On February 1, poet Elizabeth Acevedo was performing in the midtown office of Catholic magazine America. She had hopped straight on a bus from her home in Washington, D.C., to make the 7 p.m. event, which was filled to capacity. Acevedo, thirty, is known primarily for her slam poetry. She’s a charming performer with a powerful voice, big hair, and the casual smile of an old friend. Throughout the night, we, the audience, had become intimately acquainted with Acevedo. She often writes of growing up in Morningside Heights, of being Dominican and Afro-Latina. She mentioned that she was raised Catholic and that her mother is still heavily involved in the church. But she also seemed tickled by the invitation to read for the magazine. “Brother Hoover,” she joked to our host for the evening, “I’m quite blasphemous.”
It’s true that Acevedo isn’t the stereotypical Catholic poet — she doesn’t even identify as Catholic — but her new verse novel, The Poet X, deftly handles topics of faith, poetry, and family. Acevedo has written two poetry collections already. The first, a chapbook called Beastgirl & Other Origin Myths (2016), examines Dominican folklore. The second, a full-length collection, Medusa Reads La Negra’s Palm, will be released from Tupelo Press. She earned her B.A. in performing arts from the George Washington University and went on to earn her M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Maryland.
The Poet X is Acevedo’s first novel, inspired by teaching eighth-grade English in a school that served primarily Latinx students. It follows fifteen-year-old Xiomara Batista, who struggles to reconcile her mother’s devotion to Catholicism with her own values as she prepares for confirmation. Secretly, she starts performing poetry and dating boys, her fractured life captured in a journal she hides from her family. Xiomara’s coming-of-age tale is a universal one, but it’s also delightfully and unapologetically Caribbean. She lives in Harlem and travels to a public school full of kids from different walks of life. Her crush is a Trinidadian kid from the Bronx who loves to ice skate. Xiomara is often made to kneel on rice as punishment, and at one point Xiomara’s mother threatens to send her to the Dominican Republic if she doesn’t get confirmed. Xiomara writes, “I look at her scarred knuckles./I know exactly how she was taught/faith.” Moments like these are quieter than Acevedo’s usual m.o., but build to paint sumptuous portraits of the people in Xiomara’s life.
“It was difficult for me to learn that not every single piece had to be a self-contained poem,” says Acevedo. “Some of the pieces work as hinges or transitions to connect the more self-fulfilled poems.” These pieces can read dryly at times, but they also present opportunity for invention. Xiomara records conversations that read in a manner reminiscent of notes being passed back and forth in class. After an intense line of questioning Xiomara poses in confirmation class, her best friend, the pious Caridad, scolds her. Xiomara notes the exchange:
X: I know, I know. But…they were just questions.
Aren’t priests obligated to confidentiality?
C: That wasn’t a confession, Xiomara.
X Doesn’t Say: Wasn’t it?
Acevedo’s sense of play with Xiomara’s journal is refreshing. We get to watch Xiomara reinvent herself, trying on costume after costume to see what fits. For a school assignment on the most impactful moment of her life, she drafts a poem about trying to use tampons for the first time. “Mami put her hand out but didn’t take them./Instead she backhanded me so quick she cut open my lip.” She quickly swaps this take out for a final draft about receiving her first journal, a birthday present from her twin brother. “In some ways, it seemed like he was saying that my thoughts were important.” The second story, more sanitized than the first, hints at the creative potential that can come from a mother’s backhand and a bloody lip.
Acevedo says she didn’t keep a traditional journal growing up, but that she wrote consistently. In fact, she says it’s hard to pinpoint the moment she started writing and slamming. “I was raised among storytellers and great music, and all of that fused together. As far back as I can remember I was making up rhymes and singing.” Acevedo is the youngest of three and the only girl. Her mother was a childcare provider and her father worked in an envelope factory in Queens. At the reading, she spoke fondly of her older brothers teaching her about rap. That gave way to performing poetry with organizations like Urban Word NYC. When she was fourteen, a teacher encouraged her to attend her first slam performance.
Like Acevedo, Xiomara enters the world of slam at a teacher’s behest. At school, Xiomara doesn’t garner much attention. During lunch, she spends her time scribbling in journals and fighting off boundary-crossing boys, unless Ms. Galiano, a young English teacher, is on duty. “If it’s not, I have to hope/it’s another teacher/who gives a damn/about the quiet girls/in the corner,” she laments. Ms. Galiano eventually becomes something of a mentor to Xiomara, encouraging her to join the poetry club and attend spoken word performances.
Acevedo has been vocal in praising teachers who encouraged her to perform. But she also notes that higher education “can be extremely isolating for students of color, especially if those students come from poverty-stricken environments.” In previous performances, she’s been candid about the struggles she herself underwent while earning her M.F.A. Her poem “Rat Ode” was inspired by the marginalization she sometimes felt in her program, where professors casually dismissed her point of view. After hearing that she wanted to write a poem about the ingenuity of the New York City rat, a professor chided her, saying, “Rats aren’t noble enough creatures for poems. I think you need more life experience.” She tells the story often before performing “Rat Ode.” Her ability to speak candidly about these uncomfortable moments makes the story ring true every time.
But she remains encouraging to her followers. “I had to learn that my voice had a lot to offer the room,” she tells me later, “and that even if the folk in a room weren’t going to be the readers of my work in the long run, that didn’t mean that I didn’t have an audience somewhere who would relate to my writing.” This message has garnered her a dedicated following of young girls. On Instagram and Twitter, Acevedo has accumulated a small army of admirers who anticipate her next show the way music fans await a new single. At her America magazine reading, the crowd was diverse, but the most enthusiastic members were teen girls of color, who seemed intimately familiar with Acevedo’s work and performances.
If the journal is a place of reinvention for Xiomara, then Ms. Galiano’s poetry club is a site of performance. Xiomara chooses the titular “X” as her slam name, declaring herself a mystery and a target. It sounds like a spy’s code name or superhero’s sobriquet, fitting for a girl who wears so many masks. Almost as soon as she settles into this identity, the neatly drawn divisions in her life start to crumble, culminating in an emotional standoff between Xiomara and her mother. “Will you burn me? Will you burn me, too?/You would burn me, wouldn’t you, if you could?” Xiomara asks her mother as she sets her journal ablaze.
In a comic book, the threat of being unmasked is among the most serious consequences a protagonist can suffer, but it can also be a sign of radical trust. Acevedo writes this teenage breakdown with convincing rage, but she is equally compassionate in illustrating a mother unmoored. “You think I don’t know/enough English to figure out you talk about boys/and church and me? To know all these terrible things you think?” she asks Xiomara when she finds her journal. With no place to hide, the two are forced to confront each other as they are, as would any growing “quiet girl in the corner” and the people who love her.
The Poet X
By Elizabeth Acevedo