Fiction editor, Cyndyl McCutcheon, interviewed Cave Canem poet, Raina León, in March 2010 about being a citizen of the world, crafting poems, and becoming a poet.
Cyndyl McCutcheon: I've heard you speak of your childhood and your issues with fitting in with society. Thinking back to that conversation, what are your thoughts on the cosmopolitan idea of being a citizen of the world?
Raina León: Being a citizen of the world requires me to participate in a dialogue with others within it. I may not speak the language. I am certainly no history buff. I enjoy art, but I am definitely no professor. I try to keep abreast of the news and political entanglements, but don't ask me to rattle off election dates, ministers' names, or a list of products a country produces. Being a citizen of the world does not require me to be an encyclopedia of facts. In my opinion, I do have to be open to learning. I must travel. I must talk to locals from the host culture about what they think about the politics, the best places to eat, the view from a church, the local lore and creepy stories. These exchanges are not one-sided. I do not get to become a citizen of the world without giving something of myself to it. I think that to be truly cosmopolitan, to belong to every locale and people, I have to share myself.
As a child, I never quite fit in. I was always reading, challenging, questioning, imagining when dreaming had died for some. My accent was different. When out of a uniform, I dressed differently. I wore heavy make-up some days and then none. My closest friends were those who lived in between cultures as I did. My favorite foods were and still are arroz con gandules, injera soaked in Eritrean juices, Jamaican dumplings, and fish escovitch. While my brother tried to blend in, I delighted in my difference ... most of the time. Sometimes, difference can be lonely. I decided early, though, that I'd rather be lonely than march to someone else's drum. My legacy will not be walking in someone else's path. The path I walk is mine alone, and I think it sails through sky.
McCutcheon: What is your personal definition of Cosmopolitanism?
León: All the world is available to you. Cosmopolitanism means that you have access to the world and are an active part within it. It implies adventure, but most of all, it implies belief. There is no fear. No matter where you go you carry a strength of self, one that tells you that in any situation, you can triumph. For example, I moved to Germany knowing nothing of German. I knew very little about the history and the people. In the first month, I learned how to read a menu, my numbers, how to find an apartment. In two months, I was able to understand basic conversations enough to secure my apartment. Now, my German is still paltry, but I continue to try. While not a citizen of the country, I do consider myself a citizen of the world. As such, it behooves me to see, dialogue, grow, challenge, critique as much as I can. The world is open to me. That's how I see it. The world is open to you, too.
McCutcheon: Have there been any instances in your life that reflect your definition of cosmopolitanism?
León: I never grew up with a silver spoon. Neither did my parents. I think what most influenced me was how easy it was for my mother to slide into her rural community of Uniontown, PA, where she grew up, and the city community of Philadelphia, PA, where she has lived for thirty plus years. In each place, she has always seemed to organically fit. I remember taking summer holidays or spring vacations in Uniontown where the mountains let the crisp air roll down. I would sit underneath a blanket on my grandfather's porch, a dog by my side, while writing or simply staring up at the mountain's heights. My great-grandparents lived across the street in a home my great-grandfather built. My mother's twang, my father's accent melded into my voice. In the city, it was different, vibrant. There was also danger. My father was overprotective. He worked in a juvenile detention agency and knew what youth could do and what could be done to them. Growing up, I almost never went anywhere unaccompanied. Still, Philadelphia was mine. I knew the secrets of it, the twists and turns. In the mosaics of South Street, I have seen my face.
Coming from these two backgrounds, my parents gave my brother and me the opportunity to see how easily one can blend and learn about cultures and people, how easy it is to fall in love with the difference and the familiarity. I fell in love and have grown to stand up in it, too. I have lived now in Philadelphia, State College, Salamanca (Spain), New York City, Chapel Hill, Las Vegas, and now Bamberg, Germany. After only a short time, I called those places and the people within them, home. To this day, I still maintain relationships with friends from many of these locales; I am still a part of those communities, some more than others. In those travels, I have also visited most of the 50 states and well over 20 countries. I've learned a little French, Italian, Portuguese, and German along the way. In each place, I have participated in a dialogue and through that dialogue and investment learned more than what the museums hold. I have learned to hold a city, a country, a people within me.
I never grew up with a silver spoon. I definitely don't have one now, but it has always been important for me to investigate the other, to reflect, to learn to see. For me, that takes shape through travel, through attempting to really be a vested part of the world.
McCutcheon: Would you tell us how you became a published poet?
León: My mother is a poet. I started writing poetry at around eight years old, when it was first assigned in the third grade. I wrote a diamonte. I colored it in and everything. I even put the poem in a photo album and saved it for a long time. From then on, the muse was constantly whispering in my ear. Until high school and college, I generally wrote stories. All of them had sad endings. It was a way of processing a lot of grief. I grew up with my great-grandparents and attended a lot of funerals. Many kids attend one or two in elementary or high school. I had attended about fifteen by the time I was that old.
At about eight or nine, my mother bought a Poet's Market. We worked on a book of poems together. I spent a whole summer around that time typing them into Wordperfect and printing it out on those long reams of paper. There was something immensely pleasurable about tearing the edges off of the page and the individual pages at the perforated edges. By the end, we had a book, and I was learning about how to submit. Needless to say, by the time that I was first published in late elementary school, I had received a lot of rejections. A few poems published in essentially vanity presses meant a great deal for a time.
