“I wanted to savor my mother’s stories, my grandfather’s riddles, but I knew if I didn’t write them the stories would die with them.”
Beastgirl & Other Origin Myths (YesYes Books, 2016)
Could you share with us a representative or pivotal poem (or excerpt) from your chapbook? Perhaps something that introduces the work of the chapbook, or that invites the reader into the world of the chapbook?
La Ciguapa (an excerpt)
La Ciguapa, they say, was made on one of those ships; stitched
and bewitched from moans and crashing waves. She emerged
entirely formed, dark and howling, stepped onto the auction
block but none would buy her. They wouldn’t even look her in the eye.
They say she came beneath the Spanish saddle of the first mare.
Rubbed together from leather and dark mane. Hungry.
That she has a hoof between her thighs and loves men
like the pestle loves the mortar;
____________________________she hums them into the cotton thick fog
of the mountains. They follow her none word nonsense
and try to climb her, tall and dark and rough as sugarcane
and don’t know until they’re whittled down how they’ve scraped
themselves dead. They say the men were the first to undo her name;
thinking burying it would rot her magic, that long cry
they were compelled to answer; they hung all five-toed dogs
because they alone knew her scent—
there was a time her silhouette shadowed the full moon, they say.
They say. They say. They say. Tuh, I’m lying. No one says. Who tells
her story anymore? She has no mother, La Ciguapa, and no children,
certainly not her people’s tongues: we who have forgotten all our sacred monsters.
Why did you choose this poem (or excerpt)?
This is the first poem in the collection and really opens up the question of what it means to forget your folklore and the myths that have guided the creation of your culture. In my case, the many stories that have informed the Dominican Republic as it created a national and cultural identity. The chapbook travels in time but is always regarding the mythic and how the myth we make of ourselves is crafted from the origin stories of the places that raised us.
What are some of your favorite chapbooks? Or what are some chapbooks that have influenced your writing?
Some of my favorite chapbooks include: Clint Smith’s Line Breaks, Rachel Eliza Griffith’s Mule & Pear, Safia Elhillo’s Asmarani, Terisa Siagatonu’s Remember We Have Choir Practice, Alysia Harris’ How Much We Must Have Looked Like Stars To Stars, Nate Marshall’s Blood Precussion, and Mahogany Browne’s Smudge. Each one of these collections taught me how to put together a tight and short manuscript that pulses around one common chord.
What might these favorite or influential chapbooks suggest about you and your writing?
Many of these chapbooks are by my contemporaries and I’m moved by the conversation I think we are all having of considering place and home and the ferocity of language it takes to reclaim all the pieces that make us. I marvel at how these writers create joy and reverence on the page and honor spaces that are so easily denigrated by outsiders. And in many ways, those collections are ones that are considering what it means to be on the outside, on the fringe. And perhaps I am drawn to them because I too am grappling with centering myself within marginalization.
Does the chapbook form have an impact on the politics of the poems that appear inside it?
For me, the chapbook had to tell a more focused story than the full length. I’m not sure if that necessarily impacted the politics, but it certainly focused the central ideas.
What obsessions led you to write your chapbook?
Myths. All the stories I heard through whispers growing up that weren’t written down in any one centralized location. I wanted to savor my mother’s stories, my grandfather’s riddles, but I knew if I didn’t write them the stories would die with them. This chapbook is such an homage to the Caribbean and the dress she has created for herself from the ruins.
What’s your chapbook about?
Women. Blackness. The Caribbean. Indigenous warrior queens. Harlem. Violence. Superstitions. Rats. Trains.
What’s the oldest piece in your chapbook? Or can you name one poem that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the chapbook? What do you remember about writing it?
Funny enough, for the three years I was in my MFA for Poetry I was actually writing an epic fantasy novel set in New York and the Dominican Republic. I sent it off with high hopes and Harry Potter-success-like-dreams, and it was handidly rejected…as it should have been because it was a hot mess. It was also a huge heartbreak for me because I loved so much of what was introduced in that manuscript. The oldest poem in this collection, La Ultima Cacique, first appeared in that manuscript as a dream sequence that introduced a character. After pulling that poem out I deconstructed many of the other scenes and thought about whether or not they would be served better through poetry. I think in many ways the story of writing this chapbook reflects the content. How do you resurrect the integrity of something from a failed attempt? How do you create a people from a false ideology of national unity? How do you manifest a common dream that has so many different origin stories? What do you take with you as poetry and what do you choose to leave behind as too prosaic?
How did you decide on the arrangement and title of your chapbook?
The poem “The Story of La Negra, A Bio-Myth” was inspired by Safia Elhillo, and in that poem was the first time I wrote the word “beastgirl.” This collection quickly became about the myths I’ve been told, the origin myths, and the myths told about negras (beastgirls) like me.
Which poem is the “misfit” in your collection and why?
“Brother Myth” is definitely a misfit. It fits because it’s still a play at the myth, but it’s part of a longer sequences that touches on my brother’s mental illness. Within the chapbook is stands alone and I don’t think the poems around it serve to help “Brother Myth” resonate in the way it does when in conversation with the other brother poems. In retrospect, if I could pull one out it would be that one…but who knows. Maybe my subconscious saw something there when I was ordering that I can’t see right now.
What has the editorial and production experience with the press who picked up your chapbook been like? To what degree did you collaborate on the cover image and design of your chapbook?
I love YesYes Books. KMA is a sharp reader and I really trusted her editorial eye. We went back and forth a lot trying to figure out the best order, the best title, the best cover. We both gave suggestions on potential covers, and I actually sent Erin “BrookylnDolly” Robinson’s entire portfolio for KMA to browse when we were considering a cover. It so happened that the piece KMA thought would work best was also my favorite, although I had been hesitant to say so. I’m so grateful Robinson allowed us to use her work. It’s a majestic and magical cover.
What are you working on now?
My first young adult novel, The Poet X (HarperCollins) will be out in 2018 and I’m currently working on my second novel. My first full-length poetry collection Medusa Reads La Negra’s Palm (Tupelo Press) was the winner of the 2016 Berkshire Prize and I’m working on edits for that now.
Elizabeth Acevedo is the youngest child and only daughter of Dominican immigrants. She holds a BA in Performing Arts from the George Washington University and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Maryland. With over fourteen years of performance experience, Acevedo has toured her poetry nationally and internationally. She is a National Poetry Slam Champion, Cave Canem Fellow, CantoMundo Fellow, and participant of the Callaloo Writer’s Workshop. She has two collections of poetry, Beastgirl & Other Origin Myths (YesYes Books, 2016) and winner of the 2016 Berkshire Prize, Medusa Reads La Negra’s Palm (Tupelo Press, forthcoming). The Poet X (HarperCollins, 2018) is her debut novel. She lives with her partner in Washington, DC.
Social media: @AcevedoWrites