‘Poetry Is A Spiritual Language’: Burlington Poet Rajnii Eddins
On an evening in late June, Burlington poet Rajnii Eddins stood at a podium at the Fletcher Free Library. He wore a sweatshirt printed with Malcolm X’s face and looked out at the room through large, gold-rimmed glasses.
Eddins asked the audience members to rub their hands together, explaining, “This is what we do at the poetry experience, it’s to give the artist some energy.”
“Okay,” Eddins said, “release it to me.” He took a breath and began to share poems from his new book, Their Names Are Mine.
This wasn’t his first time in front of a crowd; Eddins has been sharing poetry for about as long as he’s been writing it. At age 11, he was the youngest member of the African-American Writers’ Alliance, which his mom, Randee Eddins, started in Seattle.
As a poet herself, she inspired a love for reading and writing in her son. As soon as he was old enough, Randee had her son read her own poetry back to her, out loud. She’s also the one who got him started working with young people.
“My mother was a foster parent to over 70 children,” said Eddins, “So I was always the older brother. I’m pretty adept at working with all ages from children to adolescents. They have such vibrant imaginations, and they haven’t yet been socialized to perceive themselves as limited or to feel like they can’t be sincere.”
Today, Eddins is a 39-year-old performing artist, teacher, emcee, and facilitator in Burlington. He didn’t originally plan to come to Vermont, but when his mom moved across the country to care for an ailing friend, Eddins went too.
He says Vermont hasn’t been entirely welcoming. As a black man living in a state that’s 94% percent white, Eddins has experienced racism. It’s also the focus of his latest collection of poetry.
An excerpt from Eddins' poem, "Blackness":
Misshapen perceptions of Blackness Dance The speed of obsidian Rhythm-less oblivion Mockingly grotesque
Malformed concept of a molasses mammy And her tar babies dancin' gaily
Noose's strings sing the melody Black breath can't scream When bodies swing
“I started seeing the value of art being a powerful method to not only have some catharsis and mental hygiene for myself, but also so I could have a tool that could then be a practical expression, touch other people's hearts and minds," Eddins said. "Because it’s one thing if you try to tell somebody who’s doing something racist, ‘Hey, you’re racist.’ But it’s another thing entirely to paint a picture of the hurt that racism causes, and you speak to the human heart beyond.”
Since moving to Vermont nine years ago, Eddins has become known in Burlington for his involvement at the library, in schools, and with the Young Writers Project.
Since leaving his job as a paraeducator this spring, he’s been making a living from workshops, speaking engagements, and selling the book he self-published in April. He said he feels good about what he’s doing.
“Just being able to choose what I do, where I put my energy, to be able to speak candidly when I do experience race and racism, and have that actually be my work -- as a healing force, as a catalyst for positive change, and holding space for youth to respect their own minds -- so I’m super thankful for this chapter of my life and excited to share with Vermont, this region, the nation, and the world," Eddins said.
Rajnii Eddins reads from his poem, "Advice For Police In De-escalating Potentially Volatile Situations Without The Use Of Deadly Force"https://vimeo.com/352993018"> (on mobile? click here to watch):
Vermont’s canon of poets is large, but Eddins isn’t interested in being the next Robert Frost. While he appreciates the natural beauty of Vermont, he’s got other things on his mind.
“I think my role is of a greater pantheon than just post-colonization America,” he said. “It’s more in line with really connecting with people in powerful ways that can bring you to tears — not to diminish anyone's poetry — but not just a picturesque painting.”
An excerpt from Eddins' poem, "I Want To ...":
Greener pastures Skies of azure I receive
I want to note the clouds of hope That stream and beam
This knotted oak that chokes my throat Won't let me breathe Less I raise my pen to paint Each limb of the deceased
“Poetry is a spiritual language,” Eddins said. He hopes his work will speak to all people, both young and old.
Update 12:30 p.m.: This post has been updated to include Rajnii Eddins' age.
This story is part of our series, Young At Art. Every Monday this summer we'll hear from artists under 40 about what inspires their work and how they view the future for artists in the state. Support for Young At Art comes from Quantum Leap Capital.