Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Split This Rock Interview with Kwame Dawes

By Teri Ellen Cross Davis

This conversation is one in a series of interviews with poets to be featured at 
Split This Rock Poetry Festival: Poems of Provocation & Witness, 2018.

The festival is three days at the intersection of the imagination and social change: readings, workshops, panel discussions, youth programming, activism, a book fair, and a party. Celebrating Split This Rock’s 10th anniversary! The poets to be featured are among the most significant and artistically vibrant writing and performing today: Elizabeth Acevedo, Kazim Ali, Ellen Bass, Sherwin Bitsui, Kwame Dawes, Camille Dungy, Ilya Kaminsky, Sharon Olds, Sonia Sanchez, Solmaz Sharif, Terisa Siagatonu, Paul Tran, Javier Zamora.

Online registration is available until midnight (EST) on March 28. Onsite registration will be offered during the festival. Group rates, scholarships, and sponsorship opportunities are available. Readings by featured poets are free and open to the public. More information at:

We offer a sliding scale of registration levels, and opportunities to volunteer in place of a registration fee. Registration is open online until March 28, 2018. Visit the 
registration page to register or volunteer now.

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Kwame Dawes has authored thirty-five books of poetry, fiction, criticism, and essays, including, most recently, City of Bones: A Testament (Northwestern, 2017). Speak from Here to There (Peepal Tree Press), co-written with Australian poet John Kinsella, appeared in 2016. He is Glenna Luschei Editor of Prairie Schooner and Chancellor’s Professor of English at the University of Nebraska where he is a Chancellor’s Professor of English, a faculty member of Cave Canem, and a teacher in the Pacific University MFA Program in Oregon. He is Director of the African Poetry Book Fund and Artistic Director of the Calabash International Literary Festival, which takes place in Jamaica in May of each year. Dawes is a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. Learn more at his website. Photo by Andre Lambertson.

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Teri Cross-Davis (TCD): With 21 published poetry collections since your first book, Progeny of Air in 1994, how do you think the poetry publishing industry has changed (or has it?)

Kwame Dawes (KD): Progeny of Air was published in the UK and I was fortunate enough that Peepal Tree Press existed at the time, as it was in the early stages of filling a major gap for the publishing of Caribbean poetry that was a longstanding problem for the Caribbean. I was extremely fortunate to have a home in Peepal Tree Press, and even though it limited the extent to which I was known, read or even appreciated in the US, I had the space to grow as a poet, take risks, and benefit from the remarkable editorial skills and commitment of Jeremy Poynting.

My first US publication happened years and four books later when I won the Hollis Summers Prize for Midland. I will admit that I wrote and designed Midland to enter the US market. Jeremy Poynting agreed with me that this would be a good career move, and so I submitted that manuscript to over forty venues in the US. I knew it was an important and solid book, but the fact that it was rejected (albeit with extensive letters) by so many US presses, reminded me of just how difficult it can be for an immigrant poet in the US. I was not surprised that Eavan Boland, an Irish poet working in the US, was the judge who selected that manuscript for the Hollis Summers Prize. 

A lot has transpired since then in American poetry, especially for writers of color. I am confident that any study of the constitution of judging panels for prizes and awards in the US over the last decade will reveal that they have become increasingly more diverse, and as a result, writers of color have had a better chance of winning awards. This is not a matter of tribal loyalty, but the simple fact that more diverse panels bring broader knowledge, understanding and familiarity with a wider set of poetic aesthetics, and this has meant that more voices have been heard and appreciated in the US. 

The advent of intense social media in the last decade has also introduced a culture of hype that has come to shape the way we understand poetry today. This hype is predicated on what I call the “Columbus-Imperative." Largely white publishers are constantly recycling a narrative of “discovery” of writers of color who are young and the “great new thing” out there. It is a pernicious habit because it is seductive to the writers, who struggle to not be convinced by the hype, and whom when eventually abandoned by the industry for the next new thing, find themselves deeply confused and sometimes petrified by the prospect of matching that early hype and adoration. The hype is also picked up by well-meaning liberal arts outfits, again led largely by white directors, who construct a system of value, not necessarily on the maturation of poetic craft and skill, but on the tyranny and seduction of topicality.

