“I read the poems so often and edit so much
that I begin memorizing them by accident
until my head is full of words and stories,
until I’m practicing the poems in my dreams.
And the more I write the braver I become.”
–from “Longest Week” in The Poet X
Elizabeth Acevedo is the author of The Poet X, a New York Times bestseller, With the Fire on High, and Clap When You Land, her new book due out in May 2020. Her critically acclaimed debut novel, The Poet X, won the 2018 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. She is also the recipient of the Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Fiction, the CILIP Carnegie Medal, and the Boston Globe-Hornbook Award. Additionally, she was honored with the 2019 Pure Belpré Author Award for celebrating, affirming, and portraying Latinx culture and experience. She holds a BA in Performing Arts from The George Washington University and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Maryland. Acevedo has been a fellow of Cave Canem, Cantomundo, and a participant in the Callaloo Writer’s Workshops. She is a National Poetry Slam Champion, and resides in Washington, DC with her love.
Matthew Burgess interviewed Elizabeth Acevedo by telephone on Wednesday, March 25, 2020. Both were sheltering in place due to COVID-19; Matthew in Brooklyn, New York, and Elizabeth in Washington, DC.
Matthew: While reading The Poet X, I was struck by the vivid depictions of the classroom. More than any work of fiction that I can think of, your novel transports the reader into this space that has been formative for so many—the circle of young people writing and sharing their work with one another with the encouragement and guidance of a teacher.
Elizabeth: I think that’s a dope entry point. I’m excited to talk with you about it. There are many different themes and questions that come up for people with The Poet X, but I haven’t talked about how I was thinking about classroom culture and classroom norms, and about how to be the kind of teacher who is supportive while also not overextending yourself. A teacher who does a lot and thinks about how to let students come to you.
Matthew: It starts right up front with the dedication: “To Katherine Bolaños and my former students at Buck Lodge Middle School and all my little sisters, yearning to see themselves: this is for you.” Already we glimpse you, the author, as both a student and a teacher. Could you speak to how these experiences influenced the story?
Elizabeth: When I was in middle school I had an incredible teacher who was really supportive. His name is Phil Bildner and he is now a middle-grade writer. At that time, though, he was not an author yet, he was a sixth-grade English teacher. And he was so incredible at finding the books I needed. He always had a book ready, and though I was already a big reader, I became a voracious reader because of this teacher. I would be in the middle of a book and he would be like, “All right, and this is the one I think you should read next.” So I had a book pusher, and there was something special about him reading these books and then thinking, okay, I know exactly who needs this. It felt like such a gift. But the dedication of The Poet X is actually an echo of The First Part Last, written by Angela Johnson. Angela Johnson dedicated that book to me and to all the students at my school. I was also thinking about the students that I had taught, who asked for books like this one. I wanted my book to be part of this lineage of supportive classrooms and teachers and of finding the right book for the right kid.
I’ve also had experiences, particularly in poetry classrooms in college and graduate school, where my work was critiqued in a way that wouldn’t happen to white, straight, cis men. When I was told, “Well, this sounds too inner city,” or heard questions like, “Where are these images being sourced from?” it felt like I was being told not only that I might not be a writer, but that I was not even real. When you’re writing about yourself and your community, about your people, that is a wild thing to be told, that the poem just doesn’t read real enough. And I’m like, “Well, what is your real? What is the real that you know? And how does that play into these discussions of craft? Because you’re not saying the writing is ineffective, or if you are saying that, then say that.”
Matthew: How did these experiences as a student inform your practice as a teacher?
Elizabeth: I came from Teach For America, and I had all these really grand ideas of what I was going to do, and all of that flew out the window after the first week when I was in front of actual, 13 year-old human beings who need you to be so much. I quickly realized I was going to have to rely really heavily on the teachers in my school, the administrators in my school, and the support network to serve these students the best I could. A lot of what I learned about classroom culture and taking care of kids was from the other teachers around me, who had been veteran teachers for a long time, who really helped.
Matthew: In The Poet X, Xiomara has an English teacher who encourages her to write poetry and to see herself as a writer. When you were younger, did you have a Ms. Galiano?
