Monday, March 12, 2018

Split This Rock Interview with Elizabeth Acevedo

 By Lauren May

This conversation is one in a series of interviews with poets to be featured at Split This Rock Poetry Festival: Poems of Provocation & Witness 2018.

The festival is three days at the intersection of the imagination and social change: readings, workshops, panel discussions, youth programming, activism, a book fair, and a party. Celebrating Split This Rock’s 10th anniversary! The poets to be featured are among the most significant and artistically vibrant writing and performing today: Elizabeth Acevedo, Kazim Ali, Ellen Bass, Sherwin Bitsui, Kwame Dawes, Camille Dungy, Ilya Kaminsky, Sharon Olds, Sonia Sanchez, Solmaz Sharif, Terisa Siagatonu, Paul Tran, Javier Zamora.

Online registration is available until midnight (EST) on March 28. Onsite registration will be offered during the festival. Group rates, scholarships, and sponsorship opportunities are available. Readings by featured poets are free and open to the public. More information at:

We are especially pleased be able to present this interview between Acevedo and May, as Acevedo coached May and the rest of the DC Youth Slam Team 2013-2015, including the 2014 team which took first place at Brave New Voices International Teen Poetry Festival.

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Elizabeth Acevedo was born and raised in New York City and her poetry is infused with Dominican bolero and her beloved city’s tough grit. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Maryland. Acevedo is a National Slam Champion and has performed for over 14 years at such nationally and internationally renowned venues as The Lincoln Center, Madison Square Garden, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, South Africa’s State Theatre, The Bozar in Brussels, and the National Library of Kosovo. She is also well known for poetry videos, which have gone viral and been picked up by PBS, Latina Magazine, and Cosmopolitan. Her poems have been published or are forthcoming in POETRY, Puerto Del Sol, Callaloo, The Notre Dame Review, and others. Acevedo is a Cave Canem Fellow, CantoMundo Fellow, and former participant of the Callaloo Writer's Workshop. She is the author of Beastgirl & Other Origin Myths (YesYes Books, 2016) and her debut novel, The Poet X (HarperCollins) was published March 6, 2018 . She served as coach of Split This Rock's DC Youth Slam Team from 2013 to 2015. Learn more at her website. Photo by Stephanie Ifendu.

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Lauren May (LM): Assuming you got asked the question, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" when you were younger, what was your response? Did you ever imagine that you would have the career that you have now?

Elizabeth Acevedo (EA): I always knew I wanted a career involving language: singer, politician, poet, but I didn’t have a road map on making any of those things possible. I’m glad that I allowed myself to be flexible in regards to how I used language and that I gave myself permission to write in many different genres, which ultimately led me to where I am today. And, I’m still open to complicating the lines of what kind of writer and speaker I need to be.

(LM): Was there ever a time when you didn't feel like a writer?

(EA): So much of being a writer seems like walking a tightrope of just enough ego to put your work into the world, and just enough humility to always remember you have yet to write your best or most precise work. That said, for me it’s hard to keep a balance between humility and insecurity. I continuously question whether or not the quality of my work is up to par, if I’m pushing the envelope enough, if the work is asking critical questions;  continuously moving through those doubts seems to be what keeps someone still writing vs. what stops them in their tracks.

(LM): Your poem titled “bittersweet love poem” is one of my favorites. I watch it on You Tube often, because the way you speak of love feels so honest. Love is a feeling that I believe only poetry/art seems to make any sense of. What did the process of writing that poem feel like?

(EA): That poem was written over the course of several years. Lines would come to me and I would write them down but never strung them together. I think at the time I wrote that poem I’d been writing a lot about the death of black people, and the ramifications of colonialism, and the need to pay an ode to joy and love felt pivotal. So, I went back to all these scattered lines and figured out a way to pull them into one piece.

(LM): What's the most beautiful place you've visited while touring, and why?

(EA): Beautiful is a difficult word to apply to some of the places I’ve traveled to since the definition of what is beautiful changes from geography to the people to the art scene, but I was able to participate in the International Poetry Festival of Nicaragua and I was very moved by the physical beauty of the country and how warm and lovely the people of the country were. It was an intensely vibrant and alive place and poetry was a part of the cultural structure of the country. They have poetry everywhere and truly revere their classical poets. There’s so much love for the written word in Nicaragua that it made me nostalgic for what I think is possible in the US.

(LM): What does the process of writing a book look like, for you?

(EA): Writing any kind of book has its unique challenges, but with a novel-in-verse it was difficult for me to learn that not every single piece had to be a self-contained poem; some of the pieces work as hinges or transitions to connect the more self-fulfilled poems. But because I was coming from a background in poetry, not fiction, I wanted all 368 pages to be publishable poems ... and that can be a lot of pressure.  Some of the poems need to be expository, need to be a small breath, or else the language itself will weigh down the narrtive arc. So, I had to learn to trust my process and also show up every day to keep an on-going relationship with my character! She told me where the story needed to go and what needed to be done to create a satisfying ending.

(LM): When I was your student, when you coached the DC Youth Slam Team, you gave my peers and me the advice to read just as much, if not more, than we write. Why is that important, in your opinion? What are you reading lately?

(EA): I tell students to read as much if not more than they write because the practice of reading as a writer is a study, it’s a craft. The goal of creating isn’t just to be masturbatory with your writing, but to continue pushing your artwork, continue exploring what your work can do, and to consider how you are contributing to the conversation in the literary landscape. We don’t make in silos, and I think it’s not only humility, but the point of artistry to engage with the work of your predecessors and peers.

I just finished reading Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing and I am currently rereading Jason Reynolds Long Way Down.

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Additional Links

Elizabeth Acevedo on her debut novel The Poet X (Bustle)

Interview with Elizabeth Acevedo (Teen Vogue)

Synopsis of The Poet X (Publisher’s Weekly)

How to Be a Poet, by Ellen Haile, on the work and career (Unruly)

Behind the Mic with Elizabeth Acevedo, by Tosin Oyekoya (Blavity)

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Lauren (Lo) May is a 21-year-old writer, artist, host, human rights advocate and french fry enthusiast born in DC, raised in Maryland. An alumna of the award-winning DC Youth Slam Team, Lauren is part of Split This Rock’s Ushindi Performance Group. She has featured as a guest speaker at MCASA’s 10th Annual Women of Color Network Conference, the National Conference on Health and Domestic Violence, and The White House United State of Women Summit.

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