For the past year, the young adult novel The Poet X has been showing up and standing out. This book is a revelation in content and form. The Poet X is a novel that smushes you in the face all the way back to high school. People said the movie Eighth Grade gave them middle school flashbacks, well nothing made me feel all the anguish, the boy crush, not understanding my body, trying to understand what is life feels than The Poet X. The best part is it is written in poetry prose, honestly my favorite style of writing. The composition so clever, the characters well rounded, the world real and engulfing. Xiomara is a mix of all the selves I was trying to figure out in high school and every young woman’s internal journey. The exciting part is, my dear friend Elizabeth Acevedo wrote it! From our days kicking it at The Brotherhood Sister Sol reading our poetry on Friday nights to writing top ten New York Times Bestsellers, I have been honored to see her rise. It was my pleasure to interview Elizabeth on her novel The Poet X and her journey into full time author and performer.
Stay in for the full ride and read til the end — she drops some real insightful gems on following her fears to her true path and taking the big risks to rise to her power. At the same time sharing details on the inner workings behind her writing.
Writing for a new Generation
Black Nerd Problems: How was it writing for another generation? I know you were a teacher so you were around kids a lot, but what was it like trying to take on their voice?
Elizabeth Acevedo: It’s difficult in the most unexpected ways. I think technology really changes the way that young people interact with one another and what they say and don’t say and how brave they are and aren’t. You’ll see there is really minimal technology, there is some texting, but there isn’t obsessions with social media or social media posts, anything to that extent and maybe because it’s a little bit old school. It’s based on my memories of high school as opposed to my teaching in a high school, so things would come out. I remember thinking in retrospect, I wonder if she would have had a traditional notebook or would she have had like a laptop with a file?
BNP: Right, like she has an iPad.
EA: I don’t know how that would have changed it. I think people are resonating so, ultimately I think that voice of first love, of where do you rebel, where do you give in, where do you spread your wings, all of that, felt very easy to drop into that voice and felt natural. So yea it was tough to remember, like oh young people now might be a little bit more grown.
BNP: Well I saw you had JCole stuff in there, you had Kendrick…
EA: I was writing a passage like “and even old school Jay-Z”…
BNP: Oh my God I died!
EA: That can’t be old school but it is to them. I had to always contextualize for myself that Ja-Rule was like what we fell in love to.
BNP: Yea that’s old school.
BNP: What were you doing when you found out you were on the NYT Top Ten Bestsellers List?
EA: What was I doing? Oh we were snowed in. The week that the list came out that I would technically have qualified for, I didn’t make the list, because it’s a week after your debut. I was in Miami, Florida with Tomi Adeyemi who wrote Children of Blood and Bone and she was first on the list and were on a panel together. I’m sitting like sadly in the corner, but so happy for Tomi and her book which is incredible but kinda had to manage my expectations, like alright that’s out the way, you don’t always make the list, that’s what’s up. Then a week later I was sitting at home, my mother-in-law was at the house and we were drinking wine and having a snow day and I get this random text. I mean it was the farthest thing from my head because it didn’t happen when I imagined it would’ve, so I was kinda just like really tipsy and also like, it’s a holiday! Even God knew to give me a snow day. It was just ridiculous joy and we were watching Grace and Frankie, I’m like this is such a good show, it was just a bizarre little moment of, life is weird.
BNP: I feel like that’s a real writer moment, you were like I was in a cabin in the woods and I got the call.
EA: I mean it was just this great celebration and my homegirls came over. My partner was out of town on work and so to celebrate that moment with like my homegirls and my mother-in-law and this book about women-hood and family was really cool.
BNP: I live for those moments, where I say I did it, I made it.
EA: Do you think you ever arrive at that?
BNP: That’s a good question.
EA: I don’t know that there’s ever an arrival, the destination just keeps getting a little bit further. It’s like you make the list then it’s like ok can you make the list with another book? It’s like do you get awards, what if it’s a one-hit wonder. I just feel like especially for writers you doubt.
