In our most recent installment of the Locked Horn Press Spotlight, LHP editor Amanda Fuller chats with the poet and community organizer Molly Raynor about cataloging culture, youth organizing, her advice for young poets who do not yet now they are poets, and, of course, what she locks horns with. Want to know her advice for poets growing up as artists in the slam culture? Read on to find out!
AF: Your poem "A Brivele der Mamen" was a unique contribution Read Women. As narrative meditation on family, sexual identification and culture, and a safe space for endangered language, in this case Yiddish, what does your poem signify about your poetics in a larger sense?
MR: When my Jewish family arrived in this country, they were fleeing religious persecution and poverty. They spoke broken English and worked long hours i factories, but because of their white skin their children and grandchildren were able to assimilate- to stop speaking Yiddish and start speaking English without an accent. So today I am able to reap the benefits of my white skin privilege and “Standard English,” but I grieve for the language and culture that was lost in order for me to be here.
Although I do not speak Yiddish fluently, I wanted to include it, my small attempt to keep my mother tongue alive on the page the way we keep Poppa’s memory alive through the stories we tell again and again at family gatherings. I inherited my family’s legacy of storyteller. I feel it is my duty to be a keeper of culture, language and memory.
As a white middle-class American I have grown up with immense privilege that I see and feel constantly, but being a queer woman, I am also aware of the ways in which I am marginalized.
When I write, I try to navigate the complex intersection of all these identities. Language is the perfect lens through which to view cultural power and privilege. As Adrienne Rich said, “this is the oppressor’s language. yet i need it to talk to you.” My poetics are shaped both by my biological family and my chosen family/kindred spirits, a long list of madwomen writers who rebel against the social constructs of gender, race and sexuality through their writing- not only with the content of their poems but also their subversive writing style (breaking traditional grammar rules, taking risks, and playing with language in new, radical ways).
AF: Given LHP's interest in exploring spaces where conflict exists, can you tell us what you ‘lock horns’ with?
MR: It’s funny you ask that because I have been thinking about this a lot lately: the idea of “healthy struggle.” I have such a hard time with conflict. I avoid it at all costs. I find myself shying away from confrontations and being a passive aggressive people-pleaser. This is something I am actively working on, challenging myself to overcome. I think a lot of it has to do with gender norms and how women are socialized to communicate. Below is an excerpt of a poem I recently wrote about this:
fear is a skin i wear over my birth skin
to be unapologetic and born woman: too much friction
red and risen as thick thighs
chafing summer shorts
i’m sorry and smiley faces at the end of my texts,
just wondering when you’ll get here:)?
it is an art, this softness,
it is a learned
lowered lid and coy smile
in place of a snarl,
the twin that died in childbirth
i like to think i’m
but all the small jabs,
all the times i qui(e)t,
filter my light,
muddy my shine,
they swell in me, then deflate,
a sea of dead balloons and
wilted lillies i carry in my belly,
their green-brown slime-muck
a swamp of regret
My silence is what haunts me most. All the times I’ve been bystander to racism, sexism, homophobia, oppression in all its forms. Claimed ally but didn’t act. Not even in solidarity with myself. Didn’t go to the police either time I was raped in fear my rapist would be arrested. Didn’t called them rapist. Called them friend, called them by their name. Forgot my own.
Now in my 30s, I am finally ready to speak again. I believe it is my responsibility to bear witness to pain but also to capture the beauty in the mundane. Joy as resilience. Love in the face of death. Intimacy after rape. Writing is the place where my fear falls away and I get to be a more fierce version of myself- my alter-ego emerges and I feel so powerful. Poetry is where I excavate my voice, brush the dust from the bones and find my spine.
AF: Can you speak about your work organizing creative community, such as your work with RAW Talent in Richmond, CA, the larger Bay Area and The Neutral Zone in Ann Arbor, MI. What is the role of the poet in advocating social justice? What advice do you have for artists in terms of balancing important community or "traditional" work with personal artistic endeavor?
MR: In every social movement throughout history, the arts were a major catalyst. People need to feel inspired, riled up (both angry and hopeful) and poetry can do that. I love art that sparks dialogue and creates change, even if that change is just within the artist. I think we must start with ourselves first because communal transformation cannot come without individual healing. We have to do work on ourselves in order to do work in the world that shifts the culture.
