Tavi Gevinson has ideas about poetry, but then again, she has ideas about most things. Gevinson is known, and in certain quarters almost worshipped, for her sophistication in an ever-expanding series of cultural fields. She was a renowned fashion blogger at age 12, and at 15, she founded the influential online magazine Rookie, which has a readership far beyond its supposed audience of teen girls. Last fall, a few months after she graduated from high school in her suburban Chicago hometown, she starred in a revival of Kenneth Lonergan’s This Is Our Youth on Broadway, in a performance the New York Times called “astonishingly assured.”
Rookie has frequently featured poetry on its site. Now, Gevinson has curated a special section of poems, art, and essays in the July/August issue of Poetry, with most contributions from “self-proclaimed angsty teens,” as she writes in her introduction. She spoke with the Poetry Foundation recently about Bob Dylan, getting over embarrassment, and the 19th-century poem that got her through her first real breakup last year. The following interview was edited and condensed.
In your introduction, you write about “the fear so many of us have of writing and reading poetry, which is really a fear of seeming like an “angsty teen.” Why do you think so many of us have this idea of poetry as somehow embarrassing?
Certain other mediums or other kinds of writing maybe leave a bit more room to cloak what you’re feeling or thinking or trying to say in irony or detachment. But something about a poem—you’re already saying you’re trying. There’s no way to distance yourself from it because you’re already putting effort into the layout. I remember once in school, one of the definitions we got of a poem was that the writer has a lot more control over how what they’re saying is read. ... I think people in general are conditioned to find something embarrassing about making an effort in regard to wanting [their] own emotions to be understood.
I wonder if part of it is a fear of either liking or creating bad poetry.
Yeah, that goes for all creativity, I guess, and something about poetry is maybe a little more embarrassing. I feel like maybe as you get older, it becomes more and more clear that what you’re experiencing has been experienced many times, and the feelings that you’re feeling are chemical reactions that have run through billions of other bodies. And when you’re a teenager, you don’t really understand that. Like Joan Didion—although she says this happens at like age 21 or 22, but I think it’s very teenager as well—she says there’s this conviction that this has never happened to anyone else before. So when you’re younger, you feel that way, and you put it down on paper, and then you get older, and you realize your experience wasn’t that unique. You get embarrassed.
I mean, you are the only person who has ever been you or who has experienced what you’ve experienced. That’s the next level of perspective that I think is actually a lot more true. But when you reach the one just before it, when you’re like “Oh, I’m not special,” it becomes really embarrassing that you may have ever thought you were.
Why do you think so many people seem to have their most meaningful interactions with poetry during their teen years?
The only adults I know who write—and in a way, read—poetry are poets. It kind of narrows down to the people where that is actually their style of writing and their medium. When you’re a teenager, it’s easier to dabble more. ... Also, in a way, you’re protected. When I think about the poetry I wrote in high school, I felt protected because I felt like I was taking on a tone and an understood amount of drama as opposed to when I was just trying to write a personal essay, and it was straightforward. To use certain writing devices that I had used in poetry seemed melodramatic.
Poetry can feel so vital at that age, but can’t it also feel intimidating?
It probably says a lot about where I’m from that for me it was something that felt raw as opposed to, like, I was discovering the literary canon. My high school had a really great spoken word program. ... I remember the guy who led that program showing us Lil Wayne lyrics. That was more my experience with it.
That it might feel old or stuffy or hard to access—yeah, some poets, but that’s the same as some filmmakers or some writers. That just exists everywhere. I think an easy in for me, I was getting into riot grrrl when I was in high school, and I had ways of getting my hands on old riot grrrl zines. Some of them I guess were lyrics, but I liked that it was this very raw expression I classified as poetry.
I got really into Bob Dylan when I was, I guess, in middle school; he was the first thing I felt like was mine. I loved his music, and then I read Tarantula and kind of knew that it was bullshit but also was into it. Even now, I’ve been reading Patti Smith’s poetry, and it’s interesting to me what ends up accompanied by music and what ends up just itself. In terms of accessibility, I think that songwriters have always been my gateway.
Who are your favorite poets these days?
Margaret Atwood I love, E.E. Cummings I started to really like in high school. Also Jenny Zhang—she wrote an essay for this [Poetry] section, but her poetry I really like as well. We’re working on the fourth Rookie book right now, and there’s a section that’s poetry that a handful of readers sent in. There are so many good ones. There’s one by this girl named Stephanie—I don’t think she included her last name—but it’s just two lines: “We walked to the edge of the world and I pushed you off” or something.
Once I wrote that intro, then I felt like I had to clarify that I’m not just saying, “Oh, these things are great because they’re just so raw.” I don’t like being given work and being told to like it just because it’s earnest or sincere. I think those are really admirable qualities, but that’s not what sets my favorite work apart from the stuff I don’t like. It’s also that I feel that someone is skilled or insightful or what have you. Even in talking so much about the importance of being like an angsty teen, I also feel like everything that’s in this package is also just really good.
When I was in high school, a lot of my peers were really into writing poetry, but it seemed like relatively few were into reading it. Is that still true? Do you think it’s necessarily a problem?
I think with everything, it’s good to have knowledge of what people have done before you and the ways other people have approached the medium and what the standards are. That’s what allows you to break the rules and everything. But I also feel like if young people are, like, feeling like that’s what they want to do, then that’s good, and they’ll get educated at some point. …
There were a lot of classics I read in high school, but for whatever reason, because of my time and place and when I was brought into the world and the things that shaped me, newer works or more unconventional works resonated with me and shaped my brain more than a lot of books where I was able to go, “OK, I get why this is important, I get why this got us from point A to B.” But they weren’t the things that were teaching me how to live. And you can’t really decide what will resonate with you.
When I think about my touchstones that totally shaped the way I view myself and life and growing up and my work, it’s like, I Love Dick, Ghost World, The Virgin Suicides, Franny and Zooey, Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder. And you kind of can’t decide what those things will be. There’s an interview with Miranda July where they ask which books she’s embarrassed not to have read. And she’s just like, we don’t have time. There are way more books, and there’s much more artwork in general than we can ever hope to take in in our short lives. It’s just kind of about whatever finds you at the right time.
So, I think it’s great to have context when you’re writing something, but I also feel like whenever I wrote poetry when I was a teenager, it was out of necessity. I wasn’t thinking about poetry as something that had a history I was responsible for.
What are some of your early memories of falling in love with a poem or a poet?
A year ago, about when I graduated from high school, there were a few that really saved me. I was going through a really insane transition. I wrote out in watercolor Emily Brontë’s “Remembrance.” I had it on my wall at the foot of my bed, so if I started to feel totally consumed by what was happening—just graduating, ending my first-ever relationship, moving to New York and starting a Broadway play—I would look at this poem. There’s one part where she says something like “Dare not indulge in memory’s rapturous pain.” I’m a very nostalgic person, and it helps to look at that and be like high school’s over, this relationship is over.
Similarly, there’s W.H. Auden’s “O let not Time deceive you / You cannot conquer Time.” [Ed: From “As I Walked Out One Evening”] Those were good ones for a relationship that ended out of circumstances, that time is so out of our control. That’s one thing that’s very comforting to me. Once you start to realize that your feelings aren’t that special, you do start to take solace in the fact that other people have experienced and articulated them.