BNP: Do you still do poetry performance? Is that still part of your work, or do you think you are moving more towards novelist?
EA: I would say that my presentations right now are a hybrid. I open with a poem. I talk about the writing process and writing this book specifically, then I read from the novel usually and then I read another poem. I mean I am still getting brought out to colleges very specifically for poetry. It’s kind of a hybrid that I show up and do whatever I want. I’m like I’m here this is what you going to get, but there is a little bit of everything mixed in.
BNP: You mentioned hybrid, when you talk about hybrid what was the idea to make this book kind of a hybrid because it is almost like individual poems but it is telling you the story about this girl.
EA: Yea, I think I wasn’t sure what the story was going to be. I started writing this in 2012. I had never written a long-form anything. I wrote single poems but not a project of this magnitude. So I probably wrote the first 40 pages and was like I don’t know how to write fiction, I don’t know how to follow a character. I know poetry. I was more confident in poetry that I was in prose. I was a bit afraid of prose, and so that’s why I went in that direction, but I couldn’t figure out how to tell the story, how many poems are enough to build a character? How many poems are enough to get it steady? So I kinda just pushed it to the side and wrote two other manuscripts in prose. A fantasy novel and a magical realism project. And then in 2016 I came back to The Poet X. At that point I had been writing poetry more consistently. I had worked on two projects that I had saw to the end, maybe not until they were good but I saw them to the end. And so I think I realized what are the things a narrative has to have to be strong. What are the things that I would want in the narrative that is an Elizabeth Acevedo narrative. But I also recognize I think I’m a stronger poet than I am with my prose, so the novel kind of took shape from that, like I think I can draw from the strongest of both of these writing styles into this story, and it made sense. I think a lot of people expect this book to be a prose and then they open it, like oh that makes sense that she’s like a poet and it would be in poems. But you know it was hard you know it’s 368 pages and try to figure out what do you show, what do you reveal? What do you try to force a poem to do that a poem just can’t contain certain things. So I wouldn’t call the pieces in there a poem and that was probably the hardest thing. I do remember verse signified, I think, a little bit more openness than a novel … I had to be ok with letting go of my pride, like not everything is perfect traditional poem.
BNP: The piece itself is kind of autobiographical, no? How much of this is like you and your experience, and how much like for the girls you know?
EA: I get this question a lot and I always say the emotional truths are my own. You know I had to deal with a lot of catcalling. I had to deal with a lot of strict parents who had expectations that were not always grounded in American life or work life or teen life, that just had a completely different experience than my upbringing. I will say that there’s probably a lot more of me in this book than I sometimes allow. That this present/absent father was something I definitely felt growing up as someone who was in the house but maybe didn’t feel like they were a part of the fabric, and is that a complaint you can make? Like you have your father, like what more is there to say, and so I think that that comes through in Xiomara. A lot of the shyness very early on like she’s 15 but her interactions can seem young with men because she’s been so sheltered. I’m hyper exposed and hyper visible and so what is that dynamic of knowing what boys and men want from you but never feeling safe enough to follow through on any of that? A lot of that comes through. I mean I’d be lying if I didn’t say some of the poems in the book are directly from my journal, because there are some days where I had to meet my word count and I’m like, welp.
But the narrative itself not my own, right. I was never forced to do confirmation. My mother never made me kneel on rice. I did discover poetry slams in high school, but I think I already had a base of performance and of writing and of confidence in my work when I started doing those. You know I had Lyrical Circle [Brotherhood-Sister Sol] which kind of gave me a kind of groundedness on why this matters outside of the point. So I think that there are a lot of differences in how she finds her voice and is affirmed.
BNP: I had those moments, where I said, “Oh this is Liz” and “Oh this is a student Liz knows…”
EA: That’s exactly right like I hope, I don’t want it to just be like, I don’t know like this masterbatory novel that just like yay! I want it to be a lot of people, I hope a lot of young people see themselves and are like oh sh$# this is me.
