Here at The Adroit Journal, we care a great deal about engaging with writers we consider to be on the horizon of tomorrow’s poetry, creative prose, and art. This month, check out our staff spotlight, Poetry Reader & Summer Poetry Mentor Aline Dolinh, and feel optimistic about the future of writing. We certainly do.
First off, let’s kick things off simple: What got you into writing, and—more specifically—what drew you into writing poetry?
Aline Dolinh, Poetry Reader: As cliché as it sounds, I’ve loved to write as long as I’ve been alive. I think it stems from an almost neurotic need to narrativize my life, to keep from forgetting. When I was in elementary school, I was always trying (and failing) to start a diary; I was too much of a perfectionist to chronicle my life without adding some overarching narrative structure, so I couldn’t even write something like “I went on a field trip today!” without editorializing the experience. It was definitely obnoxious for my teachers. But even when I had ideas for stories, I could never bring my prose pieces to satisfying conclusions. In poetry, I found something more akin to myself — the poetry I encountered was hungrier, sharper-edged, and more urgent. As an incredibly detail-oriented person, I loved the deliberateness of verse.
You’ve been on the staff of The Adroit Journal for a while now. What has been your favorite part of the whole experience, and why?
AD: I know it sounds embarrassingly sentimental (granted, I’m embarrassingly sentimental in general), but the being able to immerse myself in such an incredible community of writers has been phenomenal! I absolutely loved being a poetry mentor for the journal’s Summer Mentorship Program. I’d never had the chance to personally work with a small group of poets for an extended period of time, especially in a mentoring capacity. I got to befriend and bounce ideas off a lot of people I would never talked to otherwise, and the atmosphere was unbelievably welcoming and collaborative.
The mentorship is the best! Speaking of craft, how would you say you find that first spark that ignites a piece? With what do you read, experience, imagine, or otherwise engage?
AD: For me, inspiration is wildly erratic. I can go for days without being able to write anything new, but then unleash a veritable deluge of words at three in the morning after the most arbitrary spark — for example, a surreal dream or a certain word popping into my head. I envy those responsible, methodical people that can write on schedule!
In my experience, I get my best ideas extremely late at night; there’s a slightly bizarre, unhinged quality to those hours that lends itself well to inspiration and prolific word vomit, when elements ranging from a line from a Gilmore Girls episode to a Wikipedia odyssey on obscure, clandestine CIA projects suddenly seem like they’re bursting with artistic potential. I’m not sure if I would recommend this method to anyone else, though — I’m not even sure if it’s a good method, but it’s how my brain works.
That’s the way all the best writing tips are! This is perhaps more of a conceptual question, but do you find yourself writing more to say something to a reader or to say something to yourself?
AD: I think of my work as a way to record and remember, which could be why I always find myself writing with an audience in mind. I’ve written countless pieces that have not (and probably should not) see the light of day, but even those I regard with the self-conscious, categorizing mentality of an archivist or curator.
There’s a term I love, “poetry of witness,” that Carolyn Forché helped bring into the popular lexicon; it describes work that blurs the delineations between what’s considered personal and political. I once listened to a lecture by her where she described writing as a way to “speak through time,” to be “conversant with the centuries,” and I wholeheartedly believe in that. I can only hope my writing becomes part of a time-spanning conversation. The poems I wrote when I was fourteen seem cringeworthy now, but I’m glad they exist — they’re affirmations of my embryonic teenage emotions, in all their petty, uneven glory, and they’re memorials of my past self. To me, all stories are important — even a recollection as seemingly trivial as, say, the electricity in brushing ankles with a boy I once had a crush on, seems invaluable with the distance of time.
As a writer, I’m also fascinated by historiography, the way the same people become saintly or demonic depending on who you listen to, how a single event can be observed through a thousand different prisms. I love history — I’d love to try my hand at writing nonfiction or biography someday — and I think it’s because it’s a reminder that whoever holds the (proverbial) pen is the one with the power. Being able to write one’s own experiences confers a certain degree of agency, even defiance, especially for someone like me — as an Asian-American teenage girl, I’m acutely conscious of the relative silence that those similar to me have possessed throughout history. Maybe the reason I’m so viciously determined to articulate my memories is because I’m trying to compensate for thousands of years of forgetting.
You, of course, are still a student at Oakton High School in Virginia. I can imagine that serving as National Student Poet as part of the Class of 2013 [alongside Adroit Prose Reader Nathan Cummings!] was an introduction to entirely unexplored contexts and worlds. How do you think that sudden development affected your understanding and production of poetry? How did it affect how you viewed yourself as a writer?
AD: The National Student Poets Program validated me in more ways than one. There was definitely a heady, whirlwind-like aspect to it, especially when I realized I had to go from the White House back to my sophomore English class. The process more or less forced me to become a more confident and assertive writer — somewhere in between emailing countless organizations explaining that, yes, this fourteen-year-old girl wanted to lead a poetry workshop with them and constantly having to explain why I liked poetry so much to fairly jaded peers, I figured I needed to stop selling myself short.
Going off of that, were there ever times during your post that you felt out of your element as a high school student in the ‘professional’ literary world?
AD: I definitely think my initial fourteen-year-old self would have been the poster girl for impostor syndrome! I was the youngest of a group where everyone else was (at the time) a high school senior, but we clicked immediately, and being able to feel like I was part of a cohesive team was fantastic. I owe a lot to having that support system to fall back on. In a way, the fact that I’d been shouldered with so much newfound authority while also being the “baby” of the group made me more driven. I deeply feared being seen as the weak link, but as I became more self-assured, that fear eventually evolved into an energy to throw as much of myself as I could into poetry.
Of course, all of this was back in 2013 and 2014. What have you been up to since? What in the world is on tap for Aline Dolinh?
AD: With that lead-in, I’m afraid my answer is going to sound anticlimactic! As of right now, a distressingly large portion of my creative energy has been funneled into college essays. However, I’m always trying to push myself out of my writing comfort zone, so I’ve just started working on a poetry portfolio centered on the nature of historiography and memory, as well as a one-act play about the Cold War and covert space militarization schemes (I know, it sounds like riveting stuff). Also, as weird as it sounds, I’ve been basically exclusively listening to the Hamilton soundtrack on repeat for the past month — it has my inner historian swooning, and it makes me feel guilty whenever I’m not writing.
And, lastly, name your biggest literary pet peeve. (We all have them!)
AD: I think the idea that more impassive, objective writing is somehow “better” or more substantial than writing about one’s lived experiences or emotions is garbage. With the rise of social media, platforms for young, marginalized voices have grown — and I think there’s been a bit of backlash against these literary gatekeepers, as this is a generation that hasn’t necessarily been bred by the (largely white and affluent) academy.
I get that most teenage poets aren’t going to be as focused or technically flawless — but the kids who are prolific writers on Tumblr or social justice-oriented slam poets aren’t less legitimate artists because of their chosen medium or method of delivery. The fact that poetry is becoming more accessible should be celebrated, not lamented.
Aline Dolinh is a student at Oakton High School, where she serves as the poetry editor for her the literary magazine OPUS. On a national level, she has won Gold and American Voices Medals in Poetry from the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. She also served as the 2013-14 National Student Poet for the Southeast, during which time she taught free poetry workshops to audiences ranging from non-native English speakers to elementary school students to her own classmates. Last summer, Aline mentored high school students through the 2015 Adroit Journal Summer Mentorship Program, and currently serves as a Poetry Reader for The Adroit Journal.