Slam poet and educator Elizabeth Acevedo arrives on the YA scene with her debut novel in verse. Acevedo pulls from her experience working with teens and her own high school journals to tell the story of Xiomara Batista, twin and daughter of Dominican immigrants, as she finds her voice amid overwhelming expectations set by her religious mother and by society. Acevedo spoke with PW about writing a narrative arc across a series of poems, tapping into the unique experience of adolescence, and how her own teen years inspired Xiomara’s story.
What motivated you to write for the young adult audience?
I was an eighth grade English teacher for several years in Prince George’s County, Maryland. There was this realization that I write a lot of poems that exist on YouTube and exist when I’m there in person, but very little that young people could take with them. Right? That what I was creating wasn’t tangible in that way. That was the kernel, wanting to give something to my students that they could carry.
Are you interested in writing fiction or verse for other audiences?
I think I have a couple projects up my sleeve. I’ve been working on a poetry manuscript for a long time, a full-length [one]. What I have now is a chapbook, which is not quite as long. I have a fiction project for adults that I’ve been toying with for years, so we’ll see if I can pull that off anytime soon.
Does your writing process differ depending on your audience and whether you are writing verse or prose?
It depends whether I am writing poetry or fiction. My second book is prose but also young adult. It feels similar to The Poet X. I have to sit every day, hang out with the characters, and get my word count. Poetry is different in that I will have an idea, experience, or emotional truth that I’m trying to get across. I can putter a bit and play with the language. Fiction manuscripts have to be done with focus. With poetry I’m more patient, I’m working, figuring things out, even if I’m not actively writing.
A large part of Xiomara’s story focuses on her conflicted feelings about her physical presence, sexuality, and religious faith. From where did her story begin?
The first poem I wrote for this novel was the one about ants, which I think is one of the most climactic points in the story. It was about this conflict with [Xiomara’s mother] and religion and what it means to want to make yourself so small that you could fit between the floorboards. This is a story about taking up space and being a young woman who takes up space with both her body and her voice. The weight of the story is in that moment.
Are aspects of Xiomara or her story inspired by your own teen years or your experience as the child of Dominican immigrants?[Laughs]
If my mother were asking, we’re gonna say no. But, yeah, being a young woman who was a poet informed how much I know about slam poetry and those initial moments on stage. There are a lot of the cultural things that inspired aspects of Xiomara, like the ways in which who you are outside of your house is a little bit different than who you must be inside because of the cultural norms that exist. That push and pull that Xiomara carries of being first-generation is something I share. Our family structure and how our parents behaved are different, though. I may have also lifted a poem or two from my high school journal. I plagiarized myself, but it was a good way to keep me grounded.
How did having access to your high school journal impact your writing or perspective?
The journal reminded me of how teens talk and communicate, and [was] a reminder to be authentic. To remember how emotional things felt at that time. And that it was okay to allow that, particularly as someone who has gone to so many poetry programs. We are taught to pull back on sentiment and sentimentality, to strip a lot of that out and let the reader do the work. Going back to my journals, I was able to calibrate and remember that how a teen writes isn’t the same.
Do you still work with young writers and teens regularly?
I do a lot of poetry workshops. I do 40–50 shows a year, mostly at colleges and universities, but also at high schools. I’m a visiting instructor at an adjudicated youth center in D.C., so I do workshops with young women who are incarcerated. I have the privilege of being around many young people who are finding their voice. I also attend a lot of slams as a host or judge and I used to be a coach as well.
The way I think about my teen years is very particular to where I am now. But being around teenagers all the time makes me aware of the emotional scale that they’re on and how they’re responding to things. If nothing else, it’s a reminder of how brilliant they are. Some adults write down to young people, but, if you listen to them, they’ll tell you what they need. Oftentimes, I think they’re more able to handle difficult subjects than we give them credit for.
Xiomara plays the role of protector for her twin brother; can you expand on your decision to give Xiomara a fraternal twin, rather than a younger sibling or a sister?