Elizabeth: Ms. Galiano is a composite of a bunch of different folks. I was fortunate to have had a lot of educators who were supporters, and who realized that what I would need to succeed might be different than what other students needed, and figured out how to help me get that. I had Phil Bildner, who I mentioned earlier, and then in high school there was a teacher named Abby Lublin, who ran the poetry club. I went to Beacon High School [a New York City public school], and on one of the first days at school they were having an org fair, where you had to walk around the gym and visit all these organizations, and one of them was the Live Poets Society. I remember this teacher who spoke to me asked, “Do you write?” And I replied, “I mean, I rap, but I don’t write poetry.” And she said, “Oh, you should come to our club.” I was like, “I don’t think you heard me. I’m not a poet, I’m a rapper.” And I’m looking at her like, I don’t know what y’all be playing around with, but that’s not… I remember her little hot smirk as she said, “Rap is poetry. I don’t know what the world has told you, but you can come do whatever you want.”
I showed up. I was skeptical, but I showed up, and it opened up a new world. To see other teenage poets writing at such a high level and writing in ways so wildly differently from how I wrote. I mean, I had homies who were also rapping, I was showing up once a week to these workshops in Harlem. But it was all hip-hop based, and here was something that kind of broke open what I considered a poem could do and it began with small kernels, like me thinking “Well, maybe I can try an experiment with these other styles and see what happens and what comes with it.”
Lublin was a fierce, fierce advocate of mine. I mean, to this day, we talk and we text, and I wrote part of The Poet X in her house in Upstate New York. We’re friends now. So Abby and Phil, and other teachers as well are my Galiano teachers, those who see something special in students and find ways to empower them.
When a student is given permission to be honest and no one has to look at this unless you want someone to look at it, and this is just for you to play and experiment with for ten minutes a day, that’s huge. That’s like being a kid at playtime, in a space where they don’t feel like they have to be performing. There’s something really liberating about that.
Matthew: There are these beautiful passages in The Poet X that describe the kind of inspiring classroom that I believe in and try to create. For example, in the poem, “First Poetry Club Meeting,” Xiomara, the book’s narrator, describes her classmates’ different poetic styles. She identifies what is particular to each poet in the circle. The way that she moves from person to person and describes so beautifully what it is they do, with genuine appreciation, is an example of what a teacher of poetry or a teacher of writing can offer.
Elizabeth: That might have been lifted from how Abby Lublin ran the Live Poets Society. Everything else is less autobiographical, but the poetry club was inspired by my memories of Lublin’s style. We didn’t necessarily offer critiques as much as we would go around once a week and ask, what is the thing you heard or noticed in this poem? I remember she would stop all the time and say, wait, we’re not going to talk right now. I just need to sit with that. We would just sit in silence for 45 seconds and reflect on the person’s work and then hear lines I loved. There was a lot of positive reinforcement of the skills that people were showing, skills that they could lean into. Right?
We were learning how to be critical while still maintaining a space where people could be comfortable creating new work, people who’d never had that kind of space. You didn’t want to scare anyone. I think that was probably Abby’s tactic. To be welcoming. You learn that quickly. You sit in a circle, you listen the entire time the person is reading, you might have them read it again, if you need to hear it one more time. Then you reflect and you move to the next person. And it’s important that the process is democratic—there’s no star.
Everyone was encouraged to slam. We were encouraged to read, to perform, to reflect on each other’s work and then to compete from such varying styles. I think it showed me at that age how many different kinds of poems can succeed and how many different kinds of voices can occupy a space and be in harmony. This is not something I had thought about before, but I feel like I definitely tried to layer that into the poet in the book.
Matthew: In the poem “When I’m Done,” the character Xiomara writes: “I can’t remember / the last time people were silent / while I spoke, actually listening.” This is one of the qualities of a good teacher—to ability to listen and to create a space where students can discover and cultivate their voices.
Elizabeth: This probably hit home more when I was teaching then when I was a student. I felt heard when I was a student. I had a lot of different outlets. I was part of a lot of nonprofit organizations and different programs. There was usually at least one adult who would ask, “how are you?” and genuinely wanted to know.
When I was teaching I would have students who were really quiet, who I felt I didn’t really know, and who didn’t want me to know them or didn’t know how to open up. I couldn’t place my finger on, are they okay? Are they getting this? What does this kid need? I realized that so much of it was just asking the right questions. Asking several questions over and over and letting them know, I’m listening to your answers and I’m responding to you.
Matthew: Listening, and also responding. Tuning to the individual and trying to offer a response that allows that person to feel seen.
Elizabeth: Right. Especially at that age. You’re still very much a child. But you’re being given responsibilities at home and at school that maybe feel a lot more grown up. You’re in this in-between place. I think the listening is crucial for making kids feel safe. It’s through that feeling of safety that students will flourish or where you’ll see where they’re hitting a roadblock and can then pivot accordingly.
