“Write Your Rats”: Elizabeth Acevedo and The Poet X
Elizabeth Acevedo is a slam poet and used to teach middle-school before she turned to writing books— and you can tell from the moment she steps onto the stage. She’s wearing sweatpants, her signature curls are flawless, and she’s one of those writers who talks exactly the way she writes. The crowd— filled with students from the Latin American Youth Center, all clutching fresh copies of The Poet X—is immediately enraptured.
We’re at the Duende District pop-up at Bloom Bars in Columbia Heights, where Acevedo reads from her new young adult novel-in-verse, The Poet X, which debuted at number twelve on The New York Times YA hardcover bestseller list. The Poet X tells the story of Xiomara Batista, a Dominican-American teenager growing up in Harlem who finds her voice in poetry. The book is dedicated to “all the little sisters yearning to see themselves.”
Acevedo tells the students that she set out to write The Poet X when she was teaching at Buck Lodge Middle School in Maryland (where many of them go to school). One of her students said she couldn’t see herself in the YA texts she was reading and that she wanted to read books she could relate to. Acevedo hit the bookstores and returned with The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz— and all the other books she could find that featured protagonists of color. A few weeks later, the student came back and asked for more. “That’s it,” Acevedo had to say. “There’s no more.”
Acevedo is honest about her struggles to find her voice as a writer in a world where there are so few models to follow, and so few stories about the Dominican-American experience. In a poetry class, she confronted the issue head-on. There were a lot of poems about flowers and trees that semester, but as a New York City native, she couldn’t relate. So she wrote a poem about NYC’s iconic fauna: the rat.
The ensuing disagreement with her professor about the poetic potential of rats was a turning point for Acevedo. She realized that she had to carve out a space for herself, to find a way into writing that reflected her own experiences, and so she wrote a poem For the Poet Who Told Me Rats Aren’t Noble Enough Creatures for a Poem.
It is this honesty that makes the voice of Xiomara endearing, sharp-eyed, and authentic from the book’s opening lines:
The summer is made for stoop-sitting
and since it’s the last week before school starts,
Harlem is opening its eyes to September.
I scope out this block I’ve always called home.
Watch the old church ladies, chancletas flapping
against the pavement, their mouths letting loose a train
of island Spanish as they spread he said, she said.
Acevedo’s work is all about bringing visibility to an underrepresented Afro-Latinx and Latinx community, a perfect match for Duende District, “a bookstore by and for people of color—where all are welcome.” After Acevedo’s reading, I watch as the students kneel in front of Duende’s YA section, examining books like Children of Blood and Bone and They Both Die in the End. They look at books like Dhonielle Clayton’s The Belles, Nonieqa Ramos’ The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary, and Zoraida Córdova’s Labyrinth Lost. The students, many of them girls, whisper in reverent tones as they count out their pocket money. “Which one are you getting?” they say, “Help me pick.”
During the question and answer period (“I know y’all got questions and don’t forget I used to be a teacher. I can wait”), Acevedo emphasizes the importance of writing—not only as a way of filling Duende’s bookshelves with new stories, but as a way of processing your thoughts and making sense of the world. And for those who do wonder about writing careers and the work of writing books, Acevedo has a simple word of advice. “Write what’s true to you,” she says. “Write your rats.”
The Poet X (HarperCollins, 2018) is Acevedo’s second book. Her first was a collection of poems titled Beast Girl & Other Origin Myths (YesYes Books, 2016) She is already working on her next book. Acevedo was born and raised in New York City and holds a BA in Performing Arts from George Washington University and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Maryland. In the DMV area, she’ll be appearing at the East City Bookshop on April 16th at 6PM and at the Split This Rock Festival on April 20th.
Image: Author Website
Yohanca Delgado is editor-in-chief at Café MFA and a second-year candidate in American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.