Editors Talk: Peter LaBerge, Editor-in-Chief of Adroit Journal
As a platform for emerging poets, our mission is to provide practical help for serious writers. The community lifts itself up together or not at all. In that light, we’ve been asking some great editors from around the literary community for their frank thoughts on why poems may get accepted/rejected from their own slush pile of submissions, and what poets can do to better their chances. Today we’re speaking with Peter LaBerge, Editor-in-Chief of Adroit Journal.
You founded The Adroit Journal as a high school sophomore in 2010. Can you tell us about that process?
Yes! I began writing at the end of my freshman year of high school, after a year spent waiting for some project, cause, or passion to call my name. I wasn’t particularly excited about writing at that point – in fact, I considered myself more STEM-focused (particularly since I come from a family of engineers and friends-to-math!).
However, a poem I wrote (and had to submit to my high school’s literary publication – thanks, high school English department requirements!) was accepted by the magazine at the end of my freshman year, and it was like that spark that I’d been waiting years for experience.
Over that summer, I’d written an array of poems that I thought were far more advanced and edgy than they actually were. But more importantly, I began to explore writers and writing outside of my local and school communities; with that, I began submitting to publications like The New Yorker and AGNI. Did I get in? No, of course not, but it gave me my first taste of the writerly rhythm, a taste I quickly found myself chasing.
Fast forward a few months, and I was back in the classroom for my sophomore year, and I immediately joined the magazine of that same publication that published me months earlier. Within two months, though, I’d realized that I was craving greater access to the professional world of writing, beyond the world of high school and college. It all came to a head over Thanksgiving Break of 2010, when – before I could convince myself not to – I impulsively emailed some of my favorite writers from my admittedly short time reading publications to see if they’d be interested in contributing to a new journal – and to my shock, despite the fact I was fifteen with no credentials (or even a website or name for the publication!), some were. (You can check out the Table of Contents for the first issue of The Adroit Journal, featuring these writers, here!)
I was truly struck by the writers – with all the decorations one could hope for after a long and storied career in publishing – who kindly gave me the time of day; it gave me hope for this brand new journal’s future, but also in retrospect seems to have foreshadowed the publishing world’s gradual adoption and relative celebration of teen voices. It didn’t take long to fall in love with the editorial process – from soliciting to interacting with readers and partners to organizing readings and events to crafting new offerings and programs, and so on. It all started from a couple emails over Thanksgiving break, though!
Can you talk about the work and writers you publish—any consistent themes, forms, aesthetic qualities, you look for? Feel free to shout out some writers you’ve published here.
We’re proud to feature an enormous range of writers in our collective issues – from young writers recognized through our Adroit Prizes for Poetry & Prose (our writing contest for high school and college student-aged poets and writers) and graduates of our online high school summer mentorship program to Pulitzer Prize recipients, National Book Award winners, and U.S. Poets Laureate. And thousands of writers in between.
As a body of editorial leaders spanning poetry, prose, and art, we endeavor to maintain openness to all themes, forms, and aesthetic qualities that our website can accommodate. I’m deeply grateful for that team of editorial leaders who collectively generate productive, illuminating editorial discourse each time we gather. I would recommend reading our current issue (and perhaps our recent issues) to see for yourself what sorts of work we publish.
It really has been – and continues to be – a treat to publish so many fantastic, brilliant writers, some even early in their careers. Among the many, many, many fabulous writers whose work we’ve had the pleasure of featuring are Kaveh Akbar, Fatimah Asghar, NoViolet Bulawayo, K-Ming Chang, Franny Choi, Mark Doty, Rita Dove, Terrance Hayes, Sarah Kay, Dorianne Laux, Lydia Millet, D. A. Powell, Diane Seuss, Danez Smith, Arthur Sze, Ned Vizzini, and Ocean Vuong.
What advice do you have for new poets who are submitting work?
Your work is valid no matter what a given editor thinks of it, so don’t let yourself get discouraged if you’re submitting work you love to a publication to love and they don’t go for it.
The reality is, we all fall in love with certain poems or stories or essays or artworks and eventually get overruled. And I’m sure that happens at every other publication, as well. I always try and be as encouraging as possible in my rejections; if there was heat and interest around a certain piece or around the packet as a whole, I try to say that! Of course, at just about 100k submissions received since we started using Submittable in 2011 (!), it’s simply not possible for us to provide all the encouraging feedback we would provide at the end of each reading period in an ideal world, but we do what we can.
The best advice I can often submitters is to get comfortable with rejection because everyone gets it – far more often than they get acceptances, in fact. But also, there’s a common element I’ve seen among the writers who establish publication momentum, beyond simply having talent – it’s having persistence. When they get a ‘no’, they say ‘okay, how about these?’ When they get a ‘please send more’, they do.
And if you’re interested in submitting to Adroit, please do! We’re open to submissions of poetry and art through October 31st. Details can be found here.
From a craft standpoint, what typically causes you to accept a poem? What causes you to turn the page and move on to the next submission?
I’m looking for the specific and the sensory. I want to be invited to invest in the life or day of a story’s protagonist, or invited to envision and experience the world of a poem. And, given the volume of submissions we get, I’m increasingly interested in strangeness, in new images, new metaphors, new perspectives, and new manifestations of established themes (or new, specified themes altogether!).
What causes me to turn the page and move on? Maybe a piece hasn’t found its form or contextual footing, or maybe a piece was just getting going when it ended. Or maybe the words just didn’t spark in my mind.
I love seeing work that I’ve passed on land elsewhere and get championed by another publication. What doesn’t feel ready to me often feels ready to another group of editors, and vice versa. I’ve begun looking at submission as a measure not of my skill or worth as a writer, but of subjective compatibility with one particular reader at a publication. It’s like a persistence-powered game of battleship, except good things happen as the fleet is tagged, boat by boat.
What have you learned as an editor and writer from working on Adroit? Where do you see the magazine in five years?
More than I could possibly hope to articulate in a paragraph! Reading, writing, and editing at the helm of Adroit for the past twelve years has forced me to engage on a daily basis with writing and the writing practice, even if things are happening in my personal life, even if it was midterm week, even if I’ve got writing of my own to do. You start truly seeing the world through poems and stories, not in the cliche way of seeing poems and stories come to life – but literally seeing your days and weeks unfold in relation to your editorial and literary duties!
I see Adroit continuing to expand over the next five years – in programming and in scale. We’re just on the eve of launching our first-ever charitable giving campaign (details here!) as a 501(c)3 organization, and are excited to apply those funds to enhancing the financial and infrastructural support we can offer to both our contributors and our staff members. Beyond that is anyone’s guess – but mine is that there’ll be some great writing and art involved!
Peter LaBerge is the editor-in-chief of The Adroit Journal, which he founded in 2010. His poetry has received a Pushcart Prize and has appeared in AGNI, American Poetry Review, Best New Poets, Kenyon Review, New England Review, Pleiades, Tin House, and elsewhere. Featured from Teen Vogue to TED to Poets & Writers, Peter runs an online creative writing and college counseling company called Ellipsis Writing, while pursuing his MFA in Creative Writing (Poetry) as a Writers in the Public Schools Fellow at NYU.