much from cultural traditions that were alienated in my early church experiences, themselves tainted by racism, classism, and a lack of cultural competence. All of that comes through in the way I approach the world and in my poetry, too.
2. In poems like “Believe,” “Ascend,” & “Husband,” in Canticle you re-imagine biblical stories in a way that humanizes characters who are thought of as holy or belonging to the spiritual realm. Did you set out to humanize them or did you have in mind to apply a feminist intervention by deconstructing the grand narrative of Catholicism? I wonder if some of this re-imagining might unsettle believers. What has been the reaction of believers vs. secular readers if they have shared their reactions with you? Have you shared your poetry with family members who may belong to either camp?
When the book came out, I expected lightning to strike. I expected excommunication, shut doors, and riotous family dinners. I expected trouble, but I was still going to write the story I felt was necessary. I always hated that disconnect between the divine and the human. I believe that we have been given so much in seeing the unity between both, that the divine is attainable, not in the way of having super powers or something like that, but in the way of just being better to one another and to the earth. When that disconnect is fostered, it speaks to how the divine is unattainable, that there is no hope for something greater. As one who also is well-versed in postmodernism in relation to my own field of education, I was also enchanted with the ideas of questioning those metanarratives, challenging them, even destroying them. I expect that I will upset believers, but if I upset them enough to think about their faith and to think about their own potential as human beings connected inextricably with the divine, I have to say that I would be quite pleased.
3. In the last lines of “Over café” in Canticle, you reference Madonna’s “just like a prayer.” The song stirred controversy for what some deemed “religious and profane” themes. How old were you when you listened to the song/watched the video? What did you think of it? What did you make of the controversy? I remember watching the video as a child and hearing of the “controversy” years later as an adult.
I was around 8 years old when “Like a Prayer” was released. I remember the tumult. At the time, I used to spend much of my time at my grandmother’s house, especially over the summer. My cousin, Juanita, loved the video, and I remember watching it with her. She would have been 10 at the time. My grandmother was so angry. She forbid us to watch that video as the Vatican had condemned it. We couldn’t even watch television for a while. I remember thinking that the video was beautiful. I didn’t understand the whole concept at the time, but to this day, I think the visualization of a personal relationship with the divine is shockingly beautiful and awe-inspiring … well, if you allow yourself a surface reading rather than looking at the other layers within the text.
Canticle of Idols literally came to me in a dream. I had been reading the psalms that evening. I remember that it was a night when cricket song was at its highest. I am from Philadelphia. At the time, I had just moved from New York. While ambulance and police sirens or the rush of passing cars were a lullaby, the sounds of nature like those of crickets deeply disturbed my sleep. I tried to cultivate a wonder by thinking of their songs as canticles, praise songs to God. I had just learned the word, “canticles”, in an insomnia-fueled research session on psalms. When I finally came to rest, there was a voice that said my first book should be called Canticle of Idols. I don’t mean to layer on all these portents, but that’s the story of the title. That’s how it came to me, in a dream. The praise songs to God of those we idolize, those who are intertwined threads of human and divine.
Boogeyman Dawn came from a question: What happens to the boogeyman when dawn comes? The whole book focuses on children, innocence and the corruption/loss of innocence. Who better to embody that than a “boogeyman”? While most would say that the proper spelling is “bogeyman”, I have always produced a long u sound in saying the word, so I wanted to replicate that in the title as a way of making it very personal. The book also allows me to critique society, particularly in respect to education, in protecting the welfare of children. As an educator, the well-being of children is sacred to me. I myself suffered abuse as a child, which had an impact on my personal relationships growing up. These are realities that I consistently have to examine so that I can have healthier relationships with others. I write this, because I want to tell the little girl I wrote about, the one on a playground, hiding her bruises with long sleeves on a summer day, that she needs to tell her story, because the boogeyman lives in secrets and shadows. I want to tell her; I want to tell the football player in “On the football field”. I want all those children in my poems who are as much a part of me as they are of you and of us all that they are beautiful and lovely and deserve the same. I think that hurts any boogeyman, when people realize that they don’t have to wait on the sun to shine to be free, that they are the dawn.
5. The poem “Body” has a striking last line with a complicated notion of “American.” Also, “Cousin Flakes” with lines, such as “America will kill them again” in reference to Mis parientes (my relatives). From the back-book cover, you were described as having an Afro-Puerto Rican legacy. Can you talk a bit more about how your background has complicated your notion of “American” or “The American Dream”?
This background has definitely complicated my understanding of identity and an American identity. My mother is African American, from one of the poorest counties in Western Pennsylvania. My father is Puerto Rican, from New York and then Philadelphia. He was the first of his siblings born here in the U.S. I was born just outside of Philadelphia and raised in Philadelphia proper. Still, with cousins on my father’s side, I will talk about how “Americans” act, especially towards people of color. I am American and yet other. On my mother’s side, my ancestors are so American that they were originally given land by George Washington himself for scouting during the French-Indian and Revolutionary Wars. I suppose I could probably seek membership as a Daughter of the American Revolution. I oftentimes don’t feel a part of this place, though. I remember my father telling me once when I was particularly hurt about some racial or cultural clash that Puerto Rico was my homeland, essentially that we were living in a place that was not our own even though he himself had never lived in Puerto Rico. On the other hand, in an interview with my grandmother about coming to this country, she always lauds Americans, what this country has done for her and our family. My grandfather, her husband, served as a Merchant Marine. While she only had a first grade education, my uncles and aunts all graduated from high school and many received bachelors degrees. I have an uncle who is a lawyer. My cousins and siblings, most of us have masters degrees, some multiple masters degrees. My youngest brother will be a lawyer once he passes the bar. I have my doctorate. As far as education, we have had many opportunities, but it has been very hard. So, identity, American identity, the American Dream, they are filled with incongruities, inconsistencies, mysteries. I’m always coming back to questions of self and other. The narratives change depending on what information one has. Am I American when the girls in my first grade class pull and twist my hair around their fists in line and ask me, “What are you”? Not “who” but “what”. Am I American when I teach military dependents overseas for three years how to question (in Journalism class) and Spanish (Spanish 1 through AP Spanish Language)? Is the American Dream getting the doctorate? Is the American Dream also knowing that I will probably never own a home because of all the loans I have for that doctorate, knowing that the degree is a home I will never live in? Who am I in all of this? Every discovery leads to another question for me, but I suppose that also leads fodder for writing.
