Poet Elizabeth Acevedo is writing to understand.
That process began at a young age, growing up in a Dominican family of oral storytellers, she said. It flourished with her high school poetry club, with whom she would attend open mics around the city, watching poets perform at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, Bowery Poetry Club and Urban Word NYC.
Poetry became “one of the ways I knew how to speak and be heard,” she said, while discussing race, gender and culture. Her poems discuss the oppression of those systems through the lens of personal experience, always keeping in mind that “the personal is political,” she said.
Her poem “Spear” follows a speaker in the aftermath of her daughter’s sexual assault. Acevedo began writing the poem while on a trip to South Africa around the time that Amanda Berry and her six-year-old daughter escaped from the home where Ariel Castro had held them and two other women for more than 10 years, leading to his arrest.
That incident made her think about the role of mothers in the recovery process of assault survivors, she said. In particular, the poem is “a direct response [to] the fear of one day being the mother to a young woman and feeling like I cannot trust this world with her,” she said.
The poem’s images transform the body into a weapon against abuse — but the self-defense that Acevedo addresses in the poem is no replacement for a larger cultural shift against sexual assault and rape culture, she said.
“We need to change the way men approach women. We need to change the conversation of consent, of objectifying women’s bodies. Those things need to change,” she said.
Additionally, her writing pushes back against a popular narrative that has left out people of color in the past, she said. “These bodies that I want to put into the poem are reminders to myself that I exist. And people, women, communities like mine, exist, and are entirely necessary to be written about,” she said. “If we don’t, we’re always going to be someone else’s to write, and someone else’s projection of what our bodies are.”
This is particularly important in children’s books, the first place where many people find representations of themselves, she said. “Communities of color [are] reading,” she said. “We’re just not reading stories about us because there aren’t enough out there.”
But that is beginning to change with a rising generation of authors of color along with initiatives like the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign, which advocates for more diverse representation in children’s and young adult literature, she said.
Watch Acevedo perform “Spear,” above, or read the poem below.
It almost curdles my womb dry, these stories:
Girl parties in Steubenville, Watch her drink, pass out
watch them grab wrists and ankles, she is now a rope they jump.
Three girls, no, women nowlllllllllllllllllten years chained
in a Cleveland basement. Did each one give thanks when
he skipped them, visited the other one, got her full of stillborn
babygirl in Gretna, Louisiana, stuffed into a garbage bag.
Show me her mother, how she clenches her fists,
it seems we women must practice how to lose our daughters.
Imagine the boys:
They will help me carry grocery bags but then will whistle,
whisper, crook finger in my daughter’s direction
and she may flip her hair, she may buck her hip
she may accept their invitation to chill behind paint-chipped staircase.
The cheap vodka will burn her throat, but not how they will
when they become more thrust than thought.
And you can’t tell me they don’t know her NO is not a moan.
When she wakes me, her bed puddled in piss
I will scrub these hands raw,lllllltremble at what they couldn’t prevent.
I hold all the smiles of my future daughter tipped up to the milk of this promise:
she will not walk hunched, fingers playing with one another as if she can wring
prayers from the sweat between her palms. She will not be a girl
forced to turn herself into a corner, taught her body it is a place to huddle, hide.
I won’t raise her to be nice.
To give her laugh away. To be polite as men plot
and plan to turn her body into a weapon of war
and if they try she will know how to wield herself.
Don’t tell me it’s wrong to raise a child in this kind of fear
because I know for every finger loosened another knuckle grows back crooked,
another knuckle is looking to crack into my daughter’s skin
and I can’t trust this world to teach their sons how to treat my daughter.
And so I will raise her to be shield, sword, spear:
to turn clasped hands into heated hatchet,
to hold razors between her teeth
to cut unkind advances with the sharpest eyes.
to tie all her parts together with leather or lace, stay chiseled
prepared for rebellions against her flesh.
My daughter will be carved from hard rock
her whole body ready to fling itself and arrow
the hand of the first man who tries to cover her mouth.
her whole body ready to fling itself
and arrow the hand of the first man
who tries to cover her mouth.
Elizabeth Acevedo holds a BA in Performing Arts from The George Washington University and an 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, Blessed Fruit & Other Origin Myths, was a finalist for Yes Yes Books’ chapbook poetry prize and will be published in the fall of 2016. She lives in Washington, D.C.