Elizabeth Acevedo’s The Poet X (2018) is a young adult novel in verse that follows the story of a young woman named Xiomara. The poems are framed as entries in Xiomara’s secret journal, where she writes poetry that she shares with no one. Over the course of the novel, Xiomara struggles to navigate high school as a young woman who experiences sexual harassment and often clashes with her strict mother. She develops a relationship with a boy in her class, joins a poetry club, and eventually begins to perform her poetry in front of her community. Her identities as a Black and Latina woman inform her experiences throughout the novel.
In the United States, young Black women are hypersexualized in the media and their voices are undervalued in school, and in society as a whole. Complex and affirming representations of Black girls are scarce in literature and media. Acevedo enters this lack of representation and provides a story that is rooted in a young Black woman finding her voice. As a spoken word poet, Acevedo highlights the genre as an important pathway for marginalized young people to find their place in society and elevate their voices.
In the poem “At the New York Citywide Slam,” Xiomara finally performs onstage in front of her family and friends. She writes,
With Ms. Galiano’s assistance: I let the poem rise from my heart,
With Twin helping me practice: I hand it over like a present I’ve had gift wrapped,
With a brand-new notebook: I perform like I deserve to be there;
With Aman’s (and J. Cole’s) inspiration: I don’t see the standing ovation (Acevedo 353).
Acevedo uses the split form of the poem to highlight how the act of performing poetry is both a deeply individual experience of expressing one’s voice and also an act of relying on and creating community.
The division of the poem allows the reader to experience both Xiomara’s sense of being powerfully individual in the act of performing her poem, and also her simultaneous knowing that her poem, and she herself, couldn’t exist without the support of her loved ones. The phrases on the right hand side of the colons all begin with “I,” highlighting Xiomara’s individuality. In these phrases she speaks of the poem moving from her heart to her hands, presented to an audience she doesn’t even see. She is speaking her truth into existence without allowing anyone to censor it. At the same time, she is very aware of the support she receives, and the fact that the audience’s willingness to listen gives purpose to her performance. Each phrase on the left hand side of the colons begins with “With,” making each phrase a dependent clause that is left hanging without its second half. Together, the “with,” and “I” phrases form a cohesive whole. Xiomara’s voice would not have its power without her individual truth, but it would not have meaning without her supporters and her audience.