It is almost churlish to complain about this as the fact is that poets of color are getting some more play than ever before. But it is important to recognize that this is happening, and to admit that so much of what is deemed reviewing, is in fact consumed by this hype. I am not suggesting that the current industry is inventing “flavor of the month” practices, but it is especially apparent these days, and sadly, it is doing a disservice to so many poets who, above all, need secure and supportive poetic “homes” where they can grow, take risks, and have a realistic sense of their development over time.

But enough carping. The fact is that American poetry is in a very strong place. There has never been a period in which American poetry has been as diverse, vibrant and engaging as it is today. This is a good thing. This has happened because of the hard work of individuals, organizations and a general culture, and we should remain vigilant about ensuring that these gains are not reversed because American poetry is, frankly, the better for this development.

TDC: One interview I read noted that many praise your mentoring. What role do you think that plays within the poetry community? What has surprised you in mentoring poets?  What is one particular thing about mentoring that you might pass on to other poets?

KD: The term “mentoring” is a strange one to me. I am happy to be a mentor if those who regard me as a mentor are willing to call me that. But I feel it presumptuous of me to declare myself a mentor.  

My commitment is to support poets, to open doors for poets, to find ways to create a space in which poets can grow in their skill and can produce work of power and strength. The initiatives I have started have all been prompted by the most obvious needs in the world. In South Carolina it was clear that we simply did not have a publishing culture for poets to match the energy of poetry writing existing in the state.  With poet, Charlene Spearen, I  to change that with the South Carolina Poetry Initiative.

In Jamaica, it was clear that the absence of training, exposure and awareness at the highest level to support literary writing and publishing was limiting our ability to launch the careers of very talented writers. With Colin Channer and Justine Henzell, I started the Calabash International Literary Festival, with its seminars, workshops and sophisticated plan of creating a branding of Jamaican writing. We regard the emergence of writers like Kei Miller, Ishion Hutchison, Margaret-Ann Lin, Garfield Ellis and Marlon James (to name a few) as successes in that regard.

In the UK, in the early 1990s, an exciting cadre of black poets who were dominating the performance stages around that nation, were acutely aware that they were not having the same impact or access in publishing. Bernardine Evaristo invited me to lead extensive workshops for Black poets in the UK in a series we called The Afro-Style School. I did this for six or seven years, and it is almost impossible to name a single successful black poet in the UK, who cannot be, in some way, tied to that ground-breaking series.

Finally, five years ago, it became clear to me that African poetry was just not being published in manner commensurate to the talent and energy existing among poets on the continent. In five years, The African Poetry Book Fund, with its amazing team of volunteer editors and mentors, Chris Abani, Bernardino Evaristo, Matthew Shenoda, Aracelis Girmay, Gabeba Baderoon, John Keene, and Phillippa ya de Villiers,) has transformed the landscape for African poetry. This is no exaggeration. These are just a few small examples that I hope explain how I work. I have done similar work through my editing roles with Peepal Tree Press, with Prairie Schooner and through my involvement with organizations like Cave Canem and so many others.

I have skills and vision in this regard, and I see myself as merely carrying out a role in support of the writing community. I do not expect every writer to do this kind of work. It is not for everyone. But without it, so many poets would simply not emerge. Is this mentoring? Maybe. But I regard it as something more than that. I work to advance the work of poetry in the world.

You don’t stay in one genre. You’ve written fiction, articles, plays—any advice to other writers who start off in one genre but feel called to others?

KD: I am not being flippant or facetious when I say this, but my answer is, “Do it.” I believe that these lines are somewhat unhelpful and unrealistic, and what should guide whether one works in different genres or not is talent and discipline. The poet writing fiction must know that she gets no special breaks for attempting fiction—it better be good. Similarly, novelists attempting to write poetry should not whine about how this is new to me, when someone says the work is not good. Look, the fact is that poets are just more ordained than other writers, but there is no need to harp on this—that would be so rude!  ☺

TCD: You said once that “poetry is your companion in the world.” When has it benefited you the most, having this companionship with poetry?

