“I try to pledge allegiance to the voice in my head”: An Interview with Katie Byrum


Recently, we had the privilege of publishing Katie Byrum’s poem, “State of Emergency.” Katie is from Kentucky but lives in Brooklyn, where she co-curates the Tri-Lengua Reading Series and the witchy reading series COVEN. Her first collection of poems, Burn It Down, was published by Forklift Books. We sent her some questions. Here are her answers.

When you write, do you consider your audience?

I consider an audience more when I’m editing, I guess, which gets me into some trouble. As much as I can stand, I try to pledge allegiance to the voice in my head before anything. This thing I call the surrogate eye (I?), sort of like a liminal self that’s one step under or behind that critical eye. It’s closer to a primitive source somehow, and knows way better than me and is constantly calling me on my bullshit, if I can turn down enough to listen well.

I credit the powerful women I worked with in the M.F.A. program at Hunter with helping me here. I worked really closely with Catherine Barnett, who helped me start to realize my mind might do interesting things on its own if I just trust myself more, my own eye.  She helped me develop strategies for getting out of my own way, and those have been helpful beyond just the page. Donna Masini gave me some of the best poetry advice I’ve had, which was to stop trying to write poems (as in, stop pitching your voice toward what you think is A Poem and just fucking say what you mean). Jan Heller Levi (my poetry fairy godmother) encouraged me to dig in to my own life, to trust my own music and give my own strangeness some room to move. And Corinne Schneider, who’s a badass poet and reader, and a fucking bloodhound: always, always, finding the nerve, calling me on my shit, finding that moment in a poem when I hit the raw material and knowing when to ask me, hey, what’s under there?

So: I guess I consider my teachers and editors, and I have their voices circulating in my head after I’ve written something, especially Matt Hart and Amanda Smeltz, but I try not to let them in the room when I’m just on the first or second go-round. There, it’s important to have minimal interference. Too many cooks in the kitchen will really fuck up a soup.

How does your poem, “State of Emergency,” represent the type of artist you are?

This is a different kind of poem for me, actually, in terms of its form/shape. It does raise a lot of my thematic concerns, though: leaving home, driving. And weather, natural disasters. Those come up pretty frequently in my work.


Who do you think we should be reading right now, and why?

Morgan Parker. Besides having one of the best attitudes of any poet I’ve met, she’s real as fuck and isn’t afraid to look at/speak to difficult subject matter. There’s not a lick of twee in her work, none of this glossed-over floaty thing with baby owls or whatever. I’m excited she’s getting some much-deserved attention.

Tell us something about you we might be surprised to hear.

Hmm, maybe not everyone knows I used to be a dancer. My mom was a dancer my whole life—there’s a photo of her in full arabesque, nine months pregnant with me—and was the director of the Lexington Ballet Company in Kentucky for most of my childhood. I learned to move from dancers and grew up in the corner of these studios, surrounded by pianos and powdered rosin and bobby pins and dancers stretching and banging their toe shoes on the banister and stuffing them with lambswool. I knew every nook and cranny of ArtsPlace, the building where the studios were—all its secret rooms and passageways.

Backstage is a big childhood place for me, too. When the ballet would perform at the Opera House, which I remember as this decadent, haunted, velvet place, I used to scare the crap out of myself in the dark, running around the dressing rooms and hiding in the costume racks during Swan Lake and Coppélia and The Nutcracker and all these shows they’d put on. It was a busy and a colorful time. When I got older I sort of came into a relationship with dance that was separate from that inheritance, and started dancing on my own, mostly modern and jazz, a little Capoeira. That was a huge part of what I did in college.

I can’t help but bring that dance background into my life as a poet, the way I read. I look at the motions of a poem, how it circles back, where its levels are, where and why it extends. One of the other Hunter poets, Chris Slaughter, always loves giving me shit for how I can’t talk about poems without doing these certain movements with my hands.

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