Q & A with Rajnii Eddins
CLiF is proud to work with 64 talented authors, illustrators, poets, graphic novelists, and storytellers from every corner of Vermont and New Hampshire to inspire low-income, at-risk, and rural kids to love reading and writing. We send our amazing presenters to schools, libraries, after school programs, childcare centers, summer camps, affordable housing developments, and other spaces where low-income kids spend time in NH and VT.
One of our talented presenters is poet Rajnii Eddins, who has been performing poetry for more than 20 years. He engages audiences of all ages and encourages collaboration and a love of poetry. He recently visited CLiF Year of the Book school JFK Elementary School in Winooski, VT (pictured above with JFK students). Librarian Matt Giles said, “He did some poetry, and some stories, and he sang some songs. He actually did some freestyle rapping utilizing some phrases and words the kids had suggested, which blew their minds. That was really fantastic.”
We asked Rajnii about his inspiration and what he loves about working with youth.
Q. What inspired you to become a poet?
A. I was inspired by mother Randee Eddins, who is also a CLiF author. She founded the Afrikan American Writers Alliance in 1991 in Seattle, WA when I was 11 years old (I was the only child member). My mother was also a foster mother to over 70 children.
This allowed me to learn a lot about the craft and expression of poetry from experienced and budding writers, poets, storytellers and performance artists of all kinds, as well as the role that playfulness with words and a warm loving home can play in healing youth and building their self esteem and positive self concept. My mother has always shared her writing and her fun, engaging way with words with me, as she has been a poet since she was 7 years old. In this way she fostered in me a love for words and the magic they can conjure that I still am very passionate about to this day.
Q. Can you tell us about how you came to the work you do now?
A. As I grew older, because of how this love was fostered and encouraged by my mother, extended family and community, I began to be offered more opportunities to share on stage with adults in other venues as well as to design curriculum and build bridges to engaging young learners by demonstrating how hip-hop as well as spoken word can be utilized as a bridge to literacy and positive affirmation of identity in the classroom. This is work that I have been doing since I was a teen and still continue to expand upon to this day. I never imagined that my love for poetry and hip-hop would allow me to teach from elementary to academia as well engaging people of all ages. I am honored to carry on the legacy of my mother and often pay her homage in my presentations, performances and facilitation by sharing her work and the irreplaceable role she played in developing my craft.
Q. What do you love about working with youth?
A. I love working with youth because they always offer something new and valuable in creating their own poetry and stories and they have as much (if not more) to teach as to learn. Youth will constantly surprise us when we sincerely respect their intelligence and engage them in ways that demonstrate we recognize they are each uniquely brilliant and inherently valuable just by being who they are. I love knowing that there are seeds you plant in each exchange in showing youth that you care about them and are genuinely interested in their thoughts and ideas. This, along with being warm and playful with them, are things that will add to the adults they become and how they show up in their communities for the generations to follow. My mother has always said and demonstrated that children are a treasure and this is an adage I hold dear to this day. To me it means all are valuable, adults included, because we once were children as well.
Q. What do you enjoy about CLiF visits?
A. In CLIF visits I enjoy the opportunity to share with varying ages of youth in different capacity, be it storytelling, performance poetry, freestyle (improvised poetry to instrumental), it thrills me to see the young people’s eyes light up when they are deeply and meaningfully engaged and I love that there is an organization that celebrates literacy as the library was and is a sacred place for me and my family – truly a house of stories. That’s why it is an honor to be a CLiF author and I look forward to many more opportunities to share the love for literacy and self expression with all ages of youth, parents, librarians and educators.
Q. What is most challenging about your work?
A. I think what is most challenging is making it a full time enterprise as this is the dream I have had for some time.
As a result of having such a huge extended family of brothers and sisters, engaging youth has always been a natural thing for me – more like family, really.
Honestly, to be able to share my poetry as a resource while affirming youth in their love for literacy full time is currently my greatest challenge. I wish to encourage, inspire and empower youth of all ages, to address implicit bias in education, and to furnish educators with tools to better engage students through powerful potent self expression. I have been and still continue to do all these things, but the goal is to make them my mainstay.
I am currently working on a manuscript for my first book of poetry in 20 years (Their Names Are Mine) that will be released in the near future, as well as a business plan to make the transition into just this enterprise. Wish me well!
Q. Do you have any favorite memories of working with kids and teens?
A. Since the age of 9 years old when my mother first became a foster parent til now I have worked with literally thousands of youth of all ages. One of my favorite memories in all this time has to be my time spent with Hawa Adam, Lena Ginawi, Balkisa Abdikadir and Kiran Waqar, the phenomenal foursome that makes up Muslim Girls Making Change. My good friend Denise Casey and I were, through our work with Young Writers Project, fortunate to be the co-coaches of these amazing young women and to witness their ascent from performing at Brave New Voices (the national youth poetry slam competition) to inspiring an audience of over 10,000 at the Women’s March in Montpelier, VT.
Just last year these young ladies were included in a book called Rad Girls Can, celebrating women who are doing awesome things in the world (Check out Meredith Scott’s blog post) and they also received a humanitarian award alongside such dignitaries as Colin Kaepernick and Michelle Obama. All well deserved!