KD: I think it was Emerson or some nineteenth century American thinker who equated the capacity for contradictory thought with humanity and intelligence. He may not have been talking about poetry, but I would say that poetry offers us the capacity to carry in us and express the contradictory impulses that make us human. Poetry helps me to know what I am thinking and feeling. Before I make a poem, I really think I know this, but poetry, for some reason, helps me to truly see this.

TCD: You have said many times that you write out of a reggae aesthetic. When did reggae begin to talk to you? Has it always? Can you define the political and the spiritual within that aesthetic? Is there anything that reggae can express that poetry cannot? And vice versa?

KD: As you might imagine, tackling such a question in the context of an interview like this is unlikely to be successful. It has taken me a few books, many articles and many, many poems, to work through this issue. I moved to Jamaica from Ghana in 1971 when I was nine years old. I have known and lived with reggae since then. It was the music that marked my coming of age, and it has been a key part of the soundtrack of my life. I came to reggae with the same level of hunger, need, and quest for understanding and belonging that I characterized my relationship with Jamaican culture and language.

Reggae music of the sixties and seventies became inextricably connected to Rastafarianism and all the related revolutionary and post-colonial faith systems of Jamaican society. The quest for an aesthetic in this music is marked by an effort to identify what might be crudely defined as qualities of “beauty” in this music. I learned a great deal from African American thinkers and artists like Langston Hughes, Amiri Baraka, Albert Murray, and Kalamu ya Salaam who sought to extract from the Blues and Jazz, a poetics that could be transferable to the literary arts. In Cuba of the pre-revolutionary era, Nicolás Guillén, was developing his own “Son” aesthetic derived from “Son” music. These are just some of the necessary acts of artistic independence and creativity which include the work of poets like Kama Brathwaite, Ntosake Shange and big, large-visioned philosopher-artists like Sylvia Wynter and Wilson Harris, that appealed to me and influenced my aesthetic ambitions.  

I knew instinctively that reggae was a critical part of the discourse that shaped my view of the world and my engagement with the world, and so I sought to discover a way of speaking to this.  My book, Natural Mysticism: Towards a New Reggae Aesthetic seeks to make the case. In this sense, it is hard to offer an answer to the question of whether there are things that reggae expresses that poetry can’t, as it presumes that these two things are different. At best, I would say that it is true that the song and the poem can have different capacities, but this is true as a general truth. But when I speak of the reggae aesthetic, I am speaking about the aesthetic undergirding the music.

TCD: You have worked with Kevin Simmonds and others, pairing your work with music. What effect do you think music has on your work? Do you feel like your writing changes after each pairing; or when you move from one genre to another, do you ever feel the effects of that genre on your poetry?

KD: I don’t honestly know whether music has an especial effect on my work. I suppose the danger of speaking about a reggae aesthetic is that people mistakenly come to my work expecting me to be writing songs. I write poems, plays, stories, essays, and songs. Those are genres. Poetry, in the western tradition and in the African tradition and the traditions of so many other cultures, is deeply connected with the idea of song and music. I am not saying anything special or new here. So, it is inevitable that my poetry will reflect elements of musicality, as is likely with the work of most poets working today. Above all, I am aware of sound, aware of the ways in which poetry employs song, and this just makes me a poet seeking to master all the various elements that are available to the poet.

My collaborations with Kevin Simmonds, a dear friend and an artist I truly admire, have been characterized by one key principle: I respect that he is a gifted and talented musician who is producing music of the highest quality to partner with my poetry which I hope is up to the task. I really enjoy working with talented people in their fields. What results is new, and, more importantly, what I can’t produce on my own.

TCD: With your book on Bob Marley, I think one can safely say you know Marley’s music. What songs would you suggest to listen to in this current political climate?

KD: In 1980 a year before his death, Marley released Uprising. There is a grim sense of seriousness and hints of deep psychic disquiet found in the urgent and blunt lyrics of this album. Most people remember “Redemption Song” from this album, but for our times, the song, “We and Dem” remains profoundly instructive, emotionally honest, vulnerable and revelatory.  

