I heard of “The Poet X” on social media but didn’t think I would be interested in reading it. After devouring “Long Way Down” by Jason Reynolds, I felt that no other young adult contemporary poetry book would beat that. Unfamiliar with slam poetry, I assumed that it would be too out of my comfort zone, but when I accidentally came across the audiobook on my OverDrive, I decided to give it ago.
A young girl in Harlem discovers slam poetry as a way to understand her mother’s religion and her own relationship to the world. Debut novel of renowned slam poet Elizabeth Acevedo.
Xiomara Batista feels unheard and unable to hide in her Harlem neighbourhood. Ever since her body grew into curves, she has learned to let her fists and her fierceness do the talking.
But Xiomara has plenty she wants to say, and she pours all her frustration and passion onto the pages of a leather notebook, reciting the words to herself like prayers—especially after she catches feelings for a boy in her bio class named Aman, who her family can never know about. With Mami’s determination to force her daughter to obey the laws of the church, Xiomara understands that her thoughts are best kept to herself.
So when she is invited to join her school’s slam poetry club, she doesn’t know how she could ever attend without her mami finding out, much less speak her words out loud. But still, she can’t stop thinking about performing her poems.
Because in the face of a world that may not want to hear her, Xiomara refuses to be silent.
To understand the impact this book had on me, you have to know two things: one – Elizabeth Acevedo is a slam poet and narrates the book herself; two – she is a daughter of Dominican immigrants, and the “The Poet X” reads in many ways as a memoir. If I were presented with this book as a completely fictitious narrative, it wouldn’t have swept me off my feet the way “The Poet X” did. Elizabeth narrates it in the way her protagonist is – blunt, emotional, unapologetic, fierce.
Brought up in a conservative family, with the mother who speaks to God more than she talks to her own daughter, and the father, who is more absent than present, Xiomara is left to tend to herself as she struggles with her blooming emotions. She is not allowed to even talk to boys. She is not allowed to speak up. She is not allowed to doubt things that she was taught. But Xiomara does all of those things, and her journey is an emotional rollercoaster.
There are so many reasons to love this book: it is written by a female poet of colour; its plot would appeal to any teen reader; there is first love, and heartbreak, and parents being cruel when trying to be kind. But my favourite thing was Elizabeth’s voice. Low and husky, it felt so tangible that it felt as if “The Poet X” was being told only to me and nobody else. It was a secret that I was made privy to.
Listening to the audiobook, I could see Xiomara in front of my eyes, scribbling fearlessly, relentlessly, in her notebook – a line after a line, a poem after a poem. I flew through this audiobook, my heart in my throat, as I desperately hoped for a happy ending for Xiomara. Few YA contemporary books make me anxious about character’s future. With “The Poet X”, I wanted – no, needed – a happy ending. Too many things could go wrong, and I wished for this book to prove me wrong.
And it did.
Even though I immensely enjoyed “The Poet X”, I struggled with the rating. The book is positioned as both a novel and a poetry collection, which you would not know unless you pick up a physical book. Each chapter is indeed formatted as a poem and even has a title. But listening to an audiobook felt as if it was a prose narrative through and through, except for in certain moments the author changed the tone and rhythm of her narration. I am not too familiar with slam poetry, but I have been to spoken poetry readings, and I love prose poetry, so I am a bit on the fence with this book. For me, it was mostly the prose with just a hint of poetry at times, and I wish we had gotten more rhythm, intonation and voice inflexion. All of those were present in “The Poet X” but not as much as I would have preferred given the format of the book. I wanted more of it all.
The plot and the characters are excellent, as well as the audiobook narration, but the formatting of the book seemed not to fit the idea behind it. I still loved everything about the book, but if I were a bookseller, I would be confused with whether to categorise it as a poetry collection or contemporary young adult.
If you have an option of choosing between a physical copy and an audiobook – go with the audio. Elizabeth is a professional slam poet and knows how to read her book.
My heart got squeezed so many times while I was listening to “The Poet X”. It is a fabulous read, and I wish more people would be talking about it.
Rating: 4 stars