Interview with Read America(s) Contributor Elizabeth Acevedo

In our most recent installment of the Locked Horn Press Spotlight, LHP editor Carly Joy Miller chats with the luminescent and awe-full Elizabeth Acevedo about myth and myth-making, how she approaches different genres, and, of course, what she locks horns with. Want to know what surprises her when she's on tour, and what her poetry obsessions are? Read on to find out!

CJM: Liz, your poem “La Ciguapa” won our inaugural Locked Horn Press Poetry Prize. We’ve described the poem as “both chronicle and incantation—it weaves story and fact, history and herstory, oppression and expression to create a potent piece of commentary on one corner of our complex and multifaceted America(s).” Would you mind describing your experience of writing this poem? 

EA: I am fascinated by the rich and mythic storytelling that exist in the Dominican Republic. It is a nation where the folkloric weaves seamlessly into the everyday. In researching the his/story of the Ciguapa I was amazed at how the myth has various origins and varying ways of portraying her. I wanted the poem to capture the stop and start of telling a story that has no clean beginning. I wanted to capture what it’s like to be a people that come from so many cultural mixtures that even the most well-known myths have been muddied in the storytelling. But ultimately I was interested in the forgetting of myth, in the forgetting of names.

CJM: You’ve been touring not only the U.S., but Europe as well over the last year. Your poems, “Hair” and “Spear,” have been featured on Cosmopolitan and PBS over the last year as well. How has your work going viral impacted your tour, and what has your experience touring been like thus far?

EA: I’ve been incredibly surprised by the response to some of my work. The fact that hundreds of thousands interact with my poetry is amazing because the poems come from such specific moments and conversations that when writing these pieces I never imagine how many people would see themselves in the writing. For the most part, many audiences that encounter me on tour aren’t always familiar with my work so it’s great to be able to introduce new people to these poems. That being said, sometimes I do the more popular poems and someone in the audience is mouthing the words along with me and it fills me with awe. Here’s a stranger with my words in their mouths, that they’ve memorized and committed to their body. That’s amazing.

CJM: Given that LHP is focused on exploring spaces where conflict exists, what do you “lock horns” with?

EA: Oh, shit. Gender norms. Cultural norms. Colonial mentality. Anti-blackness. Anti-indigeneity. Patriarchy. I’m always plowing into those walls head on.

CJM: You have a chapbook, titled Beastgirl & Other Origin Myths, coming out from YesYes Books this year. And while we’ve been trading emails, we received the news that your full-length poetry collection, Medusa Reads La Negra’s Palm, won Tupelo Press’ Berkshire Prize! You are seriously on fire. What are the chapbook and full-length about? Are they related at all?

EA: The full-length did grow from the chapbook organically. Beastgirl is a contemplation of the myths we forget, the ones we remember, and the myths we make of ourselves and the places we occupy. It has a lot of poems where the speaker is contemplating historical figures in the Dominican Republic and their effect on "The New World": the mythical being La Ciguapa, the chieftain Anacaona, Columbus's Santa Maria, The Parsley Massacre of 1922, DR's Dictator. 

Medusa Reads La Negra's Palm uses those myth poems as a springboard and introduces one of the most well known mythological creatures in western literature: Medusa. In the full-length Medusa and La Negra play a central role at considering the questions: what does it mean to be a monster? What does it mean to be someone's mission to slay/save you? How does one survive in a world that continuously wants to seduce or erase or kill them?

CJM: You also recently sold a Young Adult novel in verse (congratulations again!) .Because you’re working in two different genres, here’s a two-part question: what is your approach when you comes to writing in either genre, and what advice would you give to writers who are just beginning to submit their work or send queries out for their collections?

EA: The fiction, primarily young adult, takes a different headspace in that I need to carry the whole narrative before I sit down to write or edit. Not in the early phases, but once I've figure out the plot I'm like a soccer mom ushering her kid from activity to activity. I keep a strict internal pace on what is happening to my character and where they need to be next, and how they're getting there. 

With poetry I'm obsessed with a particular topic (colonialism, Harlem, blackness, my family) and I write from every angle, I find entrances into the poems I have explored yet. To quote my friend MK Foster, "I write what haunts me" until it doesn't or until I can't. With fiction, I need a tighter rein on where the story is going; I allow play but ultimately I know there needs to be a more final sense of arrival. I don't necessarily feel that pressure in my poetry. Not that I seek to provide answers in either fiction or poetry, but in fiction I'm more aware of how the entire piece is paced and how closure will or won't be provided as I'm writing. Whereas in poetry, I allow intuition to guide me and then I arrange a manuscript accordingly. 

Advice to writers who are just beginning to submit their work? Oh, this is tough. Always be working on something else. My first novel (to be published Winter 2018) was not my first novel. It's actually my third. Every time I was submitting the work I was also writing something new. In general, I keep a tight schedule of when I revise and when I'm doing new writing so that I always have a project to look forward to as the rejection come in. I'm never bogged down by them because there's something else I need to focus on. 

The poetry manuscript was rejected more times than I can count and I was disheartened but I also didn't take it personally. Which is tough, because it is kind of personal, no? The stories I am choosing to tell and how I am choosing to tell them are good enough to be finalist or to be read but never good enough to be published. That's personal! But I just try to remember there's a reader for everyone. And the work doesn't stop because a poem didn't win a contest, because a manuscript hasn't found a home. The work is in creating and surprising yourself and writing what feels truest to how you are in the world today. Publishing can be a form of validation, and certainly a form of reaching readership, but writers aren't publishers. That's not our job. Our job is to write. And I think if you keep that in sight it makes beginning to submit and query easier. All I know, is I can't die with these stories inside of me. And I let that be my guiding principal on focusing on what needs to happen with my writing time, instead of what didn't happen with a submission. 

Elizabeth Acevedo holds a BA in Performing Arts from The George Washington University and a MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Maryland. She is a National Poetry Slam Champion as well as a Cave Canem Fellow, CantoMundo Fellow, and participant of the Callaloo Writer’s Workshop. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in the Notre Dame Review, Callaloo, Puerto Del Sol, Poet Lore, and Beltway Quarterly. Her manuscript, Beastgirl & Other Origin Myths, was a finalist for the YesYes Books Vinyl 45 Contest and released in October 2016, and her full-length collection, Medusa Reads La Negra’s Palm, was the winner of the 2016 Berkshire Prize and will be published by Tupelo Press. She lives in Washington, D.C.