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Additional Links

A Review of Duppy Conqueror by Major Jackson (New York Times)

Excerpts from “Illuminations with John Kinsella (Boston Review)

KWAME DAWES ON RHYTHM, DIASPORA, AND POLITICAL POETRY: An Interview, by Mathew Baddona (Literary Hub)

Kwame Dawes: The Harmonizer, an interview by Camille Goodison (Guernica Magazine)

Poems at Poetry Foundation

An archive of Dawes’s poems at Poetry International
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Teri Ellen Cross Davis is a Cave Canem fellow and has attended the Soul Mountain Writer’s Retreat, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. Her work can be read in: Bum Rush the Page: A Def Poetry Jam, Gathering Ground: A Reader Celebrating Cave Canem's First Decade, Full Moon on K Street: Poems About Washington, DC; and the following journals:  Beltway Poetry Quarterly,  Gargoyle,  Natural Bridge, Torch, Poet Lore and The North American Review. Her first collection, Haint, by Gival Press, was published in 2016. She lives in Silver Spring, MD. Photo by Mignonette Dooley.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

I L L N E S S: A Flash Memoir Prologue

Photo of poet Jeanann Verlee speaking into a microphone. She has long, reddish hair. There is a jukebox in the background.
Split This Rock presents this essay, below, as part of our participation in Where My Dreaming and My Loving Live: Poetry & the Body, this year's programming of the national Poetry Coalition. To read more about this initiative, supported in part by a grant from the Ford Foundation, visit the website of the Academy of American Poets.

Jeanann Verlee will read at two events with Split This Rock in Washington, DC, March 17 and 18. Details at Split This Rock's website.

by Jeanann Verlee

Since April of 2015, I have been ill. Quietly. Secretly. My body turning against itself, devouring. Ravaging and shrinking me. I have not had the courage to talk about it. It was six months before I even confessed to my spouse that I was sick. Nine months before I consulted a doctor. Shame is thicker than blood.

Let me go back. I was already ill. I’ve been ill much of my life. Though my illnesses are often regarded differently. I was misdiagnosed with depression as a teen. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in my mid-twenties. In my late thirties, I was also diagnosed with PTSD and anxiety. I have bipolar disorder. Hypomania. Depression. PTSD. Chronic anxiety. I am, and have been, ill.

For more than three-quarters of my life, I have been on and off countless cocktails of medication in treatment of my illnesses. My medicines, manias, depressions, and bouts of anxiety do not prohibit a full and productive life, but are a daily consideration. Sometimes, hourly. I flinch. I shut down. I grow fangs. Each, with exacting efficiency. 

Now this—my body seemingly turning itself inside-out—an apparently rare and incurable disease. One that is prohibitive of a full and productive life. Little is known about its progression, treatment is radically hit-and-miss, and its cause is unknown. Many doctors suspect this disease is caused by long-term use of SSRI’s (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors, more commonly known as antidepressants). Oh, irony.

Still, there are other experts who have drawn links to long-term use of more benign drugs, such as Ibuprofen and other over-the-counter anti-inflammatories. Still others suggest genetic links. Many speculate that it may be an autoimmune disease, likely triggered by bacterial infection. 

The answer is that there is no answer. Science doesn’t know the cause because science hasn’t studied it. More research needs to be done, they say. Very rare, they say. No one is researching because, like many systems in the U.S., this system is broken. Doctors are dismissing or best-guessing their way through diagnoses and treatments while my body consumes itself.

Many psychiatrists believe that autoimmune disorders are linked to psychological trauma. Most psychiatrists believe there is no distinction between body and mind. The line is not merely blurred—there is no line. My body-mind is testament to this. My body is not separate from my mind. I am conscious of both because I have a mind, but together, as one, my illnesses affect all of me. Through my writing, I have worked for years to dispel the stigma of “mental” illness, trying to underscore that illness is illness. That my illnesses are simple. Incurable. Treatable. Nothing to fear. Something to understand. Human.

