León, Raina J.
Born: April 7, 1981, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Vocations: Poet, Professor
Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Philadelphia, Philadelphia County; University Park, Centre County
Keywords: Cave Canem First Book Poetry Prize; Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize; Canticle of Idols; Boogeyman Dawn; Naomi Long Madgett Prize; University of North Carolina; Teachers College Columbia University; Department of Defense Education Activity; Pennsylvania State University; Kalmanovitz School of Education at St. Mary's College; Framingham State College; Acentos Review; Carolina African American Writers Collective; CantoMundo
Abstract: Dr. Raina J. León was born and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and was introduced to poetry by her mother from a young age. She holds multiple degrees, (including a PhD in Education) and has taught for the Department of Defense Education Activity in Bamberg, Germany. Her work has appeared in over 50 literary magazines and journals, and her published poetry collections include: Canticle of Idols (2008) and Boogeyman Dawn (2013). León is a Cave Canem Fellow, as well as the recipient of other fellowships and residencies, and the cofounder of The Acentos Review (2008). She is currently an Assistant Professor at St. Mary's College of California.
Dr. Raina J. León was born and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, by her mother, a poet, and her father, a youth corrections officer. From an early age, she was introduced to poets like Sonia Sanchez, Amiri Barak, and Nikki Giovanni. León told Lynda Letona in an interview for the Letrás Latinas Oral History Project: “[I]t was just [Nikki Giovanni] reading poetry, and that was like our music.” She said that when she was three she would watch the bus go by and ask her mother, with impatience, when she could go to school.
At eight years old, León wrote her first poem in a third grade English class and then kept it in a photo album. She continued writing poetry and, in an interview with Evan Karp of the San Francisco Chronicle, named her Cave Canem Fellowship (2003) as the major turning point for her as a poet (Cave Canem is a foundation dedicated to fostering the professional growth of African American poets):
"My first year at Cave Canem, when I left I could have sworn I radiated light, that I could levitate," she [said]. "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 [laughed]. "So that was truly liberating."
León earned a BA in Journalism from the Pennsylvania State University in 2003, her MA in Teaching of English from Teachers College Columbia University in 2004, and her PhD in Education from the University of North Carolina (UNC) – Chapel Hill (2010). She will complete her MA in Educational Leadership in August 2014 from Framingham State University and will begin earning her MFA in Poetry from Saint Mary’s College of California in the fall of 2014.
“The corruption of minds, that’s my art,” she said of her PhD in Education when chatting with Letona. “But corruption of minds for change, transformation.” She also referred to the start of her PhD experience as her “summer of hardship in North Carolina.” Her advice to graduate students pursuing PhDs in any discipline, especially Education and Creative Writing: “Make sure you get the support you need to do it. Politic, enterprise, however you have to do that, but come out with as little debt as you possibly can. I just didn’t have anyone with the guidance in finding money, in finding programs.” She recommends finding a mentor, “…because they’re out there.”
While earning her PhD at UNC, León headed ten creative writing workshops for teens as part of the High School Literacy Project and expanded The Day of the Poet program, which invited a group of poets from across the nation to write with kids in Chapel Hill. In conversation with the poet and writer, DéLana, León said that “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.”
For three years (2008-2011), León worked with the Department of Defense Education Activity and taught Spanish, English, Journalism, and Yearbook to military dependents in Bamberg, Germany. “In that position,” according to her personal Curriculum Vitae (CV), “she also served as a continuous school improvement co-facilitator, professional development chair, [and] club sponsor for the Junior Class, Dance Workshop, Yearbook, Spanish Club and Writers Club. She led two trips to a Europe-wide language immersion festival, LinguaFest, as a critical staff member and core teacher, served as a core teacher at Creative Connections, a Europe-wide creative arts fest for military dependents, as well as two trips to Spain with upper level Spanish students.”
In addition to León’s three Cave Canem Fellowships (2003, 2005, 2006), she is also the recipient of fellowships and residencies with CantoMundo, Montana Artists Refuge, the MacDowell Colony, and others, and is a member of the Carolina African American Writers Collective. Her work has appeared in over 50 literary magazines or journals. She also cofounded (with Eliel Lucero) in 2008, The Acentos Review, “an online quarterly, international journal,” her website states, “devoted to the promotion and publication of Latino and Latina arts.”
Canticle of Idols (2008) is León’s fist collection of poetry and was a finalist for the Cave Canem First Book Poetry Prize (2005) and the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize (2006). In 2013, she released Boogeyman Dawn, a “collection of poems,” she told DéLana, “[that] centers on the molding of a person by the elusive boogeyman, a representative of societal ills, and the results of that.” Boogeyman was a finalist for the Naomi Long Madgett Prize (2010) and embodies León’s concept of her work as “that of advocacy and witness.”
She explained this concept to Letona: “It’s really important to me to bring voice to subjects that I don’t think many people talk about. For example, one of the poems in the book talks about child abuse. I think that it is very important to have that voice, to talk about those things that no one else will talk about. And then maybe, maybe something will change.” Other traumatic subjects explored in the text include war, school shootings, and prison life. “The [collection],” she explained to Karp, “was written in response to the question: ‘What happens to the boogeyman when dawn comes? Hurting people - that must be the boogeyman. That must be the evil within you that's not you. …—[S]omething we have to look up and face and challenge.’”
Dr. Raina J. León is currently an Assistant Professor of Education in the Kalmanovitz School of Education at St. Mary's College of California. She enjoys traveling, sampling and cooking exotic foods, and exploring new art scenes.
While in Ireland the summer of 2010, León completed a draft of new poems, tentatively entitled, House of Ribbons. “I am not satisfied to stay in one place,” she told DéLana. “I want to see more, learn more, grow more. My writing begins to show that.”
This biography was prepared by Nicole Miyashiro, 2014.