Matthew: Why is poetry particularly liberating in a way that other forms of writing might not be? What is it about poetry that can offer something to students that they might not get elsewhere?
Elizabeth: I think there’s a novelty for students to be asked to write about themselves. The school room doesn’t often feel like a place where they can bring in their outside self. Their interests, their hurts, their heartbreaks. Right? That’s not for the classroom. Those are the things you deal with privately or personally. When you are in a classroom space and someone gives you permission to take ten minutes to reflect on you, that is big.
But this depends on how people bring poetry in, right? If you’re coming in and you’re grading a poem or you’re forcing students to read poetry out loud… That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about uncensored. I’m not looking over your shoulder. I will only read this if you want me to read this. If you want to read it out loud, I will make space for you to do that. This is your space to be honest.
When a student is given permission to be honest and no one has to look at this unless you want someone to look at it, and this is just for you to play and experiment with for ten minutes a day, that’s huge. That’s like being a kid at playtime, in a space where they don’t feel like they have to be performing. There’s something really liberating about that. No part of your creativity—nothing is unavailable to you. It does feel playful in a way that other writing may not.
Matthew: I couldn’t agree more. It’s funny because a few minutes ago you were describing your reaction when you were approached by Abby Lublin. You heard the word “poetry” and you thought, nope, that’s not what I do. The word poetry is so loaded that students might think that we’re talking about sonnets and rules and rhyme schemes when actually we’re talking about freedom and permission and no rules.
Elizabeth: When I’m teaching poetry workshops these days, I’m also giving a presentation. They see me recite a poem, they see me read from The Poet X, they’ve heard a little bit of my story and they realize, Oh shit, that’s poetry.
a poem is an attempt to write down a human experience in the least amount of words possible.
When I come into the classroom I always start with my definition of poetry. This might be different than other folks’ definition, but for me, a poem is an attempt to write down a human experience in the least amount of words possible. I think that is a very simplified definition, but it gives students enough room to say, well, I’ve had things happen. I’ve had moments in my life that reverberated. That’s a human experience, right? All I’m trying to do is be as efficient with language in getting that moment across. It adds enough structure that students feel like they have something to work with. There aren’t necessarily rules. The container is yours to craft.
Matthew: I love that. We almost have to begin by redefining poetry or opening up people’s ideas about what poetry is or can be.
Elizabeth: When teachers tell me, I just don’t know how to teach poetry, I wonder: what kinds of questions are you asking? Stop asking kids what a poem means. It has no utility really. It assumes an answer, which is never a poet’s job. I’d rather ask what does the speaker wonder about that was interesting to you? What was an image that struck you? What was a point in the language that felt fraught or felt charged?
These kinds of questions help students access text that maybe they are afraid of. From there, they start finding their way: Oh wait, if I’m saying that this image made this feeling come up for me, and then this other piece of language is bumping up in a weird way… The poet is using really aggressive verbs. Then we can start asking, what’s happening? To me this feels like a different approach. Yes, kids are afraid of poetry because teachers are afraid of poetry. Because we’re asking the wrong questions.
Matthew: I’ve recently started calling it “imaginative writing” as a temporary alternative. Then, once we find our way in, poetry always circles back and taps you on the shoulder and you can reintroduce it. I noticed many terrific prompts or invitations to writing that are mentioned in The Poet X. What kinds of prompts do you use with students?
Elizabeth: It really depends on the age group and on the setting. I work a lot with memory. One of my prompts is to ask my students: When was a time that someone said something to you and you were unable to speak back? There’s a lot that can come up with that, different moments when they tried to talk or when someone yelled something at them out of the car window and then drove off so they couldn’t yell anything back. Or, my parents want me to clean my room and then I slammed the door and I couldn’t tell her what I was going through. So they’re coming up with all of these different moments and I ask them to narrow it down to the three that they are most interested in. Then from the three they have to pick one.
I tell them there are two things I want you to consider. The first is, does this moment have enough charge to it that you could write for the next seven to ten minutes? Is there enough there that you want to think about or that you can picture or remember that you actually can write? But then the second thing is, and this was something I added on over time, I want you to feel safe. I know that you may not have done this kind of writing before. Are you ready? If you’re not ready to look at that yet, it’s okay if you want to write about that at home; it’s okay if you never write about that and this just came up for you. Leave it alone. But which is the one that you feel like, “Okay, I can do it. I’m far enough from this and I’m okay.”