And so, it is possible—even likely—that the traumas I have survived fractured my psyche which led to treatment with psychiatric medicine which led to my body devouring itself. Or—equally likely—traumas fractured my psyche AND led my body to devour itself, regardless of medicine. More research needs to be done, they say.

I am sick. Chronically. My whole body-mind. Every day. I cannot predict what each morning will bring, but I know it will be some assortment of varied levels of pain, nausea, numbness, swelling, cramping, discomfort, exhaustion—AND—fear, sadness, rage, anxiety, hypervigilance, and shame.

* * *

After almost three years, five doctors, four clinics, and countless lab technicians, I was only officially diagnosed five weeks ago. Initially I was dismissed. Then misdiagnosed. Repeatedly. I refused to accept their amorphous answers. I tried again. And again. Each new clinic, each new set of doctors and staff, I was humiliated and mistreated and shamed. Dejected, I would give up for a time, then start over, refusing to be dismissed. I had to take my health into my own hands because medical professionals had simply thrown their hands in the air (one doctor did so quite literally).

I had to bully my way through. To be heard. To be seen. It took stamina. It took energy I often didn’t have. I spent countless nights sobbing, begging my body to stop hurting. Some nights I wanted to die. Many nights I thought I might be dying. Our system is broken. I had to do the work myself. Alone. I had to take the notes, keep the records. I had to repeatedly subject myself to the same tests, to endure the same humiliations, as each technician or doctor simply ticked off the same go-to list, Just to be sure.

Meanwhile, my body continues eating itself. Meanwhile, I am smaller and smaller and smaller. I have lost one quarter of my body mass, and I was already a fairly small person. My gums are receding, my hair is loosening from the root, my menstrual cycle is erratic, my skin is…you get the idea. Rattling changes. But this disease is not terminal and just knowing that has brought indescribable relief. Still, treatment has not improved my condition at all. I’m in a daily battle with my body-mind to avoid the host of ailments that come of malnutrition.

Unrelated—but not unrelated—during the throes of all this, a different doctor found a lump. Yes. In my left breast. Simultaneously, a painful cyst developed on my left ovary. It burst. It returned. It continues to grow. These other issues derailed my progress with new tests, sonograms, biopsies, prodding and groping in effort to determine any diagnosis and treatment for—well, everything else. My brain caught fire. Am I dying? After all this surviving? After fighting to stay? Why everything all at once? For now, we wait. To see if the lump changes. If the cysts change. I am being monitored. Just wait and see. Just wait.

Further to it all, though I am among those lucky enough to have medical insurance, mine is woefully insufficient. My annual deductible is so high, I never actually see the financial benefit of medical coverage. I have to pay out-of-pocket for everything (visits, tests, procedures, prescriptions) until I meet the improbable deductible, at which point coverage would begin and I would pay the more reasonable costs of tiered co-pays. 

However, I have never met that deductible. I pay out-of-pocket all year, and then suddenly it’s January and we start all over again. This out-of-pocket cost is in addition to the insurance fees deducted from my paycheck—in essence, I pay for the luxury of paying full-price for medical services. I am now in debt for medical expenses despite having medical insurance. Our system is broken.

It is through this demoralizing process that I have gained renewed respect for other individuals with chronic illnesses. While I’ve long imagined myself compassionate, I did not—could not—understand. I am beginning to understand. I have a long road ahead of me, but I have a road. I am here. I am sick. But I am here.

When Sarah Browning of Split This Rock queried if I had any ideas to share for the blog, I was at a loss. I don’t want to talk about any of this. I am not ready. I am not ready to write about this. I have not yet found a treatment that manages my pain and daily discomfort. I haven’t determined a reasonable method for financing medical costs. I have too much fear and there are too many unknowns to address the topic with any proficiency. But just last night, roused from sleep yet again, wrestling back tears in the desperate blur of 4 a.m., begging my body to stop hurting, I decided to give myself permission. To write—something, anything. This.

