The following is a guest post by Elizabeth Acevedo, a 2012-2013 intern at the Library of Congress Poetry and Literature Center.
I have a confession to make: I have not always been an avid reader of poetry. This tends to be a problem when you’re an intern at the Library of Congress Poetry and Literature Center. My first week here I was highly encouraged to borrow books off of the shelves, and I instantly saw that my new position could supplement my work as a first-year MFA student in the University of Maryland’s Creative Writing program.
As I left the Library one day, a guard had me open my bag for a security check and discovered Natalie Diaz’s When My Brother Was an Aztec. He cleared his throat, pointed at Diaz’s book, and asked, “What kind of book is that?” I’m sure I must have looked confused as I replied, “A book of poems.” He winked and answered, “Poems…right.” I understood his skepticism: at a glance, the bare-chested man on the cover adorned in tattoos and Aztec headgear seemed to be offering more than poetry. Most of the books I took home that day were recommendations or written by poets whose names circulated in workshop; Natalie Diaz’s was the first book I edged off of the shelf without prior suggestion. Perhaps I was attracted to her name, or the fact that I know very few Native American writers, or maybe it was the promise in the title. It may have been none and all of these reasons.
I wonder now if what most attracted me to Diaz’s book was that it reflects the very real sense that poetry makes me feel vulnerable, exposed. Diaz’s title has an attitude that reminded me of spoken word, and her poems are full of lines and images that packed a punch. I remember thinking, “This could easily be performed.” As someone who has performed poetry since the age of 12, and received a bachelor’s in performing arts, I am always searching for poems I can imagine fully embodied. As an intern at the Poetry and LiteratureCenter and a first-year MFA student, my prior experience with poetry is rarely appreciated. I felt incredibly vulnerable the first couple of weeks at the PLC office, where for the first time my background in spoken word wasn’t at the forefront. Every time I’ve had to ask how to pronounce a poet’s name, I’ve cringed. When a poem I didn’t know has been referenced, I’ve been quick to nod and then Google.
A couple of days ago as we tapped on our keyboards, each absorbed in our work, I asked my PLC co-worker about the Epic of Gilgamesh—it sounded familiar, but I couldn’t place my finger on it. Without condescension or hesitation, she began describing the plot: Enkidu, the Bull of Heaven, and the discovery of the ancient tablets that depicted this epic tale. In that moment, I became comfortable asking the questions I assumed I should already know. Although I have been a writer of poetry for as long as I can remember, this internship is really helping me grow as a poet. I have learned that writing is only one aspect of the work. Being a poet is allowing oneself to be exposed to the many possibilities of poems—not only being vulnerable as a writer, but as a reader, listener, and student who has to continuously allow room to learn something new.