In Fall 2013, admissions' hottest recruit was not a basketball star or a math genius, but 18-year-old poet Peter LaBerge.
With a book set to be published in October and countless published poems under his belt, LaBerge, now a College sophomore, has become a force to be reckoned with in the world of creative writing.
LaBerge has also placed poems in professional journals such as Indiana Review, Redivider, Copper Nickel, DIAGRAM and Beloit Poetry Journal. The ending poem of Hook, entitled “Peter,” appears in Best New Poets 2014, which was recently released nationwide.
At the age of 15, LaBerge decided to pursue his creative interests further by beginning his own bi-annual — now quarterly — literary publication, The Adroit Journal. He subsequently won a Gold Medal for Poetry from the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, among other recognitions, in his junior year. That same year, Jamie-Lee Josselyn, a 2005 College graduate and the associate director for writing recruitment for the Kelly Writers House, discovered LaBerge and convinced him to visit Penn.
Josselyn is one of a few individuals at the Kelly Writers House who works closely with the Department of Admissions to recruit young and talented writers by visiting schools and reaching out to various students and alumni who might have insight on strong candidates. Josselyn notes that she has not heard of any other colleges or universities that recruit writers in a similar way.
LaBerge's academic advisor and former professor, Al Filreis, was also involved in the recruitment process. “We saw he was an award-winning poet, and we recruited him the way a swim coach looks for and recruits talented swimmers,” he said.
After his first year at Penn, LaBerge — an English major with a concentration in creative writing and a minor in consumer psychology — became Josselyn’s assistant and over the first semester recruited multiple writers to Penn.
Caroline Harris, a high school senior, is one of those writers. After participating in a summer writing program in California, she stumbled upon The Adroit Journal. “Peter LaBerge did something truly incredible by creating Adroit. He built a global network of writers and demonstrated that writing does not have to be an isolating or solitary act … With every workshop I attend, I meet more people whose lives have been touched by Adroit,” she said.
Harris also participated in Adroit’s Summer Mentorship Program, founded by LaBerge in 2013. The program is designed to pair teen writers with volunteer graduate and undergraduate mentors. This year, it will be expanding to help mentor 40 high school students from around the world and will last from June 15 until August 1.
In addition to his work with the mentor program and the journal — which now has now received nearly 20,000 submissions and has grown to a monthly readership of 30,000 — LaBerge is still in the early stages of publishing his upcoming debut collection of poems, Hook. The chapbook, a slightly shorter collection of approximately 25 poems, is inspired by the lives of Matthew Shepard — a 21-year-old gay man who was brutally murdered in 1998 — and Bobby Griffith — also a 21-year-old gay man who committed suicide after struggling to come to terms with himself.
“It’s sort of a modern reflection on these two lives cut short and how they intersect with gender, sexuality, religion and family,” he said.
LaBerge credits his exposure to and inspiration from both cases to the Gender and Society class he took last semester. His teacher, Melanie Adley, recognized that LaBerge attached himself to the material immediately.
“He was already starting to recognize that themes of gender and sexuality ran throughout his work, but he wanted to challenge himself to use our class as a way to concretize and explore this theme,” Adley said.
"It took approaching the last year and a half of my life in poems for me to understand just how interdisciplinary my Penn experience had so far been – I was growing into a budding intellectual right under my own nose (metaphorically, of course), and I didn’t even realize it," LaBerge wrote in an article for Penn Admissions.
Despite his success, LaBerge’s status as a college student has still caused him to face ageism in the publishing world.
“It’s definitely hard to show people — writers and non-writers — that there are many student writers who are just as worthy of attention as the professionals,” he said.
Though LaBerge hopes that creative writing will always be a part of his life and plans to acquire his MFA after his time at Penn, he also admits that it’s hard to exclusively become a writer in a non-academic environment. Instead, he plans to pursue a career in advertising or branding and has already received a certificate in managerial economics, business analytics, and financial accounting through Harvard Business School’s HBX Program this past summer.
LaBerge’s biggest message is that young writers should not give up writing just because it may not fit a standard that students are taught in high school. He said he encourages students, regardless of what they plan to do after college, to look outside the classroom for writing endeavors.
“At the end of the day I’m trying to show that students of all kinds can write, while exposing these same students to contemporary poets and writers that aren’t discussed in the classroom. Specifically, I want to change how poetry is actively perceived by the average high school student.”
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