Personal Space: Daniel Blokh


A one-on-one conversation with graduating ASFA senior and poet Daniel Blokh 

It’s hard to introduce Daniel Blokh without first offering up the highlights of his resume. At 15, Blokh won first prize in the Books-A-Million Publishing Contest for his creative memoir In Migration. He later won first place in the Princeton High School Poetry Contest and has seen his writing appear in the prestigious Kenyon Review and other literary publications. Last year, he became one of only five National Student Poets for 2018, an honor bestowed by the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers.

Currently a senior at the Alabama School of Fine Arts, Blokh took time out of his lunch break to tell us a bit about life as a child-prodigy writer.

B-Metro: Your parents immigrated from Russia before you were born, and their experience factors heavily into your writing—so much so that you once wrote of your childhood, “I am American, but I grew up Russian.” How do you think you developed such a strong identity with their heritage?

Blokh: My parents have been instrumental in my life. I think because their experience and perception of life was so shaped by growing up in Russia and immigrating to America, I saw the world largely through this Russian perspective—or a Russian-American immigrant perspective.

I also experienced things like going to the grocery store with my mother when she struggled to communicate in English, seeing that discomfort and also the longing she sometimes feels for their homeland. So I grew up exposed to Russian culture but also the Russian immigrant experience, which is a whole different beast.

B-Metro: One of your poems is titled “How to Be a 15-Year-Old Poet.” It seems to suggest people see your writing as a kind of magic trick, once they learn your age. Does that bother you, when the acclaim you get is so often mentioned in the same breath as your youth?

Blokh: It’s a difficult question, because I think some of the recognition I’ve gotten might have to do with my age. I think with some of the chatbooks I’ve published, people have been excited about publishing them in some part due to my being a young writer and wanting something like that on the scene. So I do owe something to it. I’m very thankful for it. But it also puts me in a weird position sometimes, because I still feel so emerging, developing, and even out of my depth sometimes interacting with much older writers.

B-Metro: What is that like?

Blokh: After my second poetry chatbook, Grimmening, was published by Diode Editions, they invited me to AWP, which is kind of the big writing conference now. It was mind blowing because I was there among writers I had revered for years. I had a reading with some poets I really respect who were published by the same press, which was crazy. But at the same time I felt so inexperienced compared to them.

B-Metro: What writer have you been most excited to meet?

Blokh: There are a lot of candidates for that, but maybe Tracy K. Smith. I actually met her first through winning the Princeton High School Poetry Contest. They flew the three winners to Princeton and had us give a reading and meet the poetry faculty, and Tracy K. Smith was on their poetry faculty. She’s also the Poet Laureate of the United States currently.

What made me particularly excited to speak to her is first of all because I love her writing, but she also does a lot of work spreading poetry to people who often feel excluded by it. I think it’s a common feeling—people read poems, and if they’re older poems, the language sometimes is outdated, while a lot of modern poetry can be very abstract and confusing.

B-Metro: As a National Student Poet, you’re expected to serve as a literary ambassador for your region. What does that entail?

Blokh: We’ve given readings, and there are teaching workshops—we all went into public schools in New Jersey and taught poetry workshops there. But maybe the biggest thing is that each National Student Poet has to put together a community service project. (For mine), I’m seeking to work with the Southeast Jewish community, especially responding to the concerning rise of anti-Semitism and things like the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting. I think poetry can be a powerful tool to address something so concerning.

B-Metro: You’re giving your senior reading tomorrow night. How do you plan to prepare? 

Blokh: It’s a tradition at ASFA to take the day off before your reading, and I might get my very first pedicure. One of the other students who’s reading is a girl, and a lot of other girls in my friend group are taking the day off as well. So it was their idea. 

 

PRIZED POSSESSION

A pair of white Converse sneakers signed by several of Blokh’s favorite writers.

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