This week, Street met up with Peter LaBerge, a junior from Greenwich, Connecticut who is studying English with a concentration in Creative Writing and a minor in Consumer Psych. Peter is a published poet, student entrepreneur and the founder/Editor–in–Chief of The Adroit Journal, a literary magazine which has received over 28,000 submissions since its conception in 2011. Peter has also received a variety of awards and fellowships for his creative writing and recently published his first anthology, Poets on Growth (Math Paper Press), as well as his first chapbook, Hook (Sibling Rivalry Press). Here are his thoughts on poetry, basketball and everything in–between.
Street: Tell us about yourself and about how you began writing poetry.
Peter LeBerge: I was fifteen, a freshman in high school and honestly at a pretty low point in life. I was frustrated, and I felt like I had all of this energy to devote to something, but nothing I cared enough about. I went through brief affairs with French language (don’t ask me about this, because I don’t remember any of it now), probability and statistics and a colossal seven–year affair with classical piano before writing had even entered my mind.
I did all of the things I thought I should traditionally enjoy as a teenage boy. I played basketball and tried to hang out exclusively with the kind of guys who understood football and girls and little else—I was caught between conflicting selves, and I wasn’t very good at managing either of them.
At the end of my freshman year, my high school’s literary magazine published a poem of mine. For the first time, I felt in my element, like I had something worth sharing with the world.
Street: Did you face a lot of rejection from publications starting out?
PL: Short answer: Heck yes. Long answer: Heck yes, and I still do.
When I was sixteen and submitting to top-tier adult literary magazines, I was mostly collecting rejections. I trusted that one day, a magazine would look at my work and appreciate it enough to give it the time of day. Everyone has a different idea of what poetry is, and what good poetry is, and the sooner you realize that, the better.
Street: You also started your own literary magazine. How did that come about?
PL: In November 2010, I founded The Adroit Journal, an online quarterly publication featuring poetry, prose and art from established and emerging writers.
As soon as I began sophomore year of high school, I immediately joined the staff of the campus literary magazine. I loved it, and by November 2010, I was sure that this was the miracle passion I had so desperately awaited.
Before I came to Penn, the journal was in print and had a dreadfully low readership (about forty people, if that). Once I got to here, I met with the good people of the Kelly Writers House, and they encouraged me to consider bringing the journal’s quality content online.
The current issue, released last month, saw about 45,000 impressions in its first three weeks online. In retrospect, I totally had no idea what running a literary publication actually entailed. It takes an enormous amount of persistence, resilience and drive to produce something that the world has never seen before.
Street: It seems like you've come a long way since establishing your magazine––what has been the biggest obstacle thus far?
PL: I would say the biggest obstacle is definitely being a student. Any room for teenage voices in the industry is often confined to the online blogosphere or literary and publishing resources that are specifically created for teens.
The founding and development of The Adroit Journal goes directly against all of this, so naturally a lot of the journal’s early days felt like swimming upstream. Whether intentional or not, there was a clear disconnect between the classroom and the professional literary world.
I think The Adroit Journal has risen to its current level because of the combined force of all the frustration and energy from the world’s talented young writers. I’m thrilled that the journal’s presence has been able to open doors for many of its young contributors, staff readers, and summer mentorship students. In 2014, a college student’s story featured in the journal was recognized in The Best American Nonrequired Reading, while an essay by an eighteen-year-old was included in The Best of the Net. In 2015, an Adroit poem by a college freshman was included in Best New Poets 2015, after the youngest poet to date (Talin Tahajian, at the age of eighteen) was included while serving as a Poetry Editor for the journal in 2014.
The reality is, we (as teenage writers sitting at “the big kids table”) feel like a minority more times than not. We are a minority, of sorts. We all just strive to be taken seriously, so I’m very grateful for any boundaries the journal and its network can push.
Street: Returning to your initial response: how is basketball like poetry?
Well, in a lot of ways, it actually isn’t. Poetry is probably the least inherently competitive activity in society today—it is all about collaboration, communication, and connection. Basketball came to represent everything that I thought I needed to understand and enjoy throughout middle school and the early stages of high school.
Poetry made me feel all of the ways basketball should have made me feel. Poetry made me realize that for all those years of scuffed knees and free throws, I was trying to live and thrive in this teeny tiny, socially-constructed, ‘masculine’ box. Some boys and men enjoy basketball. Some boys and men are good at basketball. That’s great. I happen to not be one of them. That’s also great.
Street: Favorite contemporary poets. Go.
PL: I’m going to list eight. YOLO. These are poets whose work I adore to pieces. So many people think that poetry can be boiled down to this one tired unit on the same four sonnets, the same poem by Robert Frost or (if we’re lucky) the same poem or two by a mainstream contemporary poet like Mary Oliver.
No, people! There is a poem/poet for everyone, and there is some obligation as a human being to find it and to experience human connection at its most visceral and unapologetic.
I should also add that my favorite poets are often the poets I’ve most recently read. But, for now, let these flawless poets guide you: Terrance Hayes, Mary Ruefle, Bruce Snider, Tarfia Faizullah, Carl Phillips, Frank Bidart, Natasha Trethewey and Ocean Vuong.
Street: Lightning round! Fuck, Marry, Kill—Shakespeare, Neruda, Edgar Allan Poe.
PL: Honestly, this is the easiest question so far. If I had to, I would probably fuck Neruda. I would kill Shakespeare, because I literally #canteven with sonnets, but then I might regret it, because a) I like his plays, b) I feel like there’s a (very) small chance that one day I could see the sonnet light and c) I feel like killing Shakespeare would probably be a career ender. And I would obviously marry Edgar Allan Poe as a means of fulfilling my dream of being a miserable artiste.
Street: Would you rather talk in cliches for the rest of your life or have to sing all of your poems?
PL: This is a harder one, because I feel I’m screwed either way. Honestly, I’m not quick enough on my feet to think of a cliche every time I want to say something. On the flip side, I feel like singing my poems would lead to an arrest, probably for public indecency. Like, my poems would definitely need to get a room, and I don’t think I could think I could psychologically handle that.
Street: And finally, Hillary Clinton or Hilary Duff?
PL: Easy. Hillary Clinton on a vespa in Rome.