Eventually, I realized that there was a larger world for publication. I continued. I wrote for my high school newspaper and was published in the literary magazine. I continued sending out poems to larger journals. More rejections. I was published in the journal at St. Joseph's University and then two journals at Penn State University. I kept writing, submitting, pushing. Each year since those days, the number of publications has grown. My poems have found homes in journals throughout the country and once in Scotland even. I continue to submit. I continue to get rejections. I continue to write, read, learn and write again.
McCutcheon: What is your usual process for writing a poem?
León: Here are three ways that poems come to me: through examining my journal after I have made the time to write with substance rather than my usual brief ruminations on the day, through choosing a subject, theme, or form and not leaving the desk until something comes, or through trying to figure out a dream.
The first way is the one that is more organic. I will simply go back to a journal entry and identify lines that leap out at me, things that I could explore to greater depth. In the second one, I force myself to produce. This leads to many awful efforts, but after writing five awful poems, I usually get one that I can actually cull into being good. On residencies, this is generally my method of production, because I have such a short time to write new work. During the school year, I do very little creative writing, because most of my creativity goes to lesson plans. During the summer, and I know this sounds insane, but I really do need to produce at least a hundred poems. The third way generally happens during residencies as well when I am creatively centered. Oftentimes, I'll have a nap for 15 minutes and wake up with the most vivid images. This happened once at Cave Canem. I woke up after such a short nap screaming from the horror I had witnessed. I wrote the dream down and within about a half hour I had two pages of images from which to choose. Of course, I also have dreams that mystify me, dreams where angels touches my abdomen, dreams from which I wake whispering in Spanish, dreams where I am dancing. I have written poems from all of these.
Sometimes, my mind waits for residencies. On them, I revert to my natural rhythm, getting up most days at around 11am or noon and going to bed at around 5am or so. Sometimes, my mind won't wait, and the most vivid of dreams plague me until I write about them. After I write the first version of the poem, this is when the real work begins. I think about the form. Is the poem being served by the form? If not, I consider what would work best. I do a lot of my writing on the computer, and so I do many edits just in the writing. I then read the poem aloud. I read for where the breath should be, the multiplicity of meaning within each line, word choice. I consult dictionaries and thesauri. After changing the poem several times, I print it out.
If I'm working on a book project/collection, then I stick it on the wall in a place where the emotional arch of the book reflects the emotion/theme within the poem. I prefer to have poems hang on a line so that I can more easily move them around. To do this, I sometimes put two push pins on either side of a window. I loop a thick wire around them (I used to bead) and twist it closed. You can get huge rolls of such wire at any hardware store for about two dollars. I then put each poem on a binder clip and put it on the line. Makes it really easy to move around the poem. If the poem has no further changes, I can copy and submit it from there without worrying printing another copy. Printing ink gets expensive.
After pinning it to a wall or clipping it to a line, I let poems rest for a while. A day, two days, a week. All that time, I'm working on new pieces. I'm reading, writing down inspirational lines, talking to others, journaling, writing more poems. By the time I return to the first poem or batch, I'm so full with other lines and stories I can barely recall the first poem. At that point, I read the poem again aloud. I examine it for line breaks, word choice, form, etc. If there are no changes at that point, I'll send it to a trusted reader for feedback or I'll ask a writer friend nearby to read it. Once I have that feedback, I get to decide what to do with it. I might change a word, a line, a stanza. I might eliminate or add to a portion.
Once I feel I have a poem that is ready to go out into the world, I put it in my reading circulation. Usually when I'm writing larger works, I'm also doing a series of readings. In the reading, I watch reactions to the poems. If it accomplished what I hoped for it to accomplish, then that's when I start sending it off. If there was absolutely no reaction, then it's time to go back to the drawing board. In the end, too, if I have risked nothing, if I'm not a little bit afraid of/for the poem, then it doesn't get nearly this far. If the language is clunky and there's no saving it, it doesn't get this far. Each poem, for me it seems, is its own marathon.
McCutcheon: What advice do you offer to young aspiring writers?
León: Risk. Dare to dream. Paper your walls with rejections and write all sorts of expletives on them. Treasure the rejections that include personal notes. Make sure you take an editor up when he or she asks to see more work. Join or start writing communities. Writing should not always be a solitary process. Otherwise, you may be disconnected from the stories all around you. Sometimes, you have to leave the desk to have a drink at the bar. Listen to the drunk and the Irish singer playing his tunes in the window. Watch the bartender glow as he pours someone's drink. Listen to the birds caw, their wings shuffle as you return to your home, hovel, cave, bed, desk. Dream and write. Write and dream. Love yourself, your work, those who challenge you, those who discourage you, those who always have your back, those who read your work and make it bleed. Fear only that fear will stop you.
Cyndyl McCutcheon is a Magazines major and an English Minor at UGA. She enjoys being fiction editor for Mandala and hopes to be here for the remainder of her studies. She also loves to write poetry and fiction. She would be content with a career where all she did was write.