Interview With Katie Byrum

Picture of Katie ByrumAuthor: Katie Byrum

We would love to hear more about your life and interests. What is your day to day life like? What are some things you find inspiring or really enjoy doing regularly?

Having a strict routine is difficult for someone who works nights. I make cocktails for a living at two different bars in Manhattan, so my schedule is kind of insane. I spend so much time being outward and social, it’s important for me to be quiet and take care of myself as much as I can on my days off. That’s my time for writing, thinking, exercise. In the mornings, I make coffee and take it up to the roof, if it’s nice, and I sit there and read for a while. Usually I’m the only person up there on a Tuesday at noon. That’s one benefit of having a lunatic’s schedule: my moments of solitude are amplified because most people in the city are at work. In the service industry, we jokingly call them “daywalkers.”

Where is the place you feel most content in the world?

My roof is one place, because it’s peaceful, and is one of the only places in this city where I can get my sense of scale back. You can be at a healthy distance from the city—you can see the whole skyline—and see clouds and stars and airplanes, which remind you there are other places in the world. Sometimes you can forget that, living here. It’s a bubble.

Also, I get a kind of wary peace by any body of water. When I was a kid in Kentucky, I lived on the Ohio River. We lost our house to flood and other natural disasters related to water, so as much as a river feels like home, it will always feel slightly haunted. I find myself drawn to it, nonetheless, almost hypnotized. I guess that’s different than being content, but it feels important too.

How did you come up with the title for your book?

It was a pretty agonizing process—we ran through a couple of titles that didn’t feel quite right. Hello, Human was one, but it felt too first-book-ish, if that makes sense. At first, Burn it Down didn’t feel right, either, but as we edited, the book grew into its title, which was one we’d been tossing around for a while.

When did you start writing Burn It Down and when did you finish?

The poems here were written sometime between 2010 and 2015. A good portion of them were written at Vermont Studio Center during 2013-14, when I was lucky enough to have two two-week residencies there, sitting at a desk overlooking the Gihon River.

Which poem in this collection was written first?

I think the earliest poem here is probably “Because it wasn’t broken” or “Visiting.” The last section “Year In Review” I’d been writing in scraps for years, but it all sort of tumbled out at once during my last session at VSC. That one is both the oldest and most recent poem in the book.

What was your revision process like for Burn It Down?

I started with two manuscripts, essentially. One core group of poems, which I’d worked on in graduate school, and another group that I came to think of as the “b-sides” of the other group. The real book ended up somewhere between the two. During revision, my main struggle—or one of them, anyway—was letting go of my attachment to some sort of chronology or temporal narrative. Letting go of my notions of “this really happened” to make way for other meanings. Matt Hart was really helpful with that.

What were you reading when you wrote Burn It Down?

I read a lot of fiction, actually—Denis Johnson, Don DeLillo, Mary Gaitskill and David Mitchell in particular. And a book I’ve loved & looked to since high school, The Kentucky Anthology (ed. Wade Hall). It’s a compilation of 200 years of writing about Kentucky: poems, diaries, essays, et c. For poetry, I read lots of things, but I kept Robert Frost and Gwendolyn Brooks particularly close to me. And Anne Carson, Jean Valentine, Gerald Stern, Muriel Rukeyser. I’m pretty much always in some stage of reading Italo Calvino’sSix Memos for the Next Millenium and Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space.

What are some of your writing habits that you have? These can be old, bad, new or just strange habits that you can’t seem to break when writing.

Stubbornness. Avoidance. Feeling the writing tugging at my sleeve, but inexplicably waiting, holding onto a thought in my head, until one day I can’t take it anymore and the whole thing just tumbles out.

What else are you working on? What else do readers have to look forward to?

I’m not writing much at the current moment, just practicing patience and compassion as I bleed out the end of my old story, a mode of speech and thought that’s particular to subject matter that’s no longer mine. Or rather, will always be mine, but isn’t what I’m looking to now. It’s important for me to break out of habits that were particular to Burn It Down, both in my life and in my manner of communicating. Linguistic tics and Byrum-isms, emotional conclusions and reflexes that may not suit me anymore. Once I find what the new subject matter is, I’ll have to find a new way to talk about it, and I’m very much looking forward to that.