This is putting a little bit of an onus on the student to be able to reflect on their own emotional capacity but I think it gives students an out from writing the hardest thing. Students tend to find that middle ground of, “Okay, this is one that I’m excited about or angry about, but not to the point where I’m going to lose it.” Then it allows me to pay attention to the one or two students who maybe went for something a little harder and I can then navigate this with them. This approach gives a kind of an exit from what I remember in certain workshops in my past, which was write the hardest thing in this space in ten minutes and then read it out loud while we watch you process your grief.
I’m very, very explicit about this before a kid ever writes. I do not want to retraumatize you. This is not what the point of this workshop is. If this is a traumatic experience that you have not been able to process and you cannot write about it here, that’s okay. If you need to go to guidance, if you need us, I got you.
Matthew: You just broke this down in a way that is so clear and useful. I do something similar where we free-write a list of memories and then I’ll say, we’re going to choose one or two to develop into a poem or essay. I might say, “Choose one that’s calling to you and that has a certain charge to it, but if it feels too overwhelming, then maybe don’t choose that one.” It’s similar to what you’re doing.
Elizabeth: It’s exactly the same. And when I have students who are like “I can’t think of anything,” then I have backup prompts for those kids. For example, “Well, what’s a time when you said something that maybe you wish you could apologize for? What would that apology sound like?” Then they’re able to decide what feels comfortable in that moment. I think as a teacher it’s helpful to have a lot of backup plans.
Matthew: Yes. If you’re giving a student permission, they might need to hear it seven or more times before they can take that permission.
Elizabeth: Now that we’re talking about teaching practice, I think students are also giving each other permission. They’re constantly hearing from each other and they’re seeing the kind of permission that kids are getting to write about all kinds of things, which reinforces what I said so they know that I’m not just saying it. I’m here pushing all of the different ideas that come up and giving room for every image.
Matthew: I have a craft question. When reading The Poet X I was struck by your line breaks and the way you negotiate the page. Do you have any strategies for teaching that level of craft with students?
Elizabeth: This is my favorite question. I’m like “Let’s talk about line breaks!” I think it’s hard to teach. I don’t have any easy answer for you, but I think we can edit in multiple ways. Sometimes we’re editing with our ear and so the pauses and the breaks are where they are because we’re paying attention to breath, and we’re paying attention to rhythm. That line has to end there because when I’m saying it out loud, that is where the pause is. That’s where the natural break is. That was how I first learned to write and that makes sense with hip hop; you end the line at the fourth beat, wherever that rhymes. It’s all breath driven. How much you can you get into the one line based off of your breath.
For a long time, I wanted to push people to only deal with line breaks visually: well how does it look? I’ve had to step away and realize, well no, they might not aesthetically be doing what I would want to do, but that’s not my piece of writing. Maybe you are someone who edits with their ear and let’s talk about what that is. If you don’t do that, maybe that’s something you want to play with, too. What’s the word we want to start on? You don’t want to end with an article because that’s usually not a strong way to end a line. You want to think about if you’re ending with a verb, is there momentum in that? Is the verb doing something in the line? Then we can get into more specific things. But it’s always, what is the connection between that last word in that line and the next one, what is the language doing and is it purposeful? Is it doing something for the rest of the poem? Is it doing something to propel the poem forward?
I think that’s hard to teach because so much of it is gut. This is something I wouldn’t usually bring up unless I was working with undergraduates and above, because it’s important for people to have a sense of their process and their voice before you start thinking about whether you have translated your voice as clearly and as effectively as possible on the page. I don’t think you can get there until you have an idea of voice first.
Matthew: I like the idea of approaching this from the standpoint of breath and also the visual quality of the poem on the page. It’s so fun when a student gets excited by the discussion of structure and line breaks. It’s also about a feeling of rightness, that these choices are deliberate and effective.
I also wanted to ask you about the idea of creating “mirrors” in literature for young people. I grew up as a gay kid in a large Catholic family, so your depiction of Xiomara’s twin brother Xavier really moved me. When I was young, there weren’t any books that reflected my experience as a gay Catholic kid in the closet. This idea of creating characters who will function as “mirrors” for your readers, is this important to you?
