Raina J. León
On perspectives about poetry
To those who do not identify as poets,
- Poetry can seem elitist and exclusive, belonging only to the dead white man who still sits in the corner by an imaginary fire somewhere dark. His ghostly smoke was once a pipe or a cigar, and his sound is that of the walking cane, dulled by moss.
- Poetry may have been the teacher’s weapon to prove that the person (particularly a person of color) was not smart enough, good enough, or worthy enough of education or attention. A common phrase might have been this line means … as if the teacher holds all answers and the student none. Another phrase might have been notice this [insert poetic term about craft divorced from meaning or significance of using this practice as a mechanism for shaping meaning] here.
- Poetry may have stopped in childhood, frozen in the beloved nursery rhymes that accompanied loving cuddles and the rituals of entering into dreamlands. Poetry, for some, must rhyme, because rhyme is associated with wit, tenderness, and depth.
- Poetry may also seem easy to write, what with the variety in length of line, stanza, and poem. One might think, anyone can do that and right now.
- Poetry may also seem unplanned, reliant on the elusive muse. What offerings the poet must leave for that muse one may not know or care, but in the end, the poem does not come from the poet but from an elusive spirit (angel, devil, duende are all muse in this belief).
- Poetry may also seem a luxury, a useless art that spits in the face of those who struggle.
- Poetry is never political.
Those in the literary community share some of these misconceptions and have still additional ones. I have heard of poetry in connection with a muse, speaking to the belief that poetry does not come from hard work, craft, study, living; rather, it comes dependent on an undefined force with deigns, in its own grace, to give a poem at its leisure. I have heard, too, that a poem becomes a poem when it lives within the right house, generally a received form of the Western canon.
A poem, to some stringent formalists, cannot be a poem without the right foundation, rafters, and walls in between. The beady-eyed scholars like to even tell you the right color of the walls of the Poetry House. And there are some in the literary world who will also use their view of the poem to tell the poet and the reader that they are not good enough, smart enough, worthy enough for attention while they cut the poem until it bleeds. Lit-scene critic becomes punishing teacher with words just as crippling as fists. There are some within that world (and the multiple worlds within it) that will also categorize the poem and poetry saying that it is this or that, that it is like the dead white man’s smoke or not and so belittle it through the comparison.
The most disastrous misconceptions of poetry are the belief that the poem does not live, does not shape the world as it is shaped by it; the poem does not transform the hand that writes and the eye that reads; the poem does not ignite from inspiration; it has no power frozen on the page or breathed and uttered into the space between human beings; it does not belong of the elements of this earth and beyond those limits. The greatest misconception of all is to believe that the poem and poetry have limits.
Poetry, for me, is of the people, of the earth, of the inter- states of being, and what is just beyond the limits of our imagination (what we reach into with the poem). Let me explain. Poetry belongs first to the breath, because it is in the breath that people (poets) are invigorated and centered. Now, while we are breathing, we inhale all the world and exhale into it. It is a reciprocity of offering. There is an interconnectedness in just this act alone that can be recorded and shared through the word, and the word is life and sacred. Poetry is as much the budding on a cherry tree as it is a babe’s first tug on the nipple as it is my grandmother’s memories of her girlhood route to school in Puerto Rico as it is the words that recount for the imagining into living of those moments. We know that metaphor enlivens the brain as if it had experienced an event itself. Poetry is the state of living, being in this present moment. It is also the hitch just as one is entering into the next moment. Poetry is relational, interstitial, defiant of the temporal and spatial limits, transnational, translanguaging, unbound and liberating. All that said, in the writing of poetry, I believe that there is an indebtedness that comes from connecting to life and community on an existential level. What narratives are culled from self and others, other stories and experiences must be given back. What breath is taken must be returned. We receive from the earth and so must tend and care for it. Too, what is taken – such as the lives of Black and brown peoples through state-sanctioned lynchings in this country – must be answered with word and action. Poetry is justice, balance, connectedness, community. Poetry is sacred and political.
The Acentos Review was started in 2008 when there weren’t enough journals focusing specifically on LatinX writing. In those years, we’ve published poets, writers of fiction and nonfiction, artists, translators. Coming out of the work of the visionaries Oscar Bermeo, Fish Vargas, Jessica Torres, Rich Villar, Eliel Lucero and others in the Acentos Bronx Poetry Showcase of LouderArts, our emphasis has always been community by nurturing, publishing, promoting LatinX writers and artists.
The Acentos Review has published people with long-standing careers, and we have been blessed to be the first publishers of some. For most of the years, I responded to every rejection personally. Now, we get too many submissions. I still do personal invitations to submit again for those whose work wasn’t accepted but was very close. I have a Twitter account for Acentos where I try to answer questions. We have the Facebook page. I see people at conferences. Community is important, and I think that’s felt and valued.
Often writers engage in the craft all alone, sometimes unable to engage in a writing community because of finances or time. Particularly for us LatinX writers and artists, even entrance into an arts community may be isolating. The Acentos Review places great value on craft and community. As I start to think about transition – the goal is to pass on editorship after 10 years – I hope community will always be important to The Acentos Review.
I take pride in everything that The Acentos Review has published over the years. There was one poet, for example, who wanted me to change a poem of his to an updated version. His work had changed, and he was doing powerful, American literary-scene-changing things. He wanted his work to reflect the change. I don’t like to alter pieces after they’ve been published, even if we are an online journal for many reasons, but the most important one is this: that work was loved. It elicited a wonder in me: goosebumps, stolen breath, feverish reading, hours of reading and re-reading, vivid dreams, etc.
I’m a passionate reader, and as an editor, I need to be filled with wonder to accept a piece. There was something in that work as it is with all works in The Acentos Review that pulled at my core, something that said that this needs to be in the world, seen, read, loved by others. I don’t think I explained this reason as well to him. It took me some time to capture the essence of my hesitance to change after publication date. Whatever I said convinced him, though, as the page remains unchanged.
Everything I’ve published, I would publish again. I need more work by LatinX writers, artists, reviews, translators. When are you submitting yours?
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 first collection of poetry, 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, will be published in 2016. She has received fellowships and residencies with 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 Latino and Latina arts. She is an associate professor of education at Saint Mary’s College of California.
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