In the spirit of Split This Rock, I offer this prologue as introduction to some of the poems that have sustained me throughout this period—poems that yes, bear witness and provoke change. These poems address the numerous and complicated realities of the body-mind, from stigma to genetics to shame to resurrection to the immeasurable ways that we love—and are loved—through life, illness, survival, and loss. These writers are not only powerful artisans of language, but heroic livers of life. Writing with unflinching rigor and sight, challenging our many broken systems through voice and story. These are just some of the poems that have beckoned, shaped, healed, and held me—and I am immeasurably grateful.

·        Litany with Blood All Over by Danez Smith
·        Angel Nafis by Angel Nafis
·        my eyes in the time of apparition by Rachel McKibbens 
·        Post-Diagnosis by sam sax
·        Surgery Psalm by Liv Mammone
·        Let Me Handle My Business, Damn by Morgan Parker
·        As Around the Sun the Earth Knows She’s Revolving by Casey Rocheteau
·        Cleave by Ian Khadan
·        Someone Asked Me if My Hair Was Mine Today by Siaara Freeman
·        Ode to Lithium #75: Mind over Matter by Shira Erlichman

JEANANN VERLEE, a 2017 NEA Poetry Fellow, is the author of Said the Manic to the Muse (Write Bloody Publishing, 2015) and Racing Hummingbirds (2010), which was awarded a silver medal in the Independent Publisher Awards. Her third book, prey, was first runner-up for the Benjamin Saltman Poetry Award and will be published by Black Lawrence Press in 2018. She received the Third Coast Poetry Prize and the Sandy Crimmins National Prize, and her work appears in Adroit, BOAAT, Rattle, and BuzzFeed Reader, among others. 

Verlee has served as poetry editor for various publications, including Union Station Magazine and Winter Tangerine Review, in addition to a number of individual collections. The former director of Urbana Poetry Slam, where she served as writing and performance coach, Verlee performs and facilitates workshops at schools, theatres, libraries, bookstores, and dive bars across North America. She collects tattoos and kisses Rottweilers. She believes in you. Find her at

Monday, March 12, 2018

Split This Rock Interview with Elizabeth Acevedo

 By Lauren May

This conversation is one in a series of interviews with poets to be featured at Split This Rock Poetry Festival: Poems of Provocation & Witness 2018.

The festival is three days at the intersection of the imagination and social change: readings, workshops, panel discussions, youth programming, activism, a book fair, and a party. Celebrating Split This Rock’s 10th anniversary! The poets to be featured are among the most significant and artistically vibrant writing and performing today: Elizabeth Acevedo, Kazim Ali, Ellen Bass, Sherwin Bitsui, Kwame Dawes, Camille Dungy, Ilya Kaminsky, Sharon Olds, Sonia Sanchez, Solmaz Sharif, Terisa Siagatonu, Paul Tran, Javier Zamora.

Online registration is available until midnight (EST) on March 28. Onsite registration will be offered during the festival. Group rates, scholarships, and sponsorship opportunities are available. Readings by featured poets are free and open to the public. More information at:

We are especially pleased be able to present this interview between Acevedo and May, as Acevedo coached May and the rest of the DC Youth Slam Team 2013-2015, including the 2014 team which took first place at Brave New Voices International Teen Poetry Festival.

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Elizabeth Acevedo was born and raised in New York City and her poetry is infused with Dominican bolero and her beloved city’s tough grit. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Maryland. Acevedo is a National Slam Champion and has performed for over 14 years at such nationally and internationally renowned venues as The Lincoln Center, Madison Square Garden, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, South Africa’s State Theatre, The Bozar in Brussels, and the National Library of Kosovo. She is also well known for poetry videos, which have gone viral and been picked up by PBS, Latina Magazine, and Cosmopolitan. Her poems have been published or are forthcoming in POETRY, Puerto Del Sol, Callaloo, The Notre Dame Review, and others. Acevedo is a Cave Canem Fellow, CantoMundo Fellow, and former participant of the Callaloo Writer's Workshop. She is the author of Beastgirl & Other Origin Myths (YesYes Books, 2016) and her debut novel, The Poet X (HarperCollins) was published March 6, 2018 . She served as coach of Split This Rock's DC Youth Slam Team from 2013 to 2015. Learn more at her website. Photo by Stephanie Ifendu.