6. Some of your poems, such as “The Pistol’s Confession” have dedications—can you tell us more about this poem and how the dedication relates to it?
“Pistol’s Confession” invokes Ross Gay and Quraysh Ali Lansana, both of whom have work that is written in the voice of an inanimate object, a weapon. I wanted to create a relationship to those previous works and to also bring to the fore the idea that a weapon has a voice independent of the one who wields it.
7. An ongoing debate us MFA students had re: poetry was the reader’s tendency to equate poetry with autobiographical material. This makes me wonder if you had any thoughts on why this is the case and to what extent autobiography shapes your poetics. For instance, in one of my favorite poems like “La voz de ‘Buela: reflections on an interview with a woman I love” your name is part of the poem. Poems like “Spanish interpreter certificate” with a dedication for Edwardo “Eddie” León and “On the football field” with a dedication for Tito seem to hint at autobiography.
Autobiography does come through in my work, but not to the exclusion of an attention to the poetics. Even then, just as with my re-imaginations of the narratives of saints, not everything is totally linear or bounded by facts. “La voz de ‘Buela” comes from a transcribed interview with my grandmother. I was interviewing her for a genealogy-enriched nonfiction project. What captivated me throughout the interview was her language, tone, enchantment, especially with familial and divine devotion and yet the inconsistencies with what she said and how I know her to be and act in the world. Yet, for her, there are no inconsistencies. These are just my interpretations, which cause me angst, but how could interpreting someone else’s life and its impact on yours not cause some disturbance?
“Spanish interpreter certificate” was written for my father after he told me about working to obtain further education. Education and the struggles to achieve it have been returning narratives. He had difficulties in high school, had to drop out of college to support family, and only completed his bachelors degree as an adult when my brother and I were in high school. I think that one of the reasons that I continue to be eager to learn is because of the dedication I saw my father express at the kitchen table, dissecting classic Spanish literature. All of his texts were written over in the margins and in between thin lines of the prose. I don’t know how he found time for class, working full time and sometimes overtime. My mother, too, did the same, taking over our dining room table while she was working on her doctorate degree. I learned from them that life would never be easy, but that what could be dreamed, could be accomplished, oftentimes through sacrifice.
“On the football field” is dedicated to my brother, who had such a rough time growing up. Because he could pass for white, there was always a tension when his friends and their families, those who had deep-seated racist passions within them, would meet our family. In meeting, I was asked, “What are you?” I wasn’t quite Black enough. Growing up, our neighborhood was mostly white; the only other Latinos in the neighborhood were related to me, and one of those families moved to North Philly once I started school. The children in our neighborhood didn’t know what to make of me but knew that I was different. My brother blended in, especially with those of Italian descent – León is very similar to De Leon or Leone - but when they realized that he wasn’t Italian, there was tension. This is my reading of it. While I was in school, no one bothered him, but we are three years apart. Three years is a very long time.
All of this comes through in my writing, all of the stories I hear. I primarily work in narrative with some experimentations with disjointed narratives or more imagistic writing. My work often connects to a real subject as a way of drawing the reader in to a particular world. I am interested in the emotional connection to the foreign and yet familiar experience. One of my strengths is that I have been a writer since I was a child. I have kept journals since I was 8 years old, and most everything that I write down, I remember. I have a visual memory. I need those cues, but once I have them, it’s done. Though I may have only written down “cricket song”, I remember the heat, the creeks of the floor, the swelling of the door’s wood, the rare breeze. All of these visceral details remain, which, in the process of writing, can overburden me. I have to swim through and decide what will remain. Sometimes, imagining the hidden places within the memory are even more fruitful for writing. So, yes, I love drawing from experience, but I do a lot of dreaming. In the end, does it matter which it is if a chord within the reader is struck?
8. In Boogeyman Dawn you explore a range of topics including Islam, education, military life, race & gender, among others, whereas in Canticle, many of the poems explore biblical narratives, though also race & gender issues. Would you say that your concerns shifted from Canticle to Boogeyman, or do you find more parallels?
I think that Canticle of Idols allowed me some opportunities to talk about childhood, innocence and corruption/loss of innocence. Boogeyman Dawn extends that, but Boogeyman Dawn is darker, even its humor is darker. It’s a descent down the rabbit hole, and one doesn’t know if there is even a hope of getting back. It’s the ultimate catharsis, as for the purification and purgation part, but the renewal happens just at the tail end of the book. Even then, there is just a hint of light. My third manuscript is much lighter.
Raina J. León is the author of, Canticle of Idols (Word Tech 2008), a finalist for the Cave Canem Poetry Prize and the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize. Her second book, Boogeyman Dawn (2013), was a finalist for the Naomi Long Madgett Prize and is forthcoming from Salmon Poetry. She is co-founder of the online quarterly journal, The Acentos Review and continues as its editor-in-chief. She has received residencies with the Macdowell Colony, the Vermont Studio Center, Ragdale, and the Tyrone Guthrie Center in Annamaghkerrig, Ireland and others. She is currently an assistant professor of education at Saint Mary's College of California, and a member of CantoMundo.