Elizabeth: It’s hard to write from a community of people who have not been represented in literature in ways that feel tender. And so I have to carry: Am I getting it right? I’m also having to consider moments when I think, I’m going to have to push here. For example, in Clap When You Land, the Dominican mother gives her daughter $20 to buy a Valentines gift for her girlfriend. This might not be exactly how a typical mother would act, right? She might not say, “Yo, I know you and I love you and I support you and anything you do.” But it also felt important to challenge and to push my own perspective of what I think we are, and who we are, and who we can be.
So I am writing mirrors and that feels important, and I’m also pushing back against what I think a mirror can do or be, or how big it can be, or how much it can hold. Every single one of my books has a character who’s queer, and their queerness isn’t the point of that character. That isn’t the only reason they’re there. It’s not a plot point. It’s just that is the world and I try to give joy and full arcs for that. I want kids, particularly from marginalized groups who maybe have to deal with really harsh cultural stigmas to know you are loved and you are seen and you are here, and you don’t die in this book and you don’t get abducted in this book. You are a love interest in this book. Right? That feels important. That feels critical that it be brown kids and black kids and queer kids who have those kinds of stories in my books, so that’s very intentional.
I want kids, particularly from marginalized groups who maybe have to deal with really harsh cultural stigmas to know you are loved and you are seen and you are here, and you don’t die in this book and you don’t get abducted in this book. You are a love interest in this book. Right? That feels important. That feels critical that it be brown kids and black kids and queer kids who have those kinds of stories in my books, so that’s very intentional.
Matthew: I’m currently advising an undergraduate senior thesis for a student who grew up in a Chinese family in Puerto Rico. She identifies as a Latina, but she isn’t immediately legible as a Latina within the larger Latinx community. As a girl, as a young reader, she didn’t see herself reflected in the books she read. Now she is writing her thesis about the increasing racial and cultural diversity in YA literature, and The Poet X is one the texts she is focusing on.
Elizabeth: What I imagine a lot of us are trying to do is say the story is still a story. This is still an adventure story. This is still a story about a kid who wants to be a chef. This is still a story about a kid who is a poet. That’s the story. There are also rich cultural and racial elements that make a story different than the ones that we’ve read a hundred times, right, that makes it different than what the canon has offered, because I think we have to get through the stage where we are allowed to see and hear characters be fully themselves, and fully reflect where they’re from, and acknowledge that too is literature, and that too is language, and that too is craft. Let’s acknowledge that whiteness is written, even if it’s not written there. It’s not like white authors have removed race and identity from what they’re writing. It’s the default so we don’t consider the fact that they are writing whiteness.
Matthew: Thank you so much. I’m excited to share your thoughts with her, and I know that she will find this helpful.
Elizabeth: Thank you, Matthew. It was so nice to talk with you for an hour and a half where we discuss something other than the coronavirus. Yes, poetry and craft and literature and teaching and all of this still exists.
Special thanks to Elizabeth Acevedo and HarperCollins Children’s Books for permission to include the following poem from The Poet X:
Every Day after English Class
Ms. Galiano asks me to read her something new.
With five minutes between classes,
I know I need to pick the best and shortest pieces in advance.
But every day I pick a new poem and I have learned:
to slow down, to breathe, to pace myself, to show emotion.
The last day before winter break
Ms. Galiano tells me I’m really blossoming.
And I think about what it means
to be a closed bud, to become open.
And even though it’s cliché, it’s also perfect.
When I see Stephan in the hallway,
he reads me his latest haiku.
When I see Chris on my way to the train,
he always has a smile for me
and a “Wassup, X! Write anything new?”
And I know that I’m ready to slam.
That my poetry has become something I’m proud of.
The way the words say what I mean,
how they twist and turn language,
how they connect with people.
How they build community.
I finally know that all of those
“I’ll never, ever, ever”
stemmed from being afraid but not even they
can stop me. Not anymore.
–Elizabeth Acevedo, The Poet X
Matthew Burgess is an Assistant Professor at Brooklyn College. He is the author of a poetry collection, Slippers for Elsewhere, and several children’s books, including Enormous Smallness: A Story of E. E. Cummings and The Unbudgeable Curmudgeon. He recently edited a collection of original lessons and prompts titled Spellbound: The Art of Teaching Poetry (Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 2019). Matthew has been a teaching artist with T&W since 2001, and he also serves as a contributing editor of Teachers & Writers Magazine. His new book, Drawing on Walls: A Story of Keith Haring is forthcoming in May 2020. To learn more about what he’s working on, visit www.matthewjohnburgess.com.