If the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards are prestigious enough
to be recognized as the epitome of young artistic talent in America, the
National Student Poets Program is the cherry on top of the sundae. Out of
thousands of submissions, 35 semifinalists are boiled down to five national
winners, one from each U.S. region, with their original poetry handpicked by
some of the most influential people within the arts. It is considered the
nation’s highest honor for young poets.
This year the Northeast winner is Towson native, 17-year-old Joey Reisberg. As a student at Carver Center for Arts and Technology, he is a member of the student literary magazine, Synergy, and in the future wants to use his burgeoning talent to help foster a love of writing in the classroom. On September 8, he was honored in a special ceremony at the White House by First Lady Michelle Obama and officially inducted into the NSPP. In the midst of all the excitement, we talked to him about his nomination, bright future, and the importance of observing the world around you.
Can you tell me a little about how you got into poetry?
Since I was really little, I always loved reading books, but all the books I read were mostly prose narrative. It wasn’t really until middle school that I got into poetry. I feel like a lot of times when you’re in middle school, you feel like you don’t have a voice, or you feel like people aren’t listening to you. Poetry became almost like a diary.
Were there poets you drew inspiration from, or did the
confessional style come naturally?
Sylvia Plath was definitely an inspiration to me, especially because of the intensity of her work and how courageous she was to really spill herself onto the page. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve found myself writing less and less explicitly about myself. But I’d argue that I’m still equally in everything I write even if it’s not about me.
Did your high school experience help shape your love for
Well because I’m at a magnet writing program at the Carver Center, my teachers have definitely inspired me to keep writing poetry. If I went to a zone high school, I know I would still write, but I wouldn’t necessarily have any guidance or motivation to submit to Scholastic. It was really my teachers who gave me the confidence to submit.
You had to submit a portfolio to the NSPP. How did you put
those five pieces together?
They were really a combination of school assignments and personal things. I won a Gold Key for the Northeast Region, and then my work was entered into national judging. I learned I was a semifinalist in the spring, and then they said, ‘We need new work,’ so I just took spring break and went into a writing frenzy—just churning out new poems. Out of the 35 [semifinalists], they choose five National Student Poets, one to represent each region of the United States, and I found out in the summer that I was representing the Northeast!
I feel like a lot of poets have a sort of inferiority complex, where we feel we’re not good enough. Writing is such a solitary act that you don't feel like your work is ever going to do anything for another person. Just knowing that a very talented jury of so many writers and poets that I respect deemed me and my fellow poets worthy of representing our craft, it was just so affirming of the years that I put into reading and writing.
-Courtesy of Scholastic
How was it, being inducted by Michelle Obama?
It was surreal. I still haven’t entirely processed it yet. Being in the White House was like a walking dream. Everything seems strangely familiar from TV but also so exciting and surreal. I highly doubt anything in my life will be as nerve-wracking and cool as reading a poem there. Were were also lucky enough to have a conversation about writing with Michelle Obama's speechwriters and that was very fun. Michelle Obama is so nice and wonderful. Knowing that the First Lady is passionate about poetry and this program is so rewarding as a writer.
What do your future plans look like?
This is really long-term, but I’ve always wanted to be an English teacher. I love seeing people get excited in English class. I’ve been lucky enough to have good English teachers in high school—pretty great ones—and just seeing my classmates come to life discussing old and new works of literature makes me so happy.
Would you ever consider being a poet as a career?
I’m always going to want to write poetry—I’m always going to find downtime to write, just because I feel nervous when I don’t. I have so many things to say. So I’ll always write, but teaching is really what I think I want to do with my future.
Has living in Maryland inspired or influenced any of your writing?
I’ve written some Baltimore-based poems. I’m really inspired by John Waters and Divine and that whole counterculture of Baltimore. This city has a unique spirit and lots of poetic potential. There are small groups working hard to create poetry communities, but I don’t see any poetry readings comparable to what you could find in D.C., for example. While I don’t have any set ideas in mind just yet, I know I would love to work with Baltimore residents in creating a poetry workshop or something of the sort.
Do you have any advice for young poets or writers?
Yes. Make friends with English teachers. Make friends with teachers that love words. I promise they’ll be great guides and inspirations for you. Also, keep yourself open to wonder and amazement. Don’t close yourself off to what’s going on around you. Sometimes I like to just sit and observe. When I’m waiting for the bus, I’ll just look at the way the light is hitting a building.
And this is another piece of advice: Carry an notebook so you can write down all the little things that come to you in the day, because I think being a poet means being receptive to the world around you and knowing how to translate that into words. Be receptive to the world around you.