The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Jan 24, 2013

YoungArts poetry finalist Peter LaBerge is brave as a lion

Posted by laflor

Peter LaBerge was just nominated for 2013 U.S. Presidential Scholar in the Arts and may be the next Poet Laureate of the United States because anything thing seems possible from this young, energetic 2013 YoungArts Week Writing Finalist in Poetry. LaBerge's poetry, and personality, is thoughtful and electric, intense yet luminous—and he is a senior at Greens Farms Academy in Westport, Conn. That's not all. He recently received the 2012 Elizabeth Bishop Prize in Verse and the 2012 Poetry Society of Virginia Student Second Prize. He is the Founder/Editor-in-Chief of The Adroit Journal ( and is on his way to the University of Pennsylvania. I spoke with LaBerge during YoungArts Week in Miami about his experiences as a YoungArts finalist and how this experience has changed him. He also gives some relevant advice for young, aspiring (and even older) writers.

Peter LaBerge.

Neil de la Flor: YoungArts Week is a once in a lifetime experience, but what has this experience meant to you personally and professionally?

Peter LaBerge: YoungArts Week completely changed my view on what it means to write, and what it means to be a writer—or any sort of artist, for that matter. YoungArts makes its mission to provide passionate and talented individuals with the opportunities that will help them thrive. These opportunities are exactly what I encountered at the program and are exactly what I took away from the program. Over the course of the week, YoungArts connected me with fantastic master class teachers and college professors, Bob Lynch of Americans for the Arts, and a bookstore owner interested in carrying my literary magazine The Adroit Journal, among other incredible professional contacts. In fact, YoungArts has graciously offered to promote my literary publication via their Facebook and Twitter pages, so perhaps these initial connections are just the tip of the iceberg!

Perhaps the most rewarding aspect of the program though, at least in the short term, was meeting twenty-three absolutely stunning writers. I can honestly say that I have never encountered a group of people as supportive, diverse and gifted as the other 2013 YoungArts writing finalists. I look forward to maintaining relationships with many of them in the years to come, and I am positive that I will purchase many of their books in my lifetime and say “I knew them when…”

ND: Has YoungArts transformed you and in what ways?

PL: Without a doubt. When I first arrived in Miami, I had no idea how much support existed out there for writers and artists—particularly for young writers and artists that have yet to acquire a consistent following. In that sense, I think YoungArts fills a quintessential niche; it gives teenage frontrunners of nine different artistic disciplines the professional treatment they deserve, and engages their interests in and commitments to the arts.

In retrospect, this is exactly what YoungArts has done for me. Although the finalist program itself only lasted six days, YoungArts was absolutely the most valuable experience that I as an aspiring young creator could have desired. I have returned home to Connecticut with more passion for writing and more inspiration from my peers than I have ever experienced in my life. In short, YoungArts showed me that I have the ability to pursue creative writing extensively into the years to come, and for that I cannot extend enough appreciation.

ND: Most exciting and nerve-overloading experience at YoungArts 2013?

PL: The entire week in and of itself was one consistent rush of adrenaline, so in that sense I suppose the entire week was exciting and nerve overloading. If I had to pick one specific experience from the week, however, I would probably say I was most excited and nervous for the dance interdisciplinary class the first afternoon of YoungArts Week.

(I feel that it is worth mention that God did not grace me with impeccable dance skills—or really any dance skills for that matter. As such, I generally avoid dancing or, if necessary, try to be as inconspicuous as possible.)

Basically, I arrived in Miami with the thought of dancing at the 2013 Gala on the last night already in the back of my mind, so of course it made sense that I would find myself randomly selected for a dance master class along with 30 or 40 complete strangers—some of which, by the way, were dance finalists, which didn’t help my confidence level. After about 15 minutes, however, a lightbulb went off (this is where I mostly transferred from nervous to excited), and I understood the meaning behind the interdisciplinary classes.

This class didn’t exist to teach me how to be an expert dancer (or, in my case, to poke fun at my inability to ever do such a thing)—it existed so that I could get into the mind of a different type of artist.

This class existed so that I could apply concepts that are uniquely present in other art forms to my writing. For example, I found myself learning a lot about the movement of ideas in the two-hour dance class; I am excited to apply more flow to my new work, accommodating for the many freedoms that exist within it.

ND: What would you say to young writers, even younger than you, who want to write but don’t know where or how to start?