For me, being a poet and a poetry educator/youth worker go hand in hand. Coming up through the international spoken word community, having lots of mentors and support from my peers was crucial to my development as an artist and a human being. Because I had watched Jeff Kass build the Volume Youth Poetry Project from the ground up in Ann Arbor, I had a blueprint for how to create a spoken word program. I saw the way Volume changed so many of our lives, how we found our voices and identities through writing and performing, how we connected with like-minded youth and developed deep friendships across age, race, gender identity, etc. With RAW Talent, I was hoping to replicate the writing community I was blessed with growing up.
I think it’s important for those of us who do community work to make sure we don’t lose focus on our own craft. During most of my twenties, I invested the majority of my energy into building RAW Talent and put my writing on the backburner. A few years ago, RAW Talent merged with an awesome youth center, the RYSE Center in Richmond, becoming RYSE’s Performing Arts Program. Once RAW became more established in the community and had the infrastructure/support needed to function, I was able to challenge myself to reclaim my writer identity and creative process. How can I push the youth I mentor to dive deep and write their most vulnerable work if I’m not doing the same? How can I encourage them to overcome their fears and perform in front of hundreds if I say “my performing days are over”? I am still a work in progress and must carve out the time and space to write. I owe it to myself.
AF: What advice do you have for young poets, or for poets who don't yet know they are poets?
My fear for young/new poets is that you will go through what I went through when I got too caught up in the culture of poetry slams. I started slamming at age 15 and after winning the Ann Arbor youth slam a few years in a row, I choked under the pressure and stopped slamming altogether. While the slam got me started and I deeply appreciate that, it also locked me into a certain kind of writing that was more for scores than for myself. Once I figured out the formula of a strong slam poem, I had a hard time breaking out of that formula. I lost my authentic voice.
When you begin writing to perform or get published, there is always that danger that you will stop writing for you and start writing for them. That you will have the audience in your head throughout your entire process, thinking of how they will react to each line. So my biggest piece of advice is to kill the editor in your head during the actual writing time. I still struggle with this because I have the urge to go back and fix up each line as I write it. Make it perfect. But it’s not supposed to be perfect at this stage -- it’s supposed to be messy. Cliche. Confusing. And then you go back and make it pretty. So here’s what I’ve been trying lately: writing for 20 minutes straight without letting myself stop, then go back and pull out the strongest lines, then fine-tune those lines. That way, I really let it all come out without the pressure of feeling that I have to use everything I write.
Write for yourself! Write the thing that is caught in your throat, that scares you, that you’ve been trying to push to the back of your mind. Write about the regret that keeps you up at night and the joy that propels you through the day. In writing for yourself, your audience will naturally connect to the authenticity of your poems. They will be inspired by your bravery, so in healing yourself, you will help others heal too.
AF: What are you reading now/is there anything you’ve read recently that you’d like to tell us about.
MR: I just recently wept for two hours straight while reading The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander. So, so beautiful. Some of my favorite fiction and non-fiction: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch, Corrigedora by Gayle Jones, Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward, and anything by Edwidge Danticat, Octavia Butler, Toni Morrison, Selah Ann Saterstrom, and Junot Diaz.
In terms of poetry, I could go on forever, but my faves are: Mariama Lockington, Lauren Whitehead, Yalie Kamara, Angel Nafis, Shira Erlichman, Danez Smith, Liz Latty, Chinaka Hodge, Jose Vadi, Saeed Jones, Louise Erdrich, StaceyAnn Chin, Carrie Fountain, Lucille Clifton, Dorianne Laux, Ross Gay, Sharon Olds, Patricia Smith, Jeff Kass, Ishle Yi Park, Sonya Renee Taylor, Carlina Duan, Zaphra Stupple, Donte Clark, Marje Kilpatrick, Ivori Holson, Nya McDowell, Ciera Gordon, D’Neise Robinson, Ziana James, Nia Snipes, Micah Brumfield, Sterling Gilder, Sarah O’Neal, Brittany Floyd, Dennis Kim, Michelle “Mush” Lee, Neruda, Amanda Fuller, Audre Lorde.
AF: What gets you out of bed in the morning?
MR: possibility / morning glories outside my window / the stack of poetry books next to my bed / getting to work with young people every day / pumpkin ice cream / making earrings / badu’s remix of hotline bling / my parents’ love / green curry with eggplant / sunshine pouring through the window / tacos / nina simone / strong coffee / writing / hot showers / storytelling / oakland / phone calls from my sister / daydreams / travel plans / handwritten letters / dark dark chocolate