With the work they have done in their art in giving crucial voice to the need for social justice and the work they continue to do as they have all now embarked into furthering their education, I trust they will continue to be forces of nature for equity, social justice, and human dignity for years to come.
Witnessing the powerful craft they shared and the enormous inspiring impact they have had on our community and the world has been one of the most richly fulfilling experiences of my life and is certainly a reminder that holding space for youth to shine and express themselves authentically will always be of wondrous value to the world.
Q. Do you have any advice for young poets?
A. For young poets I say write, write, write.
Be courageous and don’t be afraid to say whatever is on your mind and heart. If you’re afraid, do it anyway. Some of my favorite pieces came from a place that sent my heart racing and I knew then it was important to write and share. Also, remember you don’t have to share everything, you get to choose, but sharing can be a meaningful inspiring and affirming experience. Try it out.
Listen to poets of all kinds and all ages and find out what inspires you about them. Look at the world around you and find ways to marvel and and turn your own and others’ stories on their ear. Check Young Writers Project, as they are an awesome resource that offers young poets and writers a great platform to express themselves as well as share and give and receive useful feedback.
Be playful with language, explore your own community, and see if there are writing circles to attend and open mics to share and listen to other poets and artists. Here are a few in Burlington, VT: Poetry Experience every 1st and 3rd Saturday 1-3pm @ Fletcher Free Library and Litclub @ Lampshop every Monday 7-9pm right next door to Radio Bean. If there aren’t any open mics or writing groups in your area, think about starting some. Be courageous and always remember you have something vital to offer because you are you and there will never be another – so go pick up the pen with that spirit that the world needs your words, poet. Don’t withhold your light because you never know how your art can touch, inspire, and impact the people and the world around you.
Q. Do you have advice for educators working with kids and teens on poetry?
A. Be open to affirm and encourage them and show them your own heart and enthusiasm for poetry; that exuberance is contagious. Find playful poems, serious poems that explore real life and controversial issues, and have a variety of poets that reflect the diverse array of ethnicity, religion, gender, and overall human experience, as well as subject matter. Youth, as all people, I believe, will respond more readily when they feel included, respected, seen, and valued. Say the words aloud. Read with feeling and conviction and fully commit. Ask questions about the meaning and be open to the answers, and also ask youth what they would like to write poetry about and what content they would like to hear in the poems you are offering. Be sure to introduce passionate poets of world renown as well as poets in their own community. I can also be a resource in this regard, if you are interested in having me come in to share, please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-351-6055.
Q. Who inspires you?
Youth inspire me, people on fire for their dreams and seeking to add more positive energy, kindness, and compassion to the world inspire me. I am inspired by life and my family, my community, and the world, as well as artists and activists for social change, past and present.
The pressing need for speaking candidly about issues that dehumanize any human being, as well the need for positive affirmation of mutual humanity, all speak to me deeply and increasingly so as of late.
I always receive a great deal of inspiration from my mother, my daughters Ziyah Xzandra and Amina Adesina Frances Rhoads-Eddins, as well as my extended familial community of poets, artists, and emcees here in Vermont and back home in Seattle and California and artists/poets all around the world. Any artist or human being, for that matter, who expresses themselves vulnerably and courageously inspires me and reminds me that, as we are all reflections, we give a profound gift when we open our hearts to share what they contain.
Q. Who are some of your favorite poets/writers/performers?
A. Some of my favorites include:
Randee Eddins, Rumi, Pablo Neruda, Saul Williams, Kendrick Lamar, Sonya Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, Langston Hughes, Amiri Baraka, Nipsey Hussle, Black Star, Lauryn Hill, Theaster Gates, Sa Roc, Black Thought, Muslim Girls Making Change, Amir Sulaiman, Marc Bamuthi Joseph, Nina Simone, Sam Cooke, Donny Hathaway, Marvin Gaye, Al Greene, Al Jarreau, Minnie Riperton, Whitney Houston, Maxwell, D’Angelou, Prince, Ledisi, Choklate, Tiffany Wilson, Gangstarr, Rakim, Public Enemy, Jordan Chaney, Glenis Redmond, Chance The Rapper, Tank and The Bangas, H.E.R., Atlantic Star, Musiq Soulchilde, Eric Benet, Jay Z, Tupac, KRS ONE, Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, Malcolm X, Thich Nhat Hanh, Octavia Butler, Laura Piece Kelley, Shel Silverstein, Harry Belafonte, Roberta Flack, Earth Wind and Fire, Michael Jackson, James Brown, Ella Fitzgerald, The Last Poets, Gil Scott-Heron, Kahlil Gibran, and many more!
Q. Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Yes, definitely! Thank you for the opportunity to share!
To everyone reading:
Please support this wonderful organization as it serves as an invaluable resource in sharing books and nurturing a love for literacy in many youth throughout our region, as well supporting parents and educators in uplifting the importance of literacy to our children and communities! Also be sure to be on the look out for my upcoming work, Their Names Are Mine, AND keep shining! Peace and Poetry!