National Poetry Month Spotlight: @AcevedoWrites-Writer, Performer, Educator
by: Tamika Burgess - Writer, Blogger, Editor I’ll never forget the first time I heard her words. It was December of 2012. Somehow I had stumbled upon a video on YouTube of Elizabeth Acevedo performing her poem, “Tumbao.” It was her words that captured me—“It’s the way our hips skip to the beat of Cumbia, Merengue, y Salsa,”—and had me shouting YESSSSS at my computer screen.
“We are the unforeseen children born out of cultural wedlock-
hair too kinky for Spain, too wavy for dreadlocks- so our palms tell the cuentos
of many tierras: read our lifelines.”
And it’s still her words that have kept my attention for all these years.
Born to Dominican immigrants, Elizabeth’s words have taken her places she never imagined while growing up in New York City. Whether performing internationally or at a local bookstore—where I met her last month, Elizabeth is just as humble and down to earth as a poet who is just starting out.
She has been featured on BET and Mun2, has graced the stages at Madison Square Garden and Lincoln Center, and has also delivered a Tedx Talk about being present. Most recently Elizabeth compiled her poems into a self-published book titled, Birth-Marked.
And with all of this, it’s still her words. The words she delivers with style and confidence. The words that touch the listener because they are relatable, personable, and motivating. And the way she puts these words together keeps me waiting to hear more.
In celebration of National Poetry Month, Elizabeth shares how she got her start in poetry, advice for other poets, and more.
When and why did you first start writing poetry? How old were you?
I was about eight or nine. I used to love making up songs and so my love for poetry grew first from songwriting, and wanting to share my thoughts and ideas.
How soon after you started writing poetry, did you start performing it?
I started performing poetry when I was about twelve. I was part of a youth group in Harlem that used theatre and poetry as a means for social change. When I was fourteen I went to my first poetry slam and life as I knew it changed. It was then that I really began studying performance and taking it more seriously.
What is the single event or the exact moment you knew you had to keep going with your poetry (Entering contests, etc.)?
I feel like “the single event” happens several times in one’s lifetime. It’s almost like a constant re-committing to the art form. For example, when I was a freshman in college I decided to create my own performance art major which was basically a fancier way to say I was committed to learning how to write and perform poetry. The first time I made a business card was a big deal because it was the first moment I invested in myself as an artist and creating a brand to signify that. However, the most recent event that really solidified some things for me was winning the 2014 National Poetry Slam. For so long people have been telling me the stories I have to tell are necessary. All of a sudden I was on this huge platform, and my videos were going viral, and people knew who I was and it was like, “Oh, I guess I’m doing this then.”
What do you get out of performing? What does it do for you?
Performing scares the fuck out of me. Can I curse? If not, let’s modify to “heck.” But, yea. That’s what it does. It reminds me I’m imperfect. It reminds me I’m alive. It reminds me that I’m vulnerable. And from those reminders emerges the understanding that these things are necessary to connect. And that’s the fun part about performing. When you realize this moment that happened in your personal life, or a thought you had that you didn’t think anyone agreed with, actually has the power to bring you closer to a stranger. It’s remarkable, really.
How do you come up with poem topics (Are they all based on your life? Or things/subjects you’re passionate about, etc.)
Poem topics usually come from my life. Something interesting someone says or does. An interaction that impacts me. It also comes from mundane moments like riding the train, or waiting on-line for my lunch. Anything and everything has the power to wind up in my work which is probably why I have poems about rats, and women with facial hair, and rape culture, and black lives matter—I’m inspired by many things.
I’ve had the honor of seeing you perform twice now, and you deliver your words with such passion, ease, and confidence. Where does that come from?
Practice. Faking it until I make it. Honestly, the passion has always been something I performed with. When I was younger I would yell every poem. I would leave the stage shaking because I exerted so much energy in my delivery. I’ve learned since to use silence and nuances to get across a varied performance. But the ease and confidence comes totally from practice. Knowing the words and stories so well that the stage doesn’t feel too scary. I give myself a pep talk every time I perform, whether the performance is for five people or five hundred, I remind myself why the poems and connections are important and I think that helps boost my belief in myself.
What advice do you have for those considering writing poetry or those who are just starting out?
Read and listen to a lot of poetry. Support artists who are already doing the work. Learn from them. Find your voice—the quality that makes it unique. Focus on experience and don’t ever underestimate the power of figurative language. Then write, write, and write some more.