The Dance Interview Series | Peter LaBerge

Peter LaBerge is the author of the forthcoming chapbook Hook (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2015). His poems appear or are forthcoming in Beloit Poetry Journal, Redivider, Best New Poets 2014, DIAGRAM, and Indiana Review, among others. He is currently an undergraduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, as well as the founder and editor-in-chief of The Adroit Journal.

MEGGIE : Peter, you’re an undergrad at the University of Pennsylvania, but you’ve already made a name for yourself in the writing world with a slew of accomplishments that includes serving as a guest lecturer at UC Berkeley and founding The Adroit Journal. Did you ever envision yourself achieving so much at such a young age?

PETER : Absolutely not! When I began writing at the age of fifteen (at the end of my freshman year of high school) I was in a difficult place in a lot of ways. I felt like I had all this energy I wanted to expel toward something, but nothing interested me enough. I flitted between statistics and music and theatre and even HTML/CSS coding. I wasn’t doing well in school, and I had few friends. I was desperate to find something in which I felt like I could really invest myself.

For me, writing (and, eventually, publishing) fit the bill. As soon as I discovered poetry, there was honestly no going back. I read poetry voraciously and five months after I started writing, I started The Adroit Journal. Obviously, for the first year or so I was very much still getting accustomed to writing and the implications of the craft, but the sense of obligation to become increasingly well-versed and connected (for the journal’s sake, if not my own) led me to reach for continually greater understandings of the literary world and writing itself.

I guess what I mean to say is that I really began to achieve once I began to push beyond what was handed to me, and once I knew that I was writing because I wanted to write, and for that reason alone.

MEGGIE : Can you recall the first spark of imagination & inspiration that led to your interest in writing, whether poetry or prose?

PETER : Hmm. Well, I spent a period of my freshman year of high school quite agitated with myself because I got a B on my ninth grade English poetry project (with literally a C on a poem that ended with the line, “You won’t be my clam chowder.”). Back then, I thought the whole ‘poetry thing’ was going to be an easy A, but it clearly hadn’t been.

This always presented a challenge to me, and throughout the year I wanted to prove to my professor (or, more relevantly, myself) that I had what it took to understand something that had been deeper than I’d initially assumed.

At the end of the year, one of my revised poems (called “Break-My-Heart Battlefield,” which will not be seeing the light of day anytime soon) was selected for publication in the high school literary magazine. I thought I’d written the best thing I was ever going to write, but I soon found that I wanted to write something I connected with even more. The rest, I suppose, is history.

MEGGIE : As a young writer, how much contact would you say you’ve had with older writers, middle-age and up?

PETER : Well, first of all, I feel that there is a chasm between high school and college/university writing, and — if you clear the drop — you’re effectively another step toward writing for the rest of your life. One of the main shifts, I think, is starting to see yourself as less of a “young writer” and more of an “emerging writer.”

In high school, I felt very intimidated by older writers and pretty much only communicated with them for The Adroit Journal or as a student asking a teacher for advice or words of wisdom. I felt like I didn’t have the right to participate in discussion with professional writers — what could I, a random teenage poet, have to contribute to their knowledge of poetry and poetics?

The answer, I’ve come to find out, is a lot. This week alone I’ve met multiple older writers for spur-of-the-moment coffees, lunches, or dinners around New York. As a whole, teenage and early-20’s poets have begun to offer a perspective on writing previously untapped on a professional level. It’s exciting — for us, and for (most of) ‘the bigshots.’

MEGGIE : Have you ever felt as if your age has prevented you from accomplishing certain creative endeavors, or have you ever experienced prejudice from older writers based on your age?

PETER : This is an issue I increasingly see as I get deeper and deeper into the literary world.