PL: I would offer three separate pieces of advice: 1.      Read everything you can get your hands on, and don't discriminate.  The (unfortunately clichéd) saying goes “Don't judge a book by its cover,” but I think it's an incredibly important saying because nobody can afford to miss out on an inspiring work, genre or style.  In fact, one of the YoungArts writing panelists, Gailmarie Pahmeier, told me that she has discovered writers whose work she otherwise would not have stumbled upon by reading Poetry Daily every morning.  I love this idea, mainly because being exposed to endless subgenres within a genre as diverse as poetry can only further refine any aspiring poet's self-identified literary niche while simultaneously broadening his or her literary horizons. 2.      Reflect on what you read.  I think this is where my work in founding and editing The Adroit Journal while reading for Polyphony H.S. and editing my high school’s literary magazine has really been as asset. By working on three separate publications, I have been exposed to an enormous diversity of writing and have had to read it, analyze it, and answer the stunningly complex question, is this good writing? 3.      Experiment! This may be the most important step in any writer's somewhat grueling self-discovery process, simply because by experimenting a writer is testing the waters and discovering his or her literary boundaries.

ND: What do you want to be when you grow up?

PL: Personally, I find that I am able to reach satisfaction and enlightenment best through writing, so I know that writing will be a large part of whatever I ultimately end up doing.

That said, through my work with The Adroit Journal, I have uncovered an interest in marketing and management. For this reason, I am looking at the publishing industry with a favorable eye at the moment—but of course that scene is incredibly volatile at the moment, with the relatively recent introduction of online publishing and such. So, to answer your question, I suppose I want to be a ‘writer (among other things)’ when I grow up.

ND: When you write, what does it feel like?

PL: That’s a good question. It generally depends for me on what genre I am writing and to what extent I have planned out the work in my head. First of all, approximately 80% of what I write is poetry—and most of that remaining 20% never leaves the Writing folder on my computer. Recently, I have become more and more interested in experimental fiction and nonfiction, but I don’t have as much formal instruction in these disciplines as I do in poetry. Unfortunately, I think the passion for the ideas behind my essays and stories is more ephemeral, so I often write these sorts of narratives in frustrated bursts.

That said, I have a bit more of a structured approach when it comes to writing poetry. Sometimes, I will sit down at my computer and say, I would really like to write something now. And I will. And it may be good or it may not be, but I find that in those periods of time, I’m very calm and very open to wherever an initial thought takes me. Surprisingly, a few of my best pieces (including two poems that I sent as part of my YoungArts portfolio!) have originated from these sessions of relative improvisation.

More often I find myself latching onto an idea and wrestling with it in my head for a few hours. I often write poems to people, places, or things, even if there isn’t a character or object that is specifically addressed. Oftentimes, I keep a bunch of post-its on my desk where I jot down lines of verse that pop into my head so that I already have a pretty decent jumping-off point by the time I sit down to actually start writing the poem. I suppose I feel more focused when I’m writing one of these sorts of poems, because I have the objective and roadmap of the poem in mind when I set out.

ND: How do you know when something you’ve written is good?

PL: Every time somebody asked this question during YoungArts Week, the panelists would turn to each other and say one word: Time. I really do believe that time is the only way to distance yourself enough from a piece to be able to look back on it and judge its merit.

When I write, I typically let the words fall together and then give myself a short break—maybe I’ll listen to some music or eat a meal—and then I’ll return to the work and see what immediately can be omitted or added. Then I leave the work for longer, and then even longer. Generally, after coming back to the work approximately three or four times, I send it to a friend who is unfamiliar with the work and my objective in writing it.

In addition, I initiated a category last year on The Adroit Journal’s submission manager whereby staff members can upload new works and have them anonymously critiqued by other staff members. I love this feature and use it occasionally because it often leads to a lot of enlightening comments, but it also encourages staff cohesion and hones the staff’s critiquing skills. (Although there generally isn’t much to critique when it comes to the staff’s Writing Workshop submissions—when I say that the high school and college students on staff are some of the best young writers and artists in the world, I’m not exaggerating!)

ND: Are you brave?

PL: Yes—brave as a lion.

ND: What are your goals for 2013 and where can we follow your career after YoungArts?

PL: Right now, I am hoping to continue breaking into the literary world with personal publications and such, while simultaneously expanding The Adroit Journal to become an even more selective and widely distributed literary enterprise. Quite literally, you can follow my post-YoungArts career on Facebook ( or Twitter ( In a more broad sense, keep your eyes peeled if you’d like to follow my post-YoungArts career! I don’t think anyone can totally guess where I will be up the road—least of all me; that’s the way the writing world works, isn’t it?

For the Fire

Mother split the river’s ice. The water surged a colloidal breath.

The house dark, a spoiled negative, needing light, needing heat.

We loved air: the swirls of cedar bark and the perfect sunshine.

There wasn’t any other way, so Mother split the river’s ice:

together, we found. Our feet slipped through the stream as we stole wood for the fire.

The water surged a colloidal breath. The house spat darkness and smoke.

The burn. The burning.

The burned. The house heats like a lover.

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