Talking the Real Talk
I explained to Elizabeth that the novel was making me mad, seeing the parallels between my adolescents and the relationship to religion in my household, to which she replied, the following:
EA: you’re not going get less mad. But I do think that that is a different way of talking about faith there are a lot of coming of age novels that deal with faith. I think Latino Christianity and like Latino catholicism, there’s like a layer to it that’s… it’s religion but it’s cultural. It’s also how you’re taught womenhood, like there’s a lot at play in what it actually means. You know, the novel is going to be translated in Spanish and I’m nervous.
BNP: I was gonna ask you, I saw you post about your mom being able to read it now.
EA: I’m nervous like I think there are going to be a lot of questions, like undoubtedly proud. My whole family but I think they are going to wonder at like, you know what is the message here in regards to religion? Do you not believe in Jesus Christ? And some of that… it should be interesting.
BNP: In the novel you mention a lot of nerdness with the brother liking science. So do you consider yourself a nerd?
EA: Can I be like nerd adjacent? I feel like being a nerd, there is a lot of involvement. I feel like I am super comfortable in nerdom and open to like you know — I grew up with a lot of it, my brothers were obsessed with anime, so I grew up watching a lot of anime and to this day like weep watching Fist of the North Star. Watching them play a lot of role playing games, all the Final Fantasies, I was like go Yuna! But I will say that I don’t think I’m as involved anymore. I watch a lot of the you know big Marvel or DC movies that come out, I like am familiar with the worlds but I don’t actively. Was that the wrong answer?
BNP: No! It’s the right answer, you know they asked me to join Black Nerd Problems, I didn’t consider myself a nerd because I don’t read comics and they saw me posting about Lord of the Rings. I like to write about the nerd diaspora. There is all this nerd culture we are taking in and we love the stories that’s really what it is. But in that you said you wrote fantasy books.
EA: I attempted, yea the first novel I ever completed was like a 400-page witch novel about a young woman in New York who discovers she has like these super powers. It was fun to write and I think to imagine yourself as you know the hero of a narrative that you often times are not the hero of and to draw on what are the traditions that would be able to feed into this. That was dope research just so much I learned through doing that. And I think if nothing else, that book gave me the key to what might be a future project which will have fantasy elements in it but will be historical fantasy. Yea that’s in the pipeline, it’s definitely going to be a short story that’ll come in an anthology yet to be announced but um… maybe it’ll be something bigger.
(I secretly hope she means a movie, TV show or Netflix or HBO limited series I am so down for that! – make sure to cast me girl!)
BNP: Ok so yes you are a nerd. You can’t write a fantasy novel and say well I don’t know if I’m a nerd, I’m just birthing new nerds with this book.
EA: I mean I definitely think there are tendencies, there is a reason why the brother character has some of the tendencies that he has, why he’s obsessed with what he is obsessed with.
BNP: Did you base him off your real brother?
EA: I think it was probably a compilation of a lot of people but definitely my brother’s obsession with anime and with those storylines but also the way that is seemed so antithetical to Dominicaness sometimes. Like Dominicaness is such a macho lalala but so many of the Dominican dudes I know love Anime and grew up obsessed with these storylines and have like these amazing collections. Some of the most stereotypical Dominicans I know fricking love Yu-gi-oh, it’s so much more complicated than we sometimes imagine. I really just wanted this character that played and blurred the lines.
BNP: What is a question you never get asked, that you would want to get asked.
EA: I very rarely get asked about craft. People [don’t] actually ask about the forms or like you know the repetition. Or why there is a draft 1 or draft 2. Or the way that it’s structured with biblical lines in the different parts…and I think that there was so much time spent in the symbolism of it for me. Like this has to be the perfect biblical quote and it has to be from Genesis in order to really accurately… and people just brush by it like you don’t understand how much research I had to do to ensure that it was speaking to. You know it’s funny how much time you spend on the little things to get perfect and people are just like your metaphors are great.
