Editor’s Corner: An Interview with Peter LaBerge of The Adroit Journal
Interview conducted by Stevie Edwards
Peter LaBerge is a poetry editor wunderkind. He founded The Adroit Journal in 2010 while he was still in high school with the mission of creating a space where high school students could be featured alongside established writers. Since then, The Adroit Journal has become one of the most selective literary journals in the country, currently listed on Duotrope.com as having a .46% acceptance rate. The Adroit Journal publishes poetry, prose, and art. Work from Adroit has been honored by inclusion in Best American Poetry, Pushcart Prizes: Best of the Small Presses, Best of the Net, Best New Poets, and elsewhere.
Adroit has a massive staff (about thirty poetry readers and twenty prose readers), which makes sense given that they are known for their lickety-split submission responses. For staff applications, they specifically ask for writers who have yet to publish their first books. This focus on supporting emerging writers can also be seen in their other initiatives, including The Adroit Prizes (a writing contest for undergraduate and secondary students) and the Summer Mentorship Program (a free online mentorship program that pairs experienced writers with secondary students).
In addition to LaBerge’s generous vision for Adroit, he is also a very accomplished young poet. He is the author of the chapbooks Makeshift Cathedral (YesYes Books, 2017) and Hook (Sibling Rivalry Press, 2015). His recent work appears in Best New Poets, Crazyhorse, Harvard Review, Iowa Review, Pleiades, Tin House, and elsewhere.
Stevie Edwards: Can you talk a little bit about your path toward founding The Adroit Journal in 2010? What were your goals?
Peter LaBerge: Absolutely! I started The Adroit Journal as a sophomore in high school, over my Thanksgiving Break. I founded the journal because I was really frustrated. As a high school student, I was reading and submitting to the places I knew–Poetry Magazine, The New Yorker, AGNI, etc. Of course, my work was nowhere near the standards of these publications at that point, but nonetheless I felt that I was discouraged by the industry, rather than encouraged by it. It seemed silly to me that the industry was closed-off in this way, especially given the STEM focus of most high schools around the country and world.
Since the beginning, I’ve set forth to support young writers in high schools and college by featuring their work alongside the work of established adult writers—this was successful at the beginning, until the journal became too selective to continue to fulfill this mission in this way. At that point, I decided to found the Adroit Prizes for Poetry and Prose, which specifically recognize work by young writers and create firm spaces for them in our issues. Soon, however, the Adroit Prizes for Poetry and Prose became painfully selective, and I felt that, again, the majority was not being recognized or encouraged by them—so I founded the Adroit Journal Summer Mentorship Program, an entirely free and entirely online program that pairs high school poets, fiction writers, and nonfiction writers from around the world with established writers.
When I first founded the journal back in 2010, I didn’t realize I was doing anything out of the ordinary—I’m grateful for that naïveté. Had I realized that teens around the world weren’t starting out-of-school literary magazines in the industry all the time, I’m not sure I would’ve done it. I like to think that we’ve shown the world what young writers are capable of doing, while also encouraging other young writers to lend their editorial voices to the collective effort with their own publication initiatives and projects.
SE: On average, how much time do you spend a week on The Adroit Journal? How do you find balance between being an editor and being someone who writes poems?
PL: This, I feel, is one of those questions that will never have a perfect answer. I think of running a publication like The Adroit Journal as a lifestyle rather than an endeavor, so in that way I don’t think I really ever assign time to solely the publication. Continually, I’m reading and responding to emails and dreaming up new initiatives and innovations—on the way to and from work, during lunch breaks at work, late at night, early in the morning, on weekends…
Because I find the work enormously enriching and satisfying, I find a way to do it. It demands to be done, generally enthusiastically—but that sometimes means fewer social engagements, or less sleep, or less (no) time relaxing.
I should also say, running a publication as a student and running a publication as a working professional are two very different ballgames. I thought I would prefer running the journal as a working professional, since my schedule wouldn’t be clouded by midterms, papers, etc. But, of course, the grass is always greener on the other side—now that I’m working, I miss being able to just say to myself, “On issue release days, I’m going to completely clear my schedule and focus on email marketing and social media promotion.” Life in the workplace unfortunately doesn’t—and likely will never—work like that.
Ever since I graduated from college in May and moved out to the Bay Area to take a demanding non-literary job, I’ve been struggling even more with the balance between Adroit-ing and writing (particularly because the journal has been growing more quickly than ever, which is nonetheless so! exciting!). I think what’s taken the biggest hit is my personal writing time—I actually haven’t fully finished a poem since graduation. If there’s creative time and energy, it goes to Adroit.
From day to day, the way I see it is: while there’s of course a separation between editing/publishing and writing, I view the creative time and effort I have in light of the effect it will have. I know I’ll return to writing before long, but—at this stage, right now—what matters more to me is lifting other writers up through the work I’m doing with the Adroit Prizes, the mentorship program, and so on.
SE: What has surprised you the most about running an online literary journal?
PL: Definitely the public response to it! The first seven issues of The Adroit Journal are all in-print—when I founded the journal, I was really afraid of making it an online publication, because I wanted people to view it as a legitimate enterprise, rather than as a “teenage blog”.
