The poetry editors, Rappahannock Review: How do the written and performative aspects of your works influence each other?
Elizabeth Acevedo: I think I’ve always had an instinct for prosody in my written work that comes from an ear keenly attuned to listening to poetry performed without ever having access to the text. That’s one way that a performative aspect affects my written work, but now I’m starting to find that I’m exploring more on the page; how to use the page and form to affect meaning, where in the past line breaks and form were dictated by when I would need to breathe on the stage. My performance is different, breaks my usual cadence and rhythm to offer something more layered. I guess you can say I learned how to perform the line breaks.
RR: With your slam poetry, you always appear as well-rehearsed, yet all of your motions and vocal qualities seem to come from an organic and honest place. Do you find it difficult to always reach that vulnerability within your performances? Is there a point at which you stop rehearsing in order to have room for those organic moments of emotion or do you plot out the instances of major impact within your work?
EA: I think a spoken word artist can rehearse for certain things: where to pause for affect or laughter, how to create suspense, where to increase pacing in order to supply emotional range to a performance, however, even the best spoken word artist can’t account for 1. the emotional state they’re in when they’re performing, 2. how responsive an audience will choose to be. And so vulnerability comes from those two nuances at play with one another—the reliance on something other than performance in order to achieve the best performance is extremely vulnerable and allows me to pull from those feelings and forces me to be fully present. I definitely rehearse until the last second, but sometimes know instinctively that an audience will need something different, and I allow myself room to decide when plan needs conviction and when a plan needs to change in order to provide the best show.
RR: “Waterfront Metro Station” is very interesting aesthetically. What inspired you to write this piece using such an abstract form?
EA: I have several pieces that explore how space can stand in lieu of traditional punctuation—how space can create the pauses we crave. For “Waterfront,” from the first draft it was written in this abstract form; perhaps subconsciously I was trying to reflect the stop and go nature of riding the train, of dealing with trauma, of life and death. The form reflects the content and allows those layers to be doubly expressed.
RR: In your TEDxFoggyBottom talk, you tell a story of how you are trying to focus more on the present and give an anecdote of how you were looking around the metro and caught the eyes of a man in need of directions. “Waterfront Metro Station” has a similar moment with a very different result. Did this poem come from having a moment of being in the present for yourself? Has your pursuit of remaining in the present been entirely fruitful or have you discovered drawbacks to this new lifestyle?
EA: I love being on the train. It’s inspired at least six different poems, probably because it’s one of the spaces I have to force myself to either be productive (reading, writing, tweeting), or to be present. And oftentimes, because of my phone battery and the Wi-Fi connection on WMATA, it’s the latter. As a writer the train has great fodder for poetry, for stories. So many interesting interactions take place between strangers barely touching, barely speaking, barely looking, but sharing space. This particular poem was based off of an actual interaction, however it was shared with two women across the metro from me. The words, “If you have to kill yourself, at least be considerate,” are a direct quote and at the time I wanted to say something, I wanted to speak up against what I thought was a grotesque and inhumane sentiment. And so in that way, perhaps being present isn’t always fruitful because it creates a lot of anxiety. If I could zone out and be invisible I don’t have to bump against my own morals, I don’t have to act if I can pretend I’m not there.
RR: Your poems, both slam and for the page, have a ferocity and intensity to them creating a sense of emotional rawness and vulnerability for both the narrator and the reader. While “Waterfront Metro Station” has the same effect, it doesn’t use the same method to reach that vulnerability. Instead, it seems to rely on silence and a feeling of exhaustion. What made you step away from your usual style of writing when it came to this piece?
EA: I’ve been working on my MFA in Poetry for three years and have explored variety of writing styles and learned different methods for unmasking a poem. In this case, I’ve been wanting to write about this moment on the metro for over a year, and I really thought it would be a poem that would ultimately lend itself for the stage, but every time I tried to write it wouldn’t come together. This was a poem that didn’t want to be long. That didn’t want a linear storytelling. That needed to be jumbled. I try to keep in mind that poems for the stage aren’t be read and so an audience has certain needs in order to grasp the full meaning. However, “Waterfront Metro Station” didn’t care about my audience’s need. Once I stopped imposing an imaginary audience on the piece and just linked the bits and piece I’d written, it came together.