In writing “The Poet X,” Elizabeth Acevedo drew heavily upon her own experience as a student growing up in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of Manhattan. She began writing at 8 years old, and was competing in poetry slams at 14.
While Acevedo, 32, had a national slam title under her belt by the time “The Poet X” was published, she hadn’t lost track of her early writing. One poem in the novel, titled “In Translation,” was lifted directly from her high school journal. The poem is directed at the mother of the book’s protagonist, Xiomara.
“My mouth cannot write you a white flag,” the first line reads. “It will never be a Bible verse.” Acevedo told the NewsHour the poem served as her “North Star” in regard to the novel’s voice.
“I wanted to make sure that emotionally, tonally, and in terms of the language of experience of the character that I didn’t stray from the heart of the story in trying to impress readers with my verse,” she wrote.
You’ll find more insight on “In Translation” in Acevedo’s annotations below.
From “The Poet X”
In Translation (1)
My mouth cannot write you a white flag.
It will never be a Bible verse.
My mouth cannot be shaped into the apology
you say both you and God deserve.
And you want to make it seem
it’s my mouth’s entire fault.
Because it was hungry,
and silent, but what about your mouth:
how your lips are staples
that pierce me quick and hard. (2)
And the words I never say
are better left on my tongue
since they would only have slammed
against the closed door of your back.
Your silence furnishes a dark house. (3)
But even at the risk of burning
the moth always seeks the light.
- This poem was one of the few that was directly lifted from my [high school] journal. It served as a kind of North Star in regards to voice—I wanted to make sure that emotionally, tonally, and in terms of the language of experience of the character that I didn’t stray from the heart of the story in trying to impress readers with my verse.
- Something about these lines feel truly visceral. Perhaps the consonance in “lips” “staples” pierce,” and the sharp jab of those words.
- I toggled back and forth when considering this line. The mixed metaphor is inescapable, and yet, the tangibility of silence, the weight of it, the stretch, the abyss, I think allows for silence to take up literal space, in the way perhaps an oversized and ugly couch might?