Alex Greenberg is a 14-year-old aspiring poet. His work can be found or is forthcoming in journals such as The Louisville Review, Burningword Literary Journal, Spinning Jenny, My Favorite Bullet, and Able Muse. Greenberg has won a gold key in The Scholastic Art & Writings Awards and was named a Foyle Young Poet of 2012 and 2013.
Literary Juice: Because you display such an incredible talent at the young age of 14, we would like to know: who/what inspired you to start writing poetry? What is the earliest memory you have of writing? Also, can you tell us a little bit about your first-ever published piece?
I remember a few years ago, when I was around ten or eleven, having my first graded poetry unit in English. Frankly, it bored me—I found no excitement in, nor was I good at, identifying the “right” message of a piece of Shakespearean writing. Our class studied older works of poetry, texts that were shrouded in arcane vocabulary with metaphors that, although original at the time, seemed clichéd in the 21st century. I found it difficult to relate to people who had passed away centuries ago and to connect with their experiences and beliefs. Then, one day, we had an assignment where we were allowed to bring in poems that we liked and talk about them. I think when I got home, fed up with all the abstruse poetry from class, I searched simple poetry in my computer. Over time, that search stretched its way to modern poetry and fresh poetry—that was when I came across Tracy K. Smith. I found her poem Duende on PoetryFoundation.com and it enthralled me. I saw this 40-year-old, very modern-looking African American woman, achieving more insight with plain language than the men with beards from my English class were with their thy’s and o’ers. I ordered her books, Duende and The Body’s Question (and more recently, the Pulitzer Prize winning Life on Mars). I found an unparalleled exhilaration in the simplicity of her work—it was the same exhilaration one feels when in the presence of a simple, natural phenomenon such as a rainbow or a sunset. And so I began writing, trying to emulate her style. I submitted to small press journals. Overreaching somewhat, I even tried submitting to The New Yorker and The Paris Review. And then, around my 13th birthday in January of 2013, I received a letter from the editor of a journal called The Literary Bohemian. They had accepted my poem, A Clip From Tomorrow, for their 17th issue. Now, my zeal for writing was no longer living solely in the intellectual and spiritual discoveries I made, but was part of this new game of getting published.
LJ: Where do you find your inspiration for your poetry? Is there a specific message you hope to convey through your poems?
I find inspiration in my surroundings. It’s really what it’s all about. As a poet, I feel I need to squeeze out all the meaning behind the ordinary before attempting to understand the metaphysical. I can write my most vivid pieces when in the presence of what I’m writing about—imagining a situation to write about creates work that is disingenuous, often the kind of work that lacks conviction and truth. I try and write about my family, my house, the pens and the coins that lie scattered on the floor. For me, poetry is a learning experience. All of the adornments of poetry—language, format, white space—are all beautifications and only necessary if they are used for teaching. Teaching a new way of looking at the world or teaching how two things are interconnected. A lesson is what comes from poetry.
LJ: Do you have a favorite author/poet? Who?
I won’t rave more about Tracy K. Smith, but she is definitely on the list of my favorite and most electrifying writers. I actually had the privilege of exchanging a few emails with her, sending her a few of my poems. The other writer who I owe my love for poetry to is Billy Collins. He is the doyen of American poetry, and embodies what “simple poetry” is—or at least what it should be. His book, Horoscopes For The Dead, holds some particularly thoughtful poems and demonstrates Collins's incisive way of thinking. He once said that the key to writing good poetry is the same key that achieves a good performance of a song: start low and end with a bang. This process of starting with the obvious and relatable, and than moving into the more powerful and obscure is what I model my own writing after.
LJ: Your poem, Spring Conjuring, published in our October/November 2013 edition, is very vivid and exposes a deep awareness of nature. Tell us more about the story/inspiration behind that poem. Are many of your poems nature-oriented?
Much of my poetry is geared to nature for the very reason I talked about above—the strongest poetry is about what you can see. The most glaring and extensive thing I see day in and day out is nature. The trees, the sky, even my pet cats. Spring Conjuring was a particularly personal poem. It considers nature’s process of life, death, and rebirth in relation to the human experience of simply, life and death. The speaker is a little envious of what the flower is capable of, how it will grow back next summer, but how he will not grow back. The poem is dedicated to my grandmother, who died a year before I was born. I like to think that I see some of her in my mother, that maybe she didn’t completely leave us, but managed to pass down a little bit of herself to my mom. There is a line in the poem that reads, “One day I will have to snip it
from my stomach/like an umbilical cord/and toss it to the soil/where it will sink/and be reborn.” In other words, as much as death is a time of separation and detachment, it is the time when we bring the memories and feelings of those who died that much closer to our hearts.
LJ: You are a Foyle Young Poet (2012-2013). What do you think drew the editors to your poetry? What was their reaction like?
Just to clarify, I was one of the 85 commended poets of the year—I didn’t quite make the top 15. But, the poem I submitted was called The Grass Grows Greener on My Side of The Fence in 2012, and it was a light-hearted poem with an internal rhyme scheme. It was about how two individuals can’t create something as great as a unified whole can. It encouraged teamwork and finding common ground to work harmoniously. Being commended as a Foyle Young Poet was my first achievement in the poetry world. It felt great. In the end, I think my poem was chosen frankly because it was fun to say out loud—it had a nice lilt to it. Never did I consider it one of my more profound pieces, but it just goes to show how truly subjective the writing world is. Sometimes the philosophical and scholarly approach is best and sometimes the cute and funny ones are just the right fit.