Writer Spotlight: Peter LaBerge

Recently, SHANTIH Journal interviewed Peter LaBerge. SHANTIH Journal, issue 2.1, features three poems from Peter’s recently published chapbook, Makeshift Cathedral. It is our great pleasure to celebrate these works. Our conversation with Peter delved into his process and his work as an editor of the highly acclaimed Adroit Journal.

LaBerge Peter - Makeshift CathedralWhat do you want to accomplish with your poetry? I’m instinctually interested in coming to understand myself (as in my body, my identity, etc.) and finding my place in the order of things. Ironically, I think placing myself in places that are dissimilar to the personal reality of my day-to-day experience have proved most effective in achieving this goal. That is, when I write about Philadelphia or my hometown in Connecticut (the two places I’ve called home for extended periods of time) I find myself writing into the familiar, rather than into revelation. Of course, I don’t mean to suggest writing away from what one knows. I think that’s a very dangerous—if not overtly careless—game in a world with such profound intersectionality and hierarchies of oppression. I simply mean that I have to uproot myself and locate myself outside of my usual, familiar context in order to truly see myself. In other words: same body, same person, different context.

 

As editor of Adroit Journal, how does your process as an editor differ from your process as a writer? In more ways than not, I’d say! I suppose, as an editor, one doesn’t have to be open to compelling work outside of a governing aesthetic, though increasingly that’s how I’m running my editorial ship. Sometimes, I think the energy and urgency of necessary work—matters of aesthetic aside—is most compelling, and thus lands in the issue over work that feels ‘right up our alley’ as it were.
This doesn’t necessarily apply to my own work, though. I definitely experiment and change it up here and there—I’d hate for my poetry to feel stale!—but I see an aesthetic spine that orients all, or at least most, of my work. I think that’s natural, though. Perhaps healthy, even.

 

How did Adroit Journal—one of our favorites—emerge? What was your mission at the start and how has that changed? Thanks so much! I started The Adroit Journal back in November 2010, as a sophomore in high school. I’d been writing for only a few months, but I’d already decided simply being a staff reader for my high school’s literary publication wasn’t going to do it. I’d even started (woefully) sending my work out to such places as The New Yorker, Poetry Magazine, and AGNI, and honestly didn’t feel like my work was being taken seriously. (In all fairness, it probably was pretty clearly not right for any of these publications.)
At any rate, I started The Adroit Journal to create a bridge between the worlds of the professional writing world and the teenage writing world, two worlds that felt completely mutually exclusive. And, to be honest, I think there were—over the past seven years, I’ve witnessed such strives in the accessibility young writers have to literary publications and resources, both as readers and writers. I think that that’s perhaps the most essential aspect of the journal’s legacy—aside from hopefully contributing directly to the future of American poetry and prose, seeing this world open up and (to some extent) embrace teen writers who aren’t lucky enough to have practicing writers in their schools is uplifting.
In terms of developments, I think it’s been an evolving manner of offering this connection to the professional world of writing. First, it came mainly in the form of publication alongside established writers. Then, once it was clear we were receiving far more submissions than we could ever hope to accommodate, I founded the annual Adroit Prizes for Poetry and Prose. Once those became incredibly selective, I founded the entirely free & entirely online Adroit Journal Summer Mentorship Program for high school students from around the world.

 

What does your writing practice look like? It’s messy! It’s imperfect. It comes and goes, sometimes when I need it most. But to ask for a better process would, in my view, be asking more of my humanity than my humanity can give.

 Do you keep a schedule or work when you can? Definitely when I can—which is the only thing I wish I could change! But I’m happy with the work I’m producing, and I keep myself engaged & in workshops (whether formal or informal) as best I can.

 What work first influenced you? What current writers make you look forward to reading? It’s funny—I feel like most writers were first inspired by one of the Greats—Emily Dickinson, William Shakespeare, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Walt Whitman. I personally wasn’t. My first favorite writers were (and are) still on the rise—which I think has been tremendously exciting and valuable. I’ve been able to sit down and talk about life & writing with Ocean Vuong, or just recently read alongside Tarfia Faizullah and Chen Chen at the Richmond Poetry Festival. You can’t do that with Emily or Walt!

How do you stay engaged with fellow writers and editors? I’m so thankful for Facebook and social media. Especially because of the isolation that comes with being a ‘professional’ undergraduate student writer (one of a mighty relative few), I think I’ve really depending on electronic community to close the distance between my undergraduate years and the MFA/post-grad writing atmosphere.

 What gives you strength and hope as a writer? Definitely my work with young writers. I’m most certainly fearful about our collective future, both as a writer and a human being—but young writers give me faith that we’ll at least have brilliant & on-point writers chronicling and fighting far into the future.

 What are you planning to work on next? Right now, I’ve got my sights on graduation from the University of Pennsylvania later on this spring! After that—well, we’ll have to see!

What advice would Editor Peter give to Writer Peter? Vice versa? This is such an interesting question! I love it—I’m going to continue thinking about it after this. I’d say that Editor Peter would tell Writer Peter to zoom out every now and again and focus on appreciation of others’ work rather than production of his own work. I suppose Writer Peter would tell Editor Peter to mind his own business? Ha.

How can the community of writers at large support one another? By making a conscious effort to be as open and accessible as possible. I’ve seen a lot of cliques in the professional writing world that I think inhibit and discourage the growth of those who don’t belong to one. At the same time, I openly advocate for calling out problematic writing and writers, writers who appropriate, fictionalize, or trivialize the trauma and oppression of others. I only resist the exclusion of well-intentioned writers, the responsible ones.

 

What do you wish somebody would’ve told you years ago? Honestly, to enjoy being a teenager and a college student. I’ve loved the past seven years, don’t get me wrong. At the same time, I wish I’d on occasion just closed my laptop and had a bit more fun!

 

Congratulations on the chapbook! Is there an aspect of the publishing experience you’ve loved or had a strong reaction to? Thank you! Definitely—Makeshift Cathedral was the first chapbook I wrote with a distinct trajectory and a defined plan. I hope that shines through! I’m proud of Makeshift Cathedral, and I really hope that the stories of LGBT+ violence chronicled in the chapbook encourage people (allies and potential allies, as well as oppressors) to stop and think more about the people around them.

 

We want to thank you for being so generous in sharing your work with us at SHANTIH. We strive to showcase work that underscores the importance of peace – whether that is personal, political, or societal. What does “peace” mean for you and do you feel such a definition is possible in our world? The stunning poet Max Ritvo ended his poem “Poem to My Litter” with an exceptional definition of peace: “If a whole lot / of nothing happens to you … that’s peace. / Which is what we want. Trust me.” I don’t feel that it’s literally possible in this hustling, bustling world, but rather that it’s both an aspirational goal and an inevitable destination.

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