I think it’s worst when one is entirely unpublished. My best advice is to be relentless — if you’re at the level, someone will appreciate the work enough to take the risk (even if it takes a while, and a bit of prodding), and then the hard part is done. I was fortunate enough to begin the slow break into selective publications at the tail end of high school, so a lot of my college career has been centered around producing work that has been increasingly accepted into that class of publication. In addition, I’ve been extremely grateful for such blind recognition opportunities as Best New Poets and the Indiana Review Poetry Prize, which have shown me that it is worth my time to throw my hat into the professional writing ring.

MEGGIE : What would you say to someone who insists that teenage artists & writers are “inexperienced amateurs with nothing to offer?”

PETER : Ha. Nothing, because they aren’t worth the time, attention or space. They’re living in some age that’s not this one.

MEGGIE : Could you tell us a little bit about your forthcoming chapbook Hook, which will be released later this year from Sibling Rivalry Press?

PETER : Ever since the age of fifteen, I’ve been putting together “chapbooks” — in fact, my bio from junior year of high school used to conclude with, “He is working on his debut chapbook release.” Ironically, of course, none of that work is included in this collection of poems — and I’m very thankful that I waited.

This chapbook is close to me because it’s my first, but also because I (perhaps narcissistically) feel that someone needs to introduce its themes for broader discussion. It draws on the stories of Matthew Shepard and Bobby Griffith, among other lost-but-not-forgotten individuals. So much needs to be worked out between issues of religion and orientation, family values and gender identity. We need to take a step back and acknowledge that these issues all intersect, so they’re all going to be players in the solution.

Nothing will happen without conversation and sharing of stories; I can’t think of many more important concepts for people to discuss and understand. If my words can be any part of that process, my job as a poet is more than done.

MEGGIE : What has been your favorite part of founding and running The Adroit Journal?

PETER : The community. Absolutely. I see it every year in the form of students from rural places, students who can’t afford elite writing programs or boarding schools. The journal provides a refuge for these students to feel like they are a part of something larger, whether they are readers, staff members, editors, summer mentees, or contributors.

Aside from that, I’ve also collected a ton of amazing friends from it. That’s always a plus.

MEGGIE : Could you maybe give us a quick glimpse of your writing desk, or the space you find yourself writing in most?

PETER : Literally I write in the dark. It minimizes distraction.

MEGGIE : Do you remember what your first poem was about? If so, looking back, how would you say your writing style has changed or improved over the years?

PETER : Oh gosh. Well, I already talked about my first poem (of sorts) earlier, so I’ll concentrate on the second half of the question here.

My writing style has definitely become a lot more nuanced and well informed as the years have gone on. I generally begin with an image, and I unpack it based on the feelings and associations that come to me. Lately I’ve been very driven by color and setting, in particular.

Needless to say, no aspect of this routine existed when I was first starting out. I also had no idea what to cut, or how to place line breaks. Those steps are essential for me.

MEGGIE : And finally, what’s your favorite poem written by another writer who is approximately the same age as you?

PETER : Oh, no!!! This isn’t fair. Can I have three slots? I’m also only selecting from work that’s available online. [Also, shout-out to Brynne Rebele-Henry for being considerably younger than I am (high school sophomore — where I began…) but very much deserving of a place on this list. Look out, world.] In no particular order…

1: “Harvests” by Ian Burnette. I’ve been obsessed with this poem, and actually most of Ian’s work, since the journal published it last year.

2: “Swamps” by Caleb Kaiser. This one’s from 2012, but I love it like it was published yesterday. And I love Caleb, too.

3: “Movie Star with Vanilla Milkshake” by Talin Tahajian. Everyone who knows me knows I adore this girl. One day, maybe we’ll marry.

Contributing Editor

Meggie Royer is a writer and photographer from the Midwest who is currently majoring in Psychology at Macalester College. Her poems have previously appeared in Words Dance Magazine, The Harpoon Review, Melancholy Hyperbole, and more. She has won national medals for her poetry and a writing portfolio in the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, and was the Macalester Honorable Mention recipient of the 2015 Academy of American Poets Student Poetry Prize.