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Lauren May (LM): Assuming you got asked the question, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" when you were younger, what was your response? Did you ever imagine that you would have the career that you have now?

Elizabeth Acevedo (EA): I always knew I wanted a career involving language: singer, politician, poet, but I didn’t have a road map on making any of those things possible. I’m glad that I allowed myself to be flexible in regards to how I used language and that I gave myself permission to write in many different genres, which ultimately led me to where I am today. And, I’m still open to complicating the lines of what kind of writer and speaker I need to be.

(LM): Was there ever a time when you didn't feel like a writer?

(EA): So much of being a writer seems like walking a tightrope of just enough ego to put your work into the world, and just enough humility to always remember you have yet to write your best or most precise work. That said, for me it’s hard to keep a balance between humility and insecurity. I continuously question whether or not the quality of my work is up to par, if I’m pushing the envelope enough, if the work is asking critical questions;  continuously moving through those doubts seems to be what keeps someone still writing vs. what stops them in their tracks.

(LM): Your poem titled “bittersweet love poem” is one of my favorites. I watch it on You Tube often, because the way you speak of love feels so honest. Love is a feeling that I believe only poetry/art seems to make any sense of. What did the process of writing that poem feel like?

(EA): That poem was written over the course of several years. Lines would come to me and I would write them down but never strung them together. I think at the time I wrote that poem I’d been writing a lot about the death of black people, and the ramifications of colonialism, and the need to pay an ode to joy and love felt pivotal. So, I went back to all these scattered lines and figured out a way to pull them into one piece.

(LM): What's the most beautiful place you've visited while touring, and why?

(EA): Beautiful is a difficult word to apply to some of the places I’ve traveled to since the definition of what is beautiful changes from geography to the people to the art scene, but I was able to participate in the International Poetry Festival of Nicaragua and I was very moved by the physical beauty of the country and how warm and lovely the people of the country were. It was an intensely vibrant and alive place and poetry was a part of the cultural structure of the country. They have poetry everywhere and truly revere their classical poets. There’s so much love for the written word in Nicaragua that it made me nostalgic for what I think is possible in the US.

(LM): What does the process of writing a book look like, for you?

(EA): Writing any kind of book has its unique challenges, but with a novel-in-verse it was difficult for me to learn that not every single piece had to be a self-contained poem; some of the pieces work as hinges or transitions to connect the more self-fulfilled poems. But because I was coming from a background in poetry, not fiction, I wanted all 368 pages to be publishable poems ... and that can be a lot of pressure.  Some of the poems need to be expository, need to be a small breath, or else the language itself will weigh down the narrtive arc. So, I had to learn to trust my process and also show up every day to keep an on-going relationship with my character! She told me where the story needed to go and what needed to be done to create a satisfying ending.

(LM): When I was your student, when you coached the DC Youth Slam Team, you gave my peers and me the advice to read just as much, if not more, than we write. Why is that important, in your opinion? What are you reading lately?

(EA): I tell students to read as much if not more than they write because the practice of reading as a writer is a study, it’s a craft. The goal of creating isn’t just to be masturbatory with your writing, but to continue pushing your artwork, continue exploring what your work can do, and to consider how you are contributing to the conversation in the literary landscape. We don’t make in silos, and I think it’s not only humility, but the point of artistry to engage with the work of your predecessors and peers.

I just finished reading Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing and I am currently rereading Jason Reynolds Long Way Down.

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Additional Links

Elizabeth Acevedo on her debut novel The Poet X (Bustle)

Interview with Elizabeth Acevedo (Teen Vogue)

Synopsis of The Poet X (Publisher’s Weekly)

How to Be a Poet, by Ellen Haile, on the work and career (Unruly)

Behind the Mic with Elizabeth Acevedo, by Tosin Oyekoya (Blavity)

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Lauren (Lo) May is a 21-year-old writer, artist, host, human rights advocate and french fry enthusiast born in DC, raised in Maryland. An alumna of the award-winning DC Youth Slam Team, Lauren is part of Split This Rock’s Ushindi Performance Group. She has featured as a guest speaker at MCASA’s 10th Annual Women of Color Network Conference, the National Conference on Health and Domestic Violence, and The White House United State of Women Summit.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Split This Rock at AWP in Tampa - March 7–10, 2018

Split This Rock will be at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference (AWP) taking place March 7-10 in Tampa! 

