Having been able to turn a love for poetry into a full-fledged career, Elizabeth Acevedo shares how she overcame her fears and bulldozed through any barriers presented to her, sharing that her skin color, gender, and ethnic upbringing have made for valuable writing material.
Name: Elizabeth Acevedo
Location: Washington DC
Profession: Writer, Performer, & Educator
I’ve always loved that a poem can be carried in the body. That unlike a novel, or a song that might require musical accompaniment, reciting a poem needs nothing but a willing voice. Not even a microphone, or clapping, or a melody. It can travel with you, it resides in you. I was raised by storytellers, and bolero and hip-hop, and the city sounds fused with my mother’s memories of Dominican campos. My origin is somewhere in that mixture of genres and language. As far back as I can remember I was making up rhymes and singing. When I was twelve I decided I wasn’t a good singer and so I wanted to be a rapper and that morphed into performed poetry and now I am a writer in all the forms that title encompasses.
What were three of the key steps you took once you decided to become a poet?
I’ve been writing and performing poetry over half my life. So it’s hard for me to pinpoint the exact moment I made a decision to become something I already was. I did, however, unintentionally make moves that I look back at now and realize were taking steps towards making my dream of being an artist a reality.
- I found and continue to surround myself with mentors. Women of color who are writers and poets, in advanced stages of their career who I can call upon or look to for guidance.
- I dedicated myself fully to the craft. I took creative writing classes, I established a peer group I trust with critiquing my work, I applied for fellowships to learn and be exposed to different techniques.
- I realized that this is a job. It’s art, it’s fulfilling, it makes me happy. But it’s also a job. I need to keep good records of my time and my money. I need to ensure I show up to shows on time and submit work when deadlines are due. And that I needed to handle the business ends of things in addition to the art. Not to monetize the work, but to ensure that I could actually live off of being a poet.
Hope you don’t mind me asking, but is it possible to make a living as a poet?
Yes, ma’am. It’s definitely a hustle and there are different ways that poets do it. Some decide to tour and perform, some decide to become professors, some take on teaching artist gigs with flexible schedules. I don’t believe in the starving artist myth or rather, archetype, at least not for myself. I work hard every day on my writing, I produce work I’m proud of, and I demand just compensation for my craft. So it’s possible.
Why slam poetry in particular?
Hmm. I dedicate myself to a lot of forms of writing. I have a book coming out in the fall that has hardly any poems I perform. I’ve been working on a Young Adult fiction manuscript. And I also perform, but I don’t actually slam often. The competition is fun and it sharpens skills, and forces me to write new poems that can be performed, but I don’t consider myself a slam poet or even a slam veteran. I’m a poet who slams every now and then.
It’s one thing to craft the words of a poem; how do you shape the sound or how it’s delivered?
I grew up with music being a large part of my daily living experience. The Spanish language, which is all we spoke at home, is very musical. I think that sounds naturally come out in my poetry because it’s what I know. The delivery is craft just like the writing is craft. I took a lot of theater and dance classes in college in the hope of incorporating those skills into my work. So I’m highly aware of projection, pace, gesturing, silence. I continue to study what makes a good performance and rehearse with those lessons in mind.
What’s an average day like?
You’ve been touring… all over the world, how did you make that happen?
Most of my tour is comprised of colleges and universities who have seen a video of mine or who have seen me perform and reached out to my agents. The international work is made up of my applying for grants to travel, or from organizations who have heard me speak or watched me teach and want me to do the same in their country. This year I’ve been or will be going to: France, Spain, Belgium, Kosovo, and the Dominican Republic using poetry as a way to teach empowerment and empathy. I think the whole point of art is to drive home empathy. It’s to say, stand in my place for a second. I think this act of empathy when engaging with art makes us better, and kinder human beings.
Biggest challenge so far?
I have to conquer my own fears every day. Every single day. It’s not easy. I show up to schools that have very few people who look like me or who might be able to relate to me and I perform work that could be considered highly controversial. It’s scary. But I still show up and do the poems I need to do. Every day I sit down at the page and wonder if what I’m writing absolutely sucks. If I’m wasting my time. If anyone even cares. And I keep writing anyway. Every day I have to face myself and say: You’re enough. You deserve to be here. Now do the work.
Your greatest achievement so far?
Every time a young person says that I inspired them to write, or that I was telling their story…this is it for me. That’s all I could ever want my work to do. Make people feel seen and heard.
Why do you do it?
I write because there are so many stories I’ve wanted to read that don’t exist. I write because when my mother dies, her stories will die with her unless I tell them. I write because I come from people and communities who would be forgotten or marginalized unless pushed to the forefront. And I write because I know no other way to say: I am here. We are here. We exist.
Let’s Get Deep
How might the experiences of Dominican and African American women be similar? Different?
I certainly think there are a lot of similar experiences often attached to gender, beauty standards, intersectionality. Living our lives as afro-diasporic women inherently holds similarities (and I know not all Dominicans are Afro-disaporic, but 80% of the Dominican population is afro-descendant so I’m generalizing here). And there are certainly contextual differences based off of each country’s history with race and gender. The Dominican Republic does not really have a public discourse on race in the same way that the United States has very specific, and clear dichotomies of where people belong. It’s less blatant in the Dominican Republic and I think you see this in how people think of themselves along national and ethnic lines instead of racial lines.
What might be next for you?
Shameless plug! My poetry collection Beastgirl and Other Origin Myths will be published by Yes Yes Books in October 15 2016 and it grapples with a lot of the topics we’ve talked about today. I’m currently working on a manuscript for a Young Adult verse novel (!). And I will be visiting over 70 colleges, universities, and poetry venues this year while on my poetry tour. Many interesting projects on the way!
Let’s Talk Hair
What are your top 5 go-to hair tips?
- I only wash once a week so my hair doesn’t get as dried out.
- I mainly use all natural and organic products so I’m not sneaking drying agents into my hair.
- Every three weeks I do a deep conditioning using egg, mayo, and olive oil.
- I create a spritzer using whatever anti-frizz product I have on hand and some water. This allows me to refresh my curls without adding too much product every day and creating build up.
- I try new things all the time! I think frizz grows resistant to certain products so I’m always switching it up and giving my curls some new products to chill with.