Peter LaBerge‘s work appears in AGNI, Best New Poets, Crazyhorse, Harvard Review, Kenyon Review Online, Pleiades, and Tin House, among others. The recipient of a 2020 Pushcart Prize for Poetry, Peter obtained his B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania and is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Adroit Journal.
Peter LaBerge is a published poet and the editor-in-chief of The Adroit Journal, which he founded as a high school sophomore in November of 2010. Born from a belief in the validity and passion of young creatives—even teenagers in high school—Adroit has proven that you don’t need an MFA or a publication credit to be a member of the literary community.
I had the opportunity to chat with Peter over the phone a few weeks ago. We discussed the evolution of Adroit and how he has navigated its growth, the unfortunate side effects of celebrating young writers, and how making mistakes can lead to something amazing.
The following Q&A has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Catherine Bai: After conceiving of the idea as a high school sophomore, what were your first concrete steps toward creating The Adroit Journal?
Peter LaBerge: I really dove in. I remember the moment viscerally: I had injured my knee, so I was out of sports for the season. I was sitting at physical therapy and thinking, I need to do something with all the time that I have. At the time, I’d been writing for about five or six months—so, really, not very long—and I was submitting everywhere and getting form-rejected (unsurprisingly, because, you know, I was a high school sophomore just starting out). I didn’t feel supported or encouraged in a world that was actively encouraging me to pursue other things like STEM. I thought, Something about this is wrong; there needs to be a support network for high school students and other emerging writers who want to pursue literary passions.
I got home from that physical therapy session and just started soliciting. I didn’t even have a website or any publication credits or anything to establish my credibility as a publisher. There was a ton of no—the overwhelming majority was no, or non-response (which is, of course, a no)—but every now and then I’d get a high-profile writer who was willing to send a poem or story our way, and gradually, the first issue came together. Everything kind of took off from there.
CB: In the early years, as Adroit was picking up faster than you could keep up, what were some of the consequences of that runaway growth?
PL: I really didn’t understand the implications of founding a journal when I founded Adroit, and in some ways, that ignorance paid off. It enabled us to cut through a lot of the slimy status-quo practices of the literary world. We’d solicit people and then reject them if we didn’t love what they sent; we would reject really big names. We disturbed a lot of questionable customs that were baked into small press culture because we just didn’t know they were customs!
In 2012, we got this review by the Review Review entitled “Youth Gone Wild.” And that was our brand: we really stood for youth “invading” the world of publishing, which was traditionally sealed off for MFA students and above.
Once the journal started to play in a bigger realm, getting unsolicited submissions from decorated writers and appearing in prize anthologies, it was difficult to see myself as part of the Establishment—a literary gatekeeper—when we were specifically fighting against that. We sought to continue serving our mission despite that growth.
The journal’s mission has always been to provide affirmation and opportunities to young writers, period. Initially, that was through publication: we would feature them alongside established writers, to affirm: Yes, you are a part of this community. But then, the issues became far too selective to reliably publish high school writers. In 2012, we started the Adroit Prizes for Poetry and Prose as a way of calling out high-school talent and potential, and then those became too selective. Then we founded our summer mentorship program, which has since also become incredibly competitive. So it’s all about what’s next: How do we continue to serve writers in this age group that has, historically, been wildly underserved?
I think that’s led to unintentional marketing that people really respond to: people have formed relationships with Adroit that they don’t customarily form with publications. We have so many different offerings and people see everything that we’re doing, day to day, to support emerging writers.
CB: Listening to you speak, it’s clear why Adroit is so good at what it does. I think what you’re trying to celebrate is something that the establishment often dismisses or ignores: they think that high school work could never be publishable… But that’s just not true.
PL: You look at what’s happened, which is that high school students are landing in Best of the Net and Best New Poets. Some college students are even landing in Best American Poetry or winning Pushcart Prizes. In some ways, that’s unfortunate, because it’s increasing the expectations that aspiring young writers have when they set out. I do feel like we as a publication are partially liable for that enhanced pressure, by celebrating writers who have accomplished incredible things by the time they’re eighteen, nineteen, twenty. It’s one of the biggest things I think about: How can we diminish that pressure? How can we provide a platform that empowers everyone and not just those who are winning awards?
On the other hand, Adroit really has argued against the mentality that high school writers aren’t ready to engage with the professional world of writing yet, and I think the resulting accolades are proof that there are tremendous benefits to encouraging teens to get involved in some capacity—whether that’s publishing, editing, or even just reading.
CB: Could you discuss your role as editor-in-chief in more detail? What are you in charge of within the various division of Adroit?
PL: With the Djanikian Scholarships for emerging writers and the Adroit Prizes, I’m involved in the final selections, and I work with our marketing team, outreach team, mentorship team, and beyond to inspire submissions. For the Prizes, we want to get the biggest selection possible, which helps us make the most exciting choices we can for semifinalists and finalists. We want to make the judges’ lives as hard as possible, in a way, to give them as many pieces as we feel are truly exceptional.
I haven’t traditionally run the mentorship program for the past two years. There, again, I’m involved in working with the marketing team to inspire as many applications as possible. But after the program ends, I myself often reach out to share opportunities with the students, like YoungArts and the Scholastic Awards, and I’ll pass along specific advice that I’ve picked up over the last eight years of submitting and watching people submit.
I’m probably most involved in the journal issues. I’ll walk through the poetry and prose submissions that make the final table and contribute to final decisions. I’ll also manage communications with contributors: reaching out with issue proofs, collecting contributor materials like bios and headshots, and addressing any edits that the contributors make after acceptance.
I think the bulk of my other work is just managing the things that come up, firefighting, and responding to emails in the editors’ inbox. Many different ecosystems, overall!
CB: Can you think of a time when you made a mistake as editor-in-chief of Adroit? What did you learn from it?
PL: The first year of the mentorship program was a complete nightmare; we had to end the program early, actually. A lot of people had health issues, we had disappearing mentors, we found that the culture of the program was strange because we had forty- to fifty-year-olds meeting up with high school sophomores… There was just a lot that went wrong. But that’s the way we built the program we have today; that’s the way we offered all of the opportunities that we offer today. I’m just grateful that things have worked out to be the way they are, however that may be.
CB: Do you have any advice for aspiring creatives?
PL: With art, you just have to remember, anybody who’s creating—or even in between creations—is an artist. You don’t have to publish, you don’t have to win, you don’t even have to know other artists. You just have to create. Your identity as an artist should be, in my view, all about your relationship with your art. If you feel centered in your art, if you feel like you’re making a difference and your art has meaning, I think that’s worth more than any award that you can get.
More information about The Adroit Journal can be found at www.theadroitjournal.org.