Raina J. León

Raina J. León (Poetry) | Berkeley, CA

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Raina J. León, Cave Canem graduate fellow (2006), CantoMundo fellow, and member of the Carolina African American Writers Collective, has been published in numerous journals as a writer of poetry, fiction and nonfiction. Her work has been published in three collections of poetry. Her first book, Canticle of Idols, was a finalist for both the Cave Canem First Book Poetry Prize (2005) and the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize (2006). Her second book, Boogeyman Dawn (2013, Salmon Poetry), was a finalist for the Naomi Long Madgett Prize (2010). Her third book, sombra : (dis)locate, was published by Salmon Poetry in 2016. She has received fellowships and residencies with Macondo, Cave Canem, CantoMundo, Montana Artists Refuge, the Macdowell Colony, Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, Vermont Studio Center, the Tyrone Guthrie Center in Annamaghkerrig, Ireland and Ragdale. She also is a founding editor of The Acentos Review, an online quarterly, international journal devoted to the promotion and publication of LatinX arts. She is an associate professor of education at Saint Mary’s College of California. She is also a credentialed teacher of secondary English and loves conducting workshops with youth, college students, graduates, and future teachers.

She has a BA in Journalism (with minors in African American Studies, English, International Studies, and Spanish) from Penn State (2003); a MA in the Teaching of English from Teachers College Columbia University (2004); a PhD in Education (Culture, Curriculum, and Change) from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (2010); a MA in Educational Leadership from Framingham State University (2014); and a MFA in Poetry from Saint Mary’s College of California (2016), which is, she has promised herself, her last degree.


sombra : (dis)locate ( Salmon Poetry, 2016). Poetry.
Boogeyman Dawn (Salmon Poetry, 2013). Poetry.
Canticle of Idols (WordTech Communications, 2008). Poetry.

Press & Reviews

On sombra : (dis)locate, 2016, Salmon Poetry

Raina J. León writes fierce narratives of 21st century global issues. Race is as pertinent as voice, history, dream and love in her poems. She poignantly chronicles such subjects as birth, death, mythology and religion. In her third volume, León infuses lyrical power and vitality. Her poems unfold with great details, vivid imagery, eloquent language and intelligence. With multilingual structured poems steeped in honesty, sombra: (dis)locate establishes León as a poet of great skill and courage, refusing to turn away from subject matter that might make readers cringe. She juxtaposes the struggles of life with the beauty of the natural world, though never going off key while employing poetic forms.
— Lenard D. Moore, 2014 North Carolina Award in Literature and Author of A Temple Looming and The Open Eye

In sombra : (dis)locate, poems weave themselves in and out of place and time, “between glory and tumult,” embodying tales of Josephine Baker, what it means to be in brown/black skin, in love, in care, in missing—each experience a geological layer, holding memory in “the ghost trail of fingers felt/ on the breast before the seeker searches the hand.” The real work León is doing is restorative and then transformative; she employs forms like the bop and quotilla, pulls from the beauty of languages like Arabic and French, plays with how the poem appears on the page, and as a result creates poems that are sensorial maps to bring a person, a thing, from the shadow, back here or there or wherever it must land to be at home, at peace. sombra : (dis)locate is “thunder-born, lightning-scarred,” a lyrical work that “gives our human to one another.”
— Arisa White, author of Hurrah’s Nest, A Penny Saved, and dear Gerald

sombra : (dis)locate is a fitting title for León’s new collection. It hints at the shadows within history, languages, sexuality, loss, grief, and violence unveiled in poems that span countries, the enigmatic specter of Josephine Baker flouting conventions of respectability and race, and the daily brutalities that split people’s emotional cores like simple apples. These poems move with agility across pages into the shadows. León reminds us why the light can redeem us if we keep traveling and calling out to the people who will never stop looking when we are lost in the dark.
— Tara Betts, author of Arc & Hue and THE GREATEST!: An Homage to Muhammad Ali