Once I graduated from high school, however, I started to think more strategically about the distribution of the journal. I realized that, although people were really starting to notice the journal, they weren’t necessarily investing in their curiosity—print order rates remained rather dismal. Once I enrolled as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, and I was able to tap into funding through the Kelly Writers House, I was at a stage where the journal didn’t have to generate revenue year-over-year. As such, I decided to take the publication online—and the results have far exceeded what I ever thought they would. Within months of taking the journal online, I saw readership soar from around 15 copies of the seventh issue ordered to around 45,000 organic hits per month. I’m grateful that the journal’s organic web traffic has continued to grow quickly and steadily since the transition from print to online.
SE: Do you have any funding/revenue? If so, how did you achieve that?
PL: As I mentioned in my answer to the previous question, I’m tremendously grateful that I was able to obtain funding from the Kelly Writers House—this ranged from email and domain hosting to airfare and trainfare for contributor readings. This allowed the publication to grow both in terms of readership and legitimacy—it gave me four years to introduce and solidify a revenue plan that enables the journal to be profitable as a literary enterprise. I recognize that most publications and editors don’t have those four years of editorial incubation, so I really can’t recommend exploring literary entrepreneurship as an undergraduate (or graduate!) student enough.
SE: What are things you look for in selecting new work for publication? Also, is there anything you feel like you see too much of?
PL: It’s funny, I used to focus a lot on adherence to a certain aesthetic—if the images were lyrical and made me stop and re-read, I wanted it. I saw the journal as maintaining a certain lane of poem and story and essay. As I’ve matured as a poet and writer, however, I’ve also matured as an editor and abandoned any tethering to a conventional aesthetic. Above all, I’m interested in work that possesses simultaneous urgency and authenticity. Beyond that, I think it’s a matter of what subjectively resonates.
In terms of pet peeves, I think I have two things to say. The first is when poets try to write what they don’t know—even if it’s well-intentioned. Not to get into Good Allyship 101, but I think there’s something to be admired about a poet who can say (for example), “As a cis-straight person, what I have to say about the LGBT+ experience is perhaps not as necessary at this very moment as what this LGBT+ person has to say about it”—and then following through in terms of action. There’s no shame in supporting another poem instead of writing one every now and then. Supporting other writers instead of writing doesn’t make you any less of a writer.
The other pet peeve I have—which I’m always on the lookout for, because it’s one that I think plagued my work throughout my early years—is work that doesn’t look beyond the level of the image. One of my poetry editors has a great term that I sometimes borrow to describe this work, beautifully forgettable. It’s a technically sound sequence of images, but at the end of the day it just doesn’t have anything to say.
SE: Has being an editor changed the way you write or how you look at sending out submissions at all?
PL: Being an editor has without a doubt changed the way I write and submit my work. For one thing, as I mentioned, I’m a lot more aware of bad habits as I’m writing, and I’m therefore a lot more vigilant about axing them early-on in the drafting process. In terms of submission, I’m a lot more cognizant of submission guidelines, as well as little mistakes that can really put editors off (for instance, spelling someone’s name wrong or putting the wrong publication name in one’s cover letter—I think every publication editor has a slew of really, really bad writer submission snafus).
Beyond adherence to submission guidelines and general human decency/courtesy towards editors, the biggest lesson I have learned from eight years as an editor and a publisher has to be: DO NOT WAIT UNTIL THE DEADLINE TO SUBMIT! Editors are stressed, tired, and probably overwhelmed during and following deadline periods, and good work can get lost in a sea of submissions during deadline submissions.
SE: Do you have any advice to writers who are just starting to send out submissions to literary magazines?
PL: Aside from the above logistical tips, don’t feel self-conscious about submitting to your favorite publications, or submitting to “too many places.” Don’t allow yourself to feel like you’re too young, too early-on in your career, etc. to be taken seriously. Don’t sell you and your writing short. Every writer who is writing work that isn’t silencing or dehumanizing the marginalized deserves to be taken seriously, at the very least. I’ve initiated some really illuminating friendships and mentorships with editors who have and have not published my work—you truly never know where a submission will lead.
Ultimately, you deserve to have high standards! If you don’t think you’ll be proud to have something in a given publication five years down the road, you should perhaps reconsider submitting there today. Publication is honestly so subjective that there’s no concrete reason not to submit to your favorite journals and lit mags. At this tier, publication is generally at least partially a numbers game—with each submission, publication becomes more and more likely (even if only slightly).
I recommend submitting to as many publications that you respect and admire as you can, to the extent you’re able to do so. Like almost everyone offering advice in history has said, every shot that isn’t taken is missed (financial/other external factors aside).
SE: If you could offer just one piece of advice to an emerging writer considering starting a publication, what would it be, and why?
PL: It may sound simple, but it’s essential to consider why you want to start a publication, because that should drive the publication’s mission (and, with its mission, its main point of differentiation). I am of the firm belief that it’s no longer enough for a publication to aspire to “publish good writing” or to “publish accessible writing”—that’s something, I’m sure, that every publication producing issues today wants to do. Is your publication going to be geared towards a certain demographic? Is it going to publish work centered around a theme? Is it going to partner with or donate to a charity? What, beyond publishing good writing, will be its message, its reason for existing beyond an issue or two?
The publications that have been launched since the inception of The Adroit Journal that I think have been the most successful—publications like