“The little blonde ingot of feeling deeply”: an interview with Teen Sequins Guest Editor Aidan Forster

( On a lovely spring afternoon, on the occasion of Aidan becoming the first ever Teen Sequins guest editor, an interview was held via the magic of Google Docs, and the spill of conversation that such a medium allows. This is the edited version of a lengthy and lovely chat.) 

Sophie Klahr, Teen Sequins Co-Creator & Editor: Aidan! Thank you so much for agreeing to be the Guest Editor of Teen Sequins 2022! I’m terribly grateful to have a once-featured Teen Sequin taking the reins here. 

Aidan Forster, Teen Sequins 2022 Guest Editor : Thank you so much for inviting me! It’s truly an honor to return to Teen Sequins as a Guest Editor after being recognized as a high school writer to witness a new generation of shine!

SK: So, you are 21 (22?) now, and your poem “Cistern” was featured in Teen Sequins in 2016, when you were 15! I’m curious to know what your writing life was like then.

AF: Yes, 21 now! At 15, I studied creative writing at the Fine Arts Center, a half-day arts magnet school in Greenville, South Carolina, for two hours everyday. So much of what I still understand as the majesty and mysticism of writing emerged from my experiences at the Fine Arts Center, reading and writing under the guidance of poet and novelist Sarah Blackman, and it’s also where I developed my first understanding of a larger, “professional” literary world. So while I had many essential explorations into the powers of poetry as a magical tool with which to sculpt landscapes that could hold me in love and tenderness, I also turned outward, toward the world of contests, magazines, and submission managers… so it’s interesting now, thinking about how the extreme awe and reverence with which I approached poetry was always already tempered by an engagement with a market or a capitalizing audience. 

SK: Ah ! That’s truly wild to me. When I was in high school, perhaps there were internet journals (somewhere out there in the Land of Dial-Up), but I would have been hard-pressed to find some sort of coherent and consistent access to a poetry world that welcomed me as a teen–with the exception of the slam scene–had I been brave enough to crawl out from under my bed where I was basically writing poetry by flashlight. Only at the very, very end of high school was I ready to share my work with others, and even then, just barely. That’s part of why I’m so impressed every year with the bravery of those who submit to Teen Sequins!

There are so many different types of organizations and programs now for young writers, but sometimes it’s so scary to take that first step towards showing your writing to other people. What might you say to teenagers who have never done so before? 

AF: I’m so grateful for the support I received at a very young age as a person fiddling with the notion of building a writerly life around the little blonde ingot of feeling deeply and having no place to express those feelings but on the page. I teach high schoolers, students who consider themselves writers and have extensive literary pedigrees, and students who have never written a poem but find themselves fascinated by language and wordplay, and I tell all of them that there is no one way to be a writer, that you do not have to publish or perform or post your work to authenticate the constellation of feelings and circumstances that created your poems. 

There’s a danger (one to which I’ve succumbed!) in the competitive arboretum of the teen writing world to adjust your work preemptively to curry favor from this or that guest judge of this or that contest, and I want to encourage teenage writers interested in placing their work in these spaces to view publication and performance as fundamentally discrete processes from the fantastical and sometimes frightening biome of the draft. If you commit wholeheartedly to uncertainty, wonder, beauty, and strangeness in your work, that work will speak and sing for itself when and where it needs to.

SK: Amen, and beautifully put. I often give students this quote, from Lao-Tzu in the Tao Te Ching: “Do your work, then step back–the only path to peacefulness.” I used to have it written on a post-it note above my desk, along with another quote from Isak Dineson: “Write a little everyday, without hope and without despair.” I think what kills creativity so often is overthinking and expectation, and what you said about committing wholeheartedly to uncertainty in particular rings true for me. 

One of the main points I try to emphasize about Teen Sequins is that it’s not a competition! It’s a celebration— I really try to make that clear. In a landscape that so fraught with competitiveness, as you’ve been speaking of, I always hope for Teen Sequins to simply be a space where the resulting feeling of those who submit is not “Wow, I’ve won!” or “Crap, I’ve been rejected (and I’m terrible)” but somehow a neutral space of simply being proud to have offered work to the world. It seems hard for people to get into that mindset in 2022, but it truly is how I view Teen Sequins – not as a contest, but as a celebration — Robby Auld and I started the feature in 2015 in part as a way of celebrating the mentee-mentor relationship that had been kind of gifted to us out of the blue by the universe (incited by Robby’s then-14-year-old passion for writing). There is, however, the fact of being featured in Teen Sequins or not featured, and I do understand how being the latter could result in the feeling of loss. I hope it doesn’t though for too many. In your own writing life, how do you deal with “rejection” ? Has that changed for you over the years? 