A lot of the critique I got early on — you know the book went to auction and there were several houses interested and some of the editors that passed were kind of like it feels like broken prose. Or you know early on when I was still reading Goodreads reviews, very very early on because I had to stop, some people would be like, oh I don’t know if it’s really poetry. And that was really interesting for me to take in because I feel like there are so many subtle things that other poets would know to look for. What people often want as poetry, they’ll be like well it doesn’t rhyme so I don’t know if we can call it poetry and I’m like …On the inside I’m like – oh ok.
BNP: What are you doing now? What’s happening next, where can we find you?
EA: I’ll be kicking off my tour on September 1st at the National Book Festival. I just turned in final edits for my second novel yesterday morning. Book two will be coming our in May of 2019.
BNP: I feel like this is fast.
EA: Yea I mean I think a book a year can be quick. I’ve signed up for four so you should be hearing from me for coming years. I mean I don’t know if a book a year will be the way I push, but the drafts done so it’s just getting them up to snuff.
BNP: So how do you find time to write? This is confusing.
EA: It is confusing, for me too. I don’t know, I revise well on the road. And so I usually write in the summer. so I just turned that project in yesterday and I am hoping to get some work done on a project in August. So I’ll be doing a lot more reading, writing everyday and revising when I’m on the road, is the goal.
BNP: Is this the dream you always had for your life?
EA: I don’t know, I feel like it’s hard to dream a thing you can’t see. And I think growing up like I knew I loved music and I loved poetry and I loved the feeling of being with other poets and listening to other stories and thinking, like, I think I can do that just as good…I think I can be better than what I am now and also very competitively I think I can be better than you. I was lucky to be surrounded by amazing storytellers and poets very young so I knew my talent like I was growing in leaps and bounds because everyone was a little bit older and incredibly talented. But I didn’t know what we would do outside of our little cyphers or what was possible. And so I knew I always wanted to deal with words and share my story, but I don’t know, it’s taken pivots. There was a time when I was deathly afraid of being on stage and so anxious. I’m not talking about early on, I’m talking about in my mid-twenties, like I got this stage fright that I had never gotten before and it was debilitating. I didn’t think I’d be able to perform again and jump back in and so it’s like, I kind of just followed the fear I guess, but also the joy.
BNP: Is that what you would recommend for young writers, follow your fears?
EA: Yea I think maybe, like most often what you are most afraid of is failing ,but like if you just follow what that leap would be. How many people don’t write a book because oh it won’t ever get published, but if you just write it who knows right? I mean I started writing The Poet X not knowing what the F this was going to be. I mean I was a middle school English teacher. I had applied for an MFA where it was all very serious, very academic poetry, like looks and sounds this way and I’m writing a young adult novel on the corner and a fantasy novel, right. Like genre fiction to the side. Then it’s young adult which you know people don’t even want to deal with. I was doing such, in my head like nothing that made sense but felt like, no this is a story I think is really dope like I would have loved reading a story about a Latinx witch. I would have killed for that when I was young. I think it was just following that door even though I didn’t know what it would lead to. My first tour I got maybe two, three schools that are interested. I was like I love teaching but it’s stopping me from being able to perform and I quit teaching with three shows on the horizon. And it was just like well… You know I think I built myself up for that. I saved enough, you know I was very frugal. I was smart about it but it was a lot of leaps and a lot of following the fear.
BNP: I remember you telling a story about being deathly afraid of performing, wishing something would happen to cancel the event.
EA: It was bad, it was bad. I would be sitting there wishing, I hope no one shows up, I hope no one shows up. I think what it really was, I think I’ve had anxiety my whole life and I think the anxiety I had on stage to be perfect. To perform perfectly, you can’t mumble, you can’t miss a word, you can’t mess up, you can’t miss transitions, that kind of pressure got so massive and I had two performances where I blanked on stage. So it just felt like that fear was realized. So I think it was all of that coupled together of this intense fear of I am going to mess up on stage I’ve already done it, it’s already come true like I’m not supposed to do this and it became this self fulfilling thing.
BNP: But you did it, you made it out.
Elizabeth’s Fall Tour
Find more info on Elizabeth’s work at www.acevedowrites.com.
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