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National Poetry Slam Champion Elizabeth Acevedo Visits BHS

Elizabeth Acevedo, author of The Poet X and new novel With the Fire on High, spoke at Berkeley High School (BHS) on May 14, 2019. Acevedo is currently on a national book tour, and spent the morning at BHS speaking at an assembly that all freshmen as well as some sophomores and upperclassmen attended. Abril Fonseca, a junior at BHS, read an introduction for Acevedo, and explained how her work resonated with Fonseca, as a young woman of color.

The Poet X is a book told in slam poetry, a style of poetry that is usually spoken, incorporating emotion and power as a way to tell stories. The book tells the story of Xiomara, a Dominican-American teenager who struggles with sexism, her growing sexuality, institutional racism, and cultural divides on her way to growing up and into her personal power. Acevedo is an Afro-Latina woman who grew up in New York with her two Dominican immigrant parents. She began her speech with a slam poem about herself and her experiences. Lines like, “forget getting shot nine times I bleed monthly,” and, “I stand in between worlds,” helped the audience begin to understand her emotions and life.

On her entrance into the writing world from her “gang and drug ridden” neighborhood, Acevedo said, “I did not know any authors … my first way to enter into the word was through hip hop.” She began her career as an eighth grade English teacher, where her classroom was primarily poor students of color, with an average fifth grade reading level. Acevedo wanted to get her students interested and engaged with reading, but met resistance from students who asked, “Where are the books about us?” This question stuck with  Acevedo and is why she writes about the topics she does.

Acevedo went to graduate school after deciding to become an author. There, she experienced increasing amounts of oppression and discrimination. Acevedo told stories of how her work would come back with the Spanish words crossed out and question marks by all the slang words. On one occasion, she was told to write an ode to an animal, and when she chose to write about the rats she was familiar with growing up in Harlem, she was told that “rats are not noble enough creatures for a poem.” Acevedo wrote a “clapback poem,” in response  to express her frustrations.

Acevedo’s new book, With the Fire on High, follows a teenage girl in Philadelphia who had a child her freshman year of high school but still wants to pursue her dreams of becoming a chef. Acevedo wanted to tell the story of a teenage mother in a positive way, and show how teenage mothers are often told they cannot pursue their dreams due to their unique situations.

While the first book that Acevedo released was slam poetry, she actually finished writing With the Fire on High first. According to Acevedo, for stories that are more internal with less action, poetry works really well, but when more characters and action are involved, classic prose style works better.

Finally, Acevedo emphasized the importance of having women of color as protagonists. Acevedo explained that women of color, especially teenagers, are sent a great deal of negative messages, which leads to inflated rates of depression. Acevedo said, “For me, books are a way to have that conversation, to challenge those notions, to give joy and triumph and magic back to girls who often have it taken from them.”