"So what are you gonna do with that degree?" is probably the bane of every English major's college career. For many people, English seems like a "risky" major. But, for some, the passion is worth the uncertainty. To these Penn students, writing is much more than something they do to fulfill academic obligations. Zoe, Amanda, Jessica and Peter are all united by not only a passion for poetry, but also an impressive publication history. Yet, despite their success on the page, all four maintain that writing, for them, is much more than just racking up publication credits.
Amanda Silberling C’18 and Zoe Stoller C'18
For Amanda (a former Music Editor for Street) and Zoe, writing was something they’ve loved since high school. Still, both assert that coming to Penn provided them the environment to really thrive and grow as writers and artists. “Like a lot of people at Penn, I was too much of an overachiever in high school," Amanda says, “I was just submitting a ton [to publications] and really wanted that validation. Now learning and growing as an artist and writer is a lot more important to me than publishing.” Even though she admits she hasn’t been submitting as prolifically as before, she still holds an impressive resume, with work appearing in: LEVELER, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, decomP magazine, PAPER Magazine and The Los Angeles Times, among others.
Zoe Stoller, who's recently collaborated writing poetry with Amanda, also has her share of publication credits; her work has appeared in Cleaver Magazine, DIALOGIST and Word Riot, to name a few. Amanda and Zoe have been friends since freshman year, and this year they’ve been working on a collaborative poetry chapbook. “We’re writing about Pokémon Go and the poetic surveillance behind it," Zoe explains. It started out as just a fanciful idea between the two. “We were walking down the street playing Pokémon Go and we just decided we were going to write a chapbook about it,” Zoe says.
Amanda adds, ”Zoe and I both will write about very serious things that we have lived through, but also, I love writing poems that are just poetry for the sake of having fun. I really enjoy being able to take a step back from, like, the seriousness of poetry and just be like ‘wouldn’t it be so funny if we wrote poetry about Pokémon Go?’”
Although the two have distinctly unique styles, they both agree that Penn has been a great place for them to grow as writers and artists. For Zoe, working with different professors has been a big source of creative inspiration. "It’s crazy how much I’ve grown here at Penn. I’m doing stuff now that in high school I never thought was even possible. We have the capabilities to create and self–publish, but also have our professors help us bring this out into the world. Penn’s English department is such a good place for helping you kind of finesse your writing and make it an actual fit.”
In fact, for Zoe, writing has left a permanent mark on her. She has two poetry–inspired tattoos. “This one,” she says, pointing to an arrow on her forearm, “is based on English 88, a course that I loved so much... Then I have one on my foot that says, ‘wandering creates the desert,’ which is based on a course called 'Writing Toward Diaspora' with Ari Resnikoff...it kind of changed my life,” she looks up. “That’s very telling of the kinds of classes and the kinds of professors we have at Penn—that I would go and tattoo something permanent on my body as a reminder of how much I grew in that class and how much I loved.”
Amanda feels the same way. “When I came into Penn I found writing something so stressful, so competitive, but coming to Penn and taking classes that asked questions like, 'What can a poem do?' helped me reorient myself as an artist as opposed to focusing on how to grow my resume.” She recently self–published a chapbook titled “How to Write a Good Poem,” but she acknowledges that “the title of my chapbook is kind of ironic; it’s a book about how it’s a constant exercise to be as vulnerable as possible and as honest as possible in your poetry. Sometimes the best way to do that is just to come out and say things and accept that there’s a way to be open about your experiences and, like, screw whoever says that it’s self–indulgent or deep and not metaphorical enough. You can do whatever you want as long as you feel like you’re growing as an artist.”
Jessica Li C'20
For Jessica, her first year at Penn has already been full of writing opportunities as well. Her work has been published in: The Adroit Journal, Scholastic magazine and Teen Ink, but she’s also won prizes such as first place in non–fiction for the Bennington's Young Writer's awards as well as an honorable mention in Princeton University Poetry Contest for High School Students. She loved writing growing up, but really found her passion in high school.
“In my school there wasn’t a really good outlet to write. I went to a STEM–oriented school, and I was looking for outlets of expression in writing. I found that kind of community within submitting to different contests and publications.” She eventually became editor of the literary journal at her high school and says she wanted to create a community at her school by encouraging others to submit as well.
As for her own creative process, she writes her first drafts in one sitting. “I think deadlines really motivate me,” she laughs, but admits that editing is a more arduous process. “I’ll typically just like sleep on it and wait a couple of days and see it with fresh eyes and then I’ll try to work at it from there.” She pauses, adding, “I think the really important thing to do before writing is to read writers that inspire you. Often before I write I read poetry books just to get the ideas flowing and to get into that mindset. Opening up a blank document is really intimidating. Even just like googling a short story that you always go back for is something really helpful.” She describes her own writing as “conversational,” noting, “I’ve never been one to write things in a really flowery way or try to sugarcoat things. I want to translate what I can take in my real life for the audience, to speak to the audience on a personal level. Colloquial, you know,” she pauses, considering, “conversational, relatable.”
Peter LaBerge CW’17
Aside from being a resourceful and powerful part of Penn, the literary community here is also tight–knit, and a decidedly small degree of separation exists between everyone; it almost appears that most writers and poets know each other in some capacity. Case in point: Jessica, Amanda and Zoe all know Peter. He also started publishing poems in high school.
“The first poem I published was a god–awful poem called ‘Break–My–Heart Battlefield,’ and it was in my high school’s literary magazine. When I was named a contributor at the end of the year I was shocked. It was undeniably encouraging, though—the feeling of having something worthwhile to say, something people wanted to say. I started submitting outside of school the following summer, out of intrigue more than anything else.” That sense of intrigue prompted an impressive literary career, and Peter has been featured in Beloit Poetry Journal, Harvard Review, Tin House and elsewhere. Earlier this semester, he also published his chapbook Makeshift Cathedral.
His experiences in high school also directly inspired The Adroit Journal, a literary magazine he founded in high school. “It frustrated me that there was no global community that I could find online, and no publication that played in the big leagues while also being youth–centric and youth–affirming. I saw the opportunity to make something that would fill the need I so palpably felt, and I took it,” he says, though he admits, “I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Running a literary publication is so much work––it doesn’t care if you have a personal situation, exams, college apps, etc.” Still, despite the lengthy time commitments, Peter knows, “This ever–present obligation to engage professionally with the world of writing is the main reason I decided to pursue writing—I didn’t leave myself much of a choice!”