AF: First – I love both of those quotes! Especially the one about writing each day, without hope and without despair. Poetry (and queerness, and queer poetry, for me) is about failure–the failure to arrive at the expected, having oxbowed into an altogether different but nonetheless lush place, but having made something beautiful from the failure. And rejection is an essential part of that process! I can’t even tell you how many little gray “Declined” boxes are clogging my Submittable… but, as silly as it sounds, sitting at the bottom of every form rejection, “no” is often “not right now.” In many situations, you’ll have another opportunity to submit, and that in and of itself offers reassurance. I’ve become very nonchalant about (most–not all!) rejections because I try so hard to maintain a solid divide between generation and publication.

In generative spaces, I allow myself to approach befuddlement and vulnerability and recklessness as necessary conditions for the poem’s emergence, to be open and honest with myself about what the poem wants and not what I think an editor will want of the poem. So on the other side of this operation, when I submit my work, I remind myself that I have shown up for my poems, and that an editor’s response to them doesn’t dictate their merit. 

After spending so many years in literary environments, it’s become easier to receive criticism and rejection. But there’s always a sting! And I don’t think that will ever change… but I also think that’s ok, to be stung into a different state, one that might change my focus for the better. 

SK: YES. Developing that habit, that muscle, of separating oneself and the actual poem from what any editor says about it is so essential. And one has to start somewhere. Acceptance to a journal often feels quite random; I’ve been submitting to Crazyhorse literally for ten years, and have never gotten a poem accepted. But the first time I sent something to The New Yorker, they took it. There’s very little rhyme or reason to acceptances, as far as I can tell. Again – it’s all a matter of doing your work, then stepping back, and being willing to continue loving the poem, and the process, no matter what anyone else says. If you had maybe a single sentence to whisper ( not creepily) in a writer’s ear who was planning to send their work to Teen Sequins, what would you say? 

AF: Yes, so random! Every writer has those strange tumbleweedish crossroads of submission luck. I submitted to DIAGRAM, the first magazine to which I ever sent work, for six years, receiving form rejections and the occasional encouraging note, before they finally accepted a poem about Britney Spears falling in love with a robot. And when I submitted my chapbook, Exit Pastoral, to YesYes Books, they selected it as a finalist, and I’d never submitted it anywhere else; I’d never even realized I could feasibly construct a chapbook from the Southern-fried musings and musettes over which I’d been laboring. 

To go back to what you said about celebration: that’s part of why I love Teen Sequins so much! And what I want to emphasize to writers interested in submitting to Teen Sequins: that writing is about pleasure! I read an interview with the actress Kim Cattrall in which she claimed this motto: “I don’t want to be in a situation where I’m not enjoying myself for more than an hour.” How silly, how seemingly simple, but I do believe there’s a poetics in this, something about leading yourself to the palatial glimmer of excitability in your own work, of not settling for less than enjoyment, less than revelation, less than a little more beauty next time–and this isn’t to say that your poems need to be happy, or to be about happiness. The pleasure of poetry is rigorous and, as poet Paul Tran emphasizes in this interview , often about humiliation, startling the self into a cowed state, but moving into and beyond that feeling towards discovery, and this movement towards discovery describes an arc of pleasure, excitement. So, to TLDR what’s become a very long whisper, I’d say: follow your pleasure

SK: I think that the universe wants us to be surprised. Another quote I used to have on a post-it: “The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.” I couldn’t be more pleased to pass the Teen Sequins editorial torch to someone so open-hearted and passionate and curious. I’m so excited to see what poems you feature this year. Any final thoughts before we say farewell this afternoon? 

AF: Thank you so much! I’m so excited to read this year’s submissions! My last piece of advice might be: read more! But also, time spent with the world is time invested in poem-making.

SK: Yes, yes!; Again: amen.

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Submissions for the Teen Sequins 2022 feature open on Friday, April 1st. To read past features and and learn about submission guidelines, visit us here!