Raina León’s ambitious collection quests to physically distant territories (from New Orleans to Paris to Gaza) and even crosses the border of human bodies. The reader finds both pain and joy on the journey, but as danger is a constant companion, León shows us how to embrace the shade.”
— Mendi Lewis Obadike, Author with Keith Obadike of Four Electric Ghosts

On Boogeyman Dawn, 2013, Salmon Poetry

In Boogeyman Dawn, Raina León explores the space between some of our worst nightmares and the awakening of hope. León does not look away from even the rawest of wounds in the psyche, the flesh, and the social body, but it is through carefully wrought images and patiently distilled language-lines that are anything but raw – that she entices us to follow her gaze and trust that dawn will come. One source of encouragement is her rich and multifaceted cultural heritage – Puerto Rican, black, American – evident not only in the subjects she treats, but also in the way lines of Spanish and English sometimes dance together. Be aware: the ‘boogeyman’ in these poems is no mere myth, but a symbol of problems all too real. Still, as León guides us through her shifting landscape, though she confesses to moments of despair, she always gives witness to the re-emergence of hope: “This morning I found my wrists again, / But you held my hands.”
— Evie Shockley, author of The Gorgon Goddess and The New Black

“[H]ow do you save yourself when silent / mouth clamped shut” asks one speaker. “[H]e needs me to explore the words / with my tongue, repeat them with the muscles / of my face” feels like a reply – one of many. There doesn’t seem to be a device or register that León will not explore in this fearless poemario whose ethos, on the hand, is giving witness: the abused child at school; the prisoner pursuing a GED; the massacre of six Amish children. But also giving surprising voice to, literally, the voiceless: “I just wanted to be held” (‘The pistol’s confession’); “They forget the days when they floated / makeshift prayer boats along my face” (‘Monologue of a shallow river’), all the while deploying “the guts of growl and play” – her plural flexing of language.
— Francisco Aragón, Institute for Latino Studies, University of Notre Dame, author of Glow of Our Sweat

Raina León has crafted an elegant, brooding, and playful peek-around-the-corner view of this often difficult existence through the eyes and thoughts of children, and those whose lives are affected by them–which is all of us. From the haunting dark of premature death to the transformative, ambivalent force of testosterone, León hears the proud, colloquial, melanin-informed line that distinguishes familiar and familial, that border that suggests we are all connected, and we are not. A narrative woven in the intimacy of despair as well as the proximity of hope, this is a stunning, imaginative collection.
— Quraysh Ali Lansana, author of Our Difficult Sunlight: A Guide to Poetry, Literacy & Social Justice in Classroom & Community

On Canticle of Idols, 2008, Wordtech Communications

There is something of Eden adhering to any first book. Raina León brings us lyric reports from a place where Adam the name-giver meets Juana la Loca. “what’s your name / the ones who know are dead” Readers can only hope that she is able to keep some of that moist earth visible around her roots. She’ll need it. We’ll need it. “Sculptors chisled my feet / on the Devil’s neck” she writes. That would be the devil we know. What we don’t yet know, she just might help us learn.”

— A.L. Nielsen, first winner of the Larry Neal Award and author of Heat Strings and Reading Race

“Here is the work of a poet who possesses the graceful sensuality of dusk & the unflinching eye of the butcher. One senses here, that León is committed to pulling back the red curtains of our historical, familial, cultural mythologies, & rendering what is found there into deep song. The result is a landscape of lyrical acuity fueled by a myriad of languages, characters, & centers. These poems give us the voice of The Marys, the sister, abuela ‘Buela, the lovers. In León, you have an Orpheic poet who dives into the underworld of every thing—& comes back with the news.”
— Aracelis Girmay, author of Teeth and Kingdom Animalia

“What wonderful ideas and moods a keen, artistic observer provides. Raina León writes with a sense of grace and awareness of details that magnifies with elegant clarity. Through the lens of her verses, those seemingly small things appear larger, more pronounced; here, what was distant becomes close, closer. Hers is a poetic voice that deserves our attention.”
— Howard Rambsy II, professor and literary critic, Southern Illinois University – Edwardsville

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