If you're attending, we hope you'll join us to celebrate Split This Rock's 10th anniversary as we rededicate ourselves to poetry that bears witness to injustice and provokes social change. Check out all the details below! (See the AWP website for more on the conference.)

Visit Split This Rock at 
AWP Table #T603

Visit Split This Rock at Table #T603 in the AWP Conference Bookfair, where you can meet and hang out with Split This Rockers, write a haiku post card to elected officials demanding gun control, buy a T-shirt, mug, or notecards with beautiful artwork with Split This Rock co-chair Dan Vera, pictured above and excerpts from poems in The Quarry, and enter a drawing for a free registration to Split This Rock Poetry Festival 2018 featuring Elizabeth Acevedo, Kazim Ali, Ellen Bass, Sherwin Bitsui, Kwame Dawes, Camille Dungy, Ilya Kaminsky, Sharon Olds, Sonia Sanchez, Solmaz Sharif, Terisa Siagatonu, Paul Tran, and Javier Zamora. We look forward to seeing you! 

Split This Rock 10th Anniversary Reading at AWP!

Thursday, March 8 at 10:30 AM - 11:45 AM
Tampa Convention Center, First Floor, Room 20 & 21

In their last year of leadership, Split This Rock Executive Director Sarah Browning and long-time Board Chair Dan Vera will read with two poets whose work and spirit are central to Split This Rock, Franny Choi and Cornelius Eady. Also performing with Cornelius will be musicians from the Cornelius Eady trio.

Sarah Browning is co-founder and Executive Director of Split This Rock: Poetry of Provocation & Witness. Author of Killing Summer and Whiskey in the Garden of Eden, and co-editor of three special issues of Poetry magazine, she co-hosts Sunday Kind of Love at Busboys and Poets in Washington, DC.

Franny Choi is the author of Floating, Brilliant, Gone. She has received awards and fellowships from the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts, the Poetry Foundation, and Kundiman. She is a Project VOICE teaching artist and a member of the Dark Noise Collective.

Cornelius Eady is the author of eight poetry collections including Victims of the Latest Dance Craze, winner of the 1985 Lamont Prize, and Brutal Imagination. He holds the Miller Chair at the University of Missouri and is co-founder of Cave Canem.

Dan Vera is co-editor of Imaniman: Poets Respond to Gloria Anzaldúa and author of two books of poetry, most recently Speaking Wiri Wiri. Winner of the 2017 Oscar Wilde Award and Letras Latinas/Red Hen Poetry Prize, his poetry appears in various publications and university writing curricula. He now co-chairs the board of Split This Rock.

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Ghost Fishing: An Eco-Justice Poetry Anthology Book Launch & 10th Anniversary Celebration

Friday, March 9 at 5:30 PM - 7:30 PM
The Attic Cafe
500 E Kennedy Blvd, Suite 400, Tampa, Florida 33602

Come celebrate the launch of Ghost Fishing: An Eco-Justice Poetry Anthology and Split This Rock’s 10th anniversary! Hosted by Melissa Tuckey, Editor, and Co-Founder of Split This Rock. This ground-breaking book of poems brings social justice to the forefront of eco-poetry and offers a rich terrain of culturally diverse perspectives. 

Readers include Jennifer Atkinson, Sarah Browning, Camille Dungy, Kathy Engel, Jennifer Foerster, Ann Fisher-Wirth, Allison Hedge Coke, Tiffany Higgins, Brenda Hillman, Philip Metres, Lenard Moore, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Emmy Pérez, Danez Smith, Pam Ushuck, Dan Vera, and Javier Zamora. 

This off-site event is free! Full cafe menu will be available for purchase, including beer and wine. Within walking distance of the convention center and conference hotel. Wheelchair accessible.

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