I wanted a character who was going to be a foil to Xiomara. Both siblings are trying to reach this idea of perfection. For me, the fact that their parents are significantly older meant a lot; there’s a huge generational gap and the twins are considered miracles. If it were just Xiomara alone, she wouldn’t have anyone to bounce off, but she and her brother are two seeds that bore fruit. Their mother just can’t let go and that pressure affects them in different ways. Xiomara’s mother has certain expectations for her because she is a girl. And having a mirror who is the same age and has been raised in the same household was a perfect way to show the gender and personality differences at play.
When working on The Poet X, did you read your writing aloud to gauge flow and word choice?
I did, which was difficult when I was revising because it’s a lot of pages to read. But I read every revision out loud to get a sense of the music, the language, and the rhythm, how things were bumping against each other. On the page, I think you can get caught up in the line breaks and how things look—the aesthetic—but if you’re not hearing it, you’re losing so much. Even when I was recording the audiobook I was noticing things my eye couldn’t catch that needed to be changed.
How did your background in spoken word poetry prepare you to record the audio version of The Poet X?
I think I have a sense of how things need to sound, how to pull an audience in with tone, timing, and pacing. That affects a lot of my writing, too, being hyper aware of how an audience might read something. I want what’s happening on the page to mimic what my body would do on stage. A lot of that came out in the audiobook. I think I would have struggled to record the audiobook without having stage experience because it’s a lot of work to maintain that kind of performance voice.
Was writing a narrative arc across a series of poems difficult?
It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done! I started this novel in 2012 and I couldn’t figure out how to do it. I’m an avid reader of all kinds of things and was a teacher at the time, so I was reading every verse novel and poetry books with extended character arcs. But when you’re doing it yourself it’s so hard to figure out how much interiority is enough, how much should this character show up, what does dialogue look like between multiple characters? It was hard to figure out what it should look like. I would complain to my husband that I couldn’t see it. I can’t hold the whole story in my head because it’s so many pieces. I had to write two other novels before I could come back and finish this one. I had to process other things and have a sense of arc and plot to impose onto this story.
Can you share any details about your next young adult project?
I’m not sure how much I’m able to share. It’s called With the Fire on High and it will be out around this time in 2019. It’s about a teen chef and mother in Philadelphia during her senior year in high school. She’s trying to figure out how what it means when all her classmates are being told to follow their dreams, but, for her, it’s a little bit different because she has someone depending on her. She can’t make the wrong choice of what to do with her life.
How does your background as an ELA teacher, speaker, and performer impact your writing process and the way you approach storytelling?
I’m aware of how young people are going to read. I’m also aware of the many ways you can enter a story; I try to be cognizant of not writing the same kind of story in the same kind of way. For example, having Xiomara’s draft assignments be in poetry in her journal, then being too afraid to show that in her final draft. As a teacher, having a sense of what a rough draft looks like and how much is sometimes not revealed impacted those sections of The Poet X.
I do q&as after every show. What people ask me during these q&as shows me a lot about what folks are processing that they don’t always know how to find answers for. That’s kind of an interesting thing to keep track of: what is it that people are trying to talk about that they ask me specifically? What is it that I can offer in a story that might answer some of those questions?
Which writers or performers do you feel have had the most impact on your journey to finding your writing style or voice?
It’s different depending on what I’m writing, though it crosses a little bit. I’m a big fan of Lucille Clifton and how sparingly she wrote. She had such short lines, she didn’t overuse words, and was super powerful. I love Natalie Diaz and how much she reveals, but also that she is more interested in what the poem is asking, rather than what it is solving. I think allowing that kind of soft closure is something to adopt and think about. Jason Reynolds’s work was big when I was working through The Poet X. I’m lucky that he and I lived in D.C. at the same time and I was able to chat with him and get to know him. When his first book came out it was one of my first indications that I could actually do this, that I could tell this kind of story. Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming had a lot of impact on this story. Junot Díaz was the first writer to really give me permission to create a fully Dominican character and bring all our languages and vernaculars onto the page, to not be apologetic and to see it as an asset.
The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo. HarperTeen, $17.99 Mar. ISBN 978-0-06-266280-4