Writers On Writing: Matt Petronzio, Journalist & Poet

Living in a city with more than 8 million people means it can be difficult to meet genuinely nice humans. New Yorkers have a reputation for being standoffish or crude — or at least that was my (mostly incorrect) impression when I moved here as an introverted, 21-year-old Midwesterner. Still, I find myself pleasantly surprised on occasion to have met, befriended, and/or worked with some of the most caring, well-intended individuals — and Matt Petronzio is one of them.

When I started at Mashable as one of many interns, I vaguely remember that we all looked at the former-interns-turned-bonafide-employees as role models. At the time, Matt wrote features for the company. He always had an interest in charity work, positivity, and the general good side of social media — things that he definitely leveraged in his future job as the Social Good Editor and now as the Deputy Editor of GlobalCitizen.

If his resume alone (and my glowing recommendation) doesn’t make you perk up when you see his name, let me tell you one of my favorite things about Matt: He’s a poet. Like, a real poet with published work who reads at legitimate POETRY READINGS! And while I’ve never seen him take the microphone, I’ve been dying to ask him about it. So here it goes.

Can you point to the moment in your formative years when you said, “That’s it! I’m going to be a writer?” or was it kind of a gradual falling in love with storytelling that hooked you?
It sounds trite, but I really think it was my general love of reading. I was a big fiction reader as a kid, blowing through books one after the other, getting lost in incredible stories. I loved the idea of being a storyteller — making worlds out of whole cloth and handing them to readers so they could lose themselves, too. I wrote little stories when I was young and wrote fiction early in college, but then I discovered poetry and everything changed. I couldn’t believe what a poet could do with a single line. Poetry riled me up, broke my heart, made me see things I didn’t know existed. And so I decided to try my hand at it. Getting my MFA and getting published in journals and magazines helped me realize I had a pretty good thing going here.

My foray into journalism was decidedly less romantic. I was editor of my high school newspaper, and I hated it. The stress, the deadlines. I remember telling myself I would never become a journalist. But then I wrote for my college paper, where I ended up being the copy chief, and I had a couple of exciting editorial internships. After that, nothing really compared to the thrill of telling a quality, timely story. I wanted to dig further into this world and tell important stories no one else was telling. That’s when I figured, if I worked at it, I could make a career out of social impact journalism — and with a lot of support from others along the way, here I am.

Do you think being a poet has made you a better journalist or vice versa?
I often get asked how my poetry and journalism are connected, and I used to think it was a weird question. It feels like each comes from a completely different part of my brain. But I realized that my background in poetry definitely informs my writing and editing in subtle ways — maybe it’s crafting a quippy lede or a catchy headline or using certain turns of phrase throughout a piece to keep a reader’s attention. Or maybe it’s thinking outside the box for a story, coming up with new ways in which it can be told. I think no matter what your job is, your creativity shines through in unexpected ways.

But for journalism, it’s also a matter of others’ creativity. As journalists, we have the amazing opportunity to interview almost anyone on the planet. When we’re mindful and inclusive and seek out diverse, unique voices, that adds so much to a story. I’ve learned a ton from my sources and subjects over the years, and I’m so grateful.

Do you have a different way of getting into the “writing zone” depending on whether you’re writing poetry or reporting?
My friend, who has a small child, once told me he’d wake up at 3 a.m. every morning to write poetry before his daughter woke up a couple of hours later, when he’d get her ready for the day and then he’d go off to his day job as a teacher.

That would be a fantastic answer to this question. I don’t have that kind of structure or willpower. For poetry, my “writing zone” is like some nebulous place that just seems to appear and disappear — the entrance to which is constantly changing locations. Imagine the Room of Requirement in Harry Potter … except it’s never there when you need it. But sometimes I’ll be on the subway and a first line will pop into my head, and that prompts an idea for a poem. Other times, a big life moment will inspire me, or something I read, or something a friend said in passing. And then there are those Sunday afternoons when I get up the courage to return to a poem I’ve been working on for ten years. Whatever it is, these days it always seems to be a strange and sudden headspace — like, “Oh shit, I guess I’m writing a poem now.”

One thing that definitely helps is community. After we graduated, some grad school friends and I started linking up about once a month to have these informal poetry workshops. We grab a beer at a bar in Brooklyn, bring our poems, and offer each other feedback. It’s low-key but it keeps us writing, and we hold each other accountable. Years later, it’s still going strong.

For my day jobs, past and present, it’s always been a little easier — I’m expected to go there and do what I’m being paid to do. If I don’t, there are consequences, so the stakes are higher. I also have dedicated time and space to write and edit every day, which of course helps me get into the zone and be productive.

I’d love to dive a little deeper into your process of writing for your day job and writing poetry. Do you approach each differently?
Writing poetry is a very solitary act for me. I need a quiet, reclusive space that offers a bit of square footage — I tend to pace and read out loud, and I’ll curse under my breath when a poem just isn’t working. So, you know, I’m not exactly working in libraries. I write all my drafts on my laptop, which some friends and professors have told me is a cardinal sin. But I’m a very visual person, so I like to see the exact shape of a poem unfold as I write it, even if I’ll tear it apart later.

I write a lot less in my current day job as an editor — I love working with my writers, helping them craft their stories and produce their best work. But when I am working on a piece of journalism, I like how it often follows a formula. For news, it’s the five W’s, inverted pyramid, lede, nut graf, kicker, etc. For longform features, you’re looking for that narrative thread throughout. The story changes, but the routine often remains the same. It’s like a puzzle; when I’m editing, I’m looking to make sure all those various pieces have fallen into place.

What advice do you have for struggling writers to get it in gear?
I’m going to use a lifeline for this one. In one of my first pieces for my college newspaper, I interviewed the university’s poet-in-residence and asked her a similar question. I wanted to know how she put pen to paper, how she overcame writer’s block. She told me writer’s block is just another way for writers to say, “I’m afraid.” As writers, creators, artists, what have you, I think we’re constantly debilitated by strange forces —  lack of confidence, fierce competition, the pressure to create something “worthwhile.” It can take a lot to overcome all that. But this poet’s advice was simple: Do it. “Show up with something lousy,” she told me. “But show up with something.”

I think about that all the time. So now that’s my advice, too. Don’t get hung up on where something will get published, or what people will think of it, or whether you’re good enough. Just get started and do it for yourself. Show up with something. It might surprise you.

Matt Petronzio is an editor, journalist, and poet based in New York City. He’s the deputy editor at international advocacy organization Global Citizen, where he helps lead a team of writers around the world covering human rights and the movement to end extreme poverty. He previously worked as the Social Good Editor at Mashable, establishing the site’s core coverage area surrounding social impact, activism, identities, philanthropy, and world-changing innovation. Matt is also the co-founder and co-curator of the Kill Genre reading series in New York City’s West Village, and he holds an MFA in poetry from Hunter College of the City University of New York. His poems have appeared in Powder Keg, PANK, InDigest, and elsewhere. You can find more at Matt’s website and on Twitter at @mattpetronzio.