INTERVIEW WITH JAKE BYRNE
Jake Byrne is a Montreal-based poet.
Interview by Rebeccah Love
You have recently graduated from Concordia University in their creative writing program. How did you enjoy your time there? What courses will really resonate with you as you continue onwards as a writer?
Concordia’s program changed my life. Or rather, I changed my life at the same time I attended Concordia. It wasn’t all sunshine and roses – all programs have their frustrations, but ultimately I can’t speak highly enough of Sina Queyras, Trevor Ferguson, and Kate Sterns for their valuable mentorship. The professors and the relationships you form with them and your peers are worth every penny of the tuition, even if Concordia itself is pretty mediocre.
You were the Editor-in-Chief for Soliloques Anthology until very recently. Can you tell us about that publication? What were some of the struggles you were up against in this role?
Hilariously, I was a bit underprepared for this position; due to Soliloquies’s internal structure, the EIC position operates more like a managing editor, responsible for coordinating the volunteers that make up the rest of the masthead. But luckily, I had an incredible team, and a fearless and dedicated co-editor. Soliloquies Anthology has been around for twenty-one volumes, mainly due to the dedication of the students who give up their time and energy freely to provide a space for new writers. We were privileged to be able to publish vibrant and exciting work from both Montreal’s s literary community and abroad.
Some struggles: hindsight is 20/20, so oh gosh, managing fifteen other people and remaining sensitive and not stepping on anybody’s toes was a big one. I didn’t always succeed. Staying within our limited budget was a challenge as well, and those deadlines were tight. We basically had four weeks to produce a 100-page issue from theme to design to content. So getting used to sleeplessness while juggling other responsibilities.
Would I do it again? Absolutely. I’d do it differently, but in a heartbeat.
You recently took part in the Banff Centre for the Arts and Creativity’s Writing Studio program. Would you recommend this program to others? Do you find changes in scenery affect your output?
Banff’s program was incredible; having the space to relax and do nothing but write ensured I wrote more in those six weeks than I had in the previous year. I made friends that will last for ages. Every artist should go at some point. Just make sure your funding is covered!
In 2015, you were awarded the Irving Layton prize, awarded to undergraduate students at Concordia for excellence in the writing of poetry and fiction. You won for poetry, but do you ever work in fiction? If so, do you see the world in different lights as a poet or as a fiction writer?
I dabble in fiction; I had a disastrous turn attempting to write a novel in the summer of 2015. The same critical voice that pushes me to be better in my poetry just crushes my spirit when I’m writing fiction. And there are so many mechanics to manage – oh, what, you mean I actually need well-defined characters? And a plot? And I need to describe those characters getting to where they need to go to put the plot in motion? Jeez. Poetry allows me a freedom in language that brings me joy, and that’s something I haven’t been able to replicate in prose yet.
How would you characterize the imagery you are drawn towards?
I’m always at a loss for words by this question because I don’t identify as a visual thinker. Image, for me takes sweat to produce – I have to think about how to transmute and idea or a sound into something my reader can picture visually. So it really depends on what I’m writing. Lately, I’ve been writing about bombs. Nuclear bombs. So I’m spending a lot of time thinking about how to capture the desert of New Mexico without just, yahknow, describing it – what does it smell like?
What are the themes that you are grappling with in your writing?
Capitalism, mental illness, sex, how to live in the world, the quotidian sadness and joy of being alive, the fundamental mystery of the universe. Basic stuff!
What is your working space like?
Cafe or a library. I can’t work at home. I need some background noise. I’ll usually have five to ten books open in front of me, reading a page of each before putting it down and scribbling something out.
What is your favourite word?
It changes frequently. Maybe ‘smaragdine’ – it’s obscure, archaic, ornamental, and useless. A professor once called me out for using it in a story, but who’s gonna keep words alive if not for writers? (My professor was right, by the way).
Who are some poets you are thinking about a lot these days?
Changes weekly. There is no writing without reading. I’m trying to slowly work through the American contemporary landscape. Right now beside my desk is Natalie Diaz, aisha sasha john, Hieu Min Nguyen, sam sax, Peter Gizzi, Morgan Parker, Safiya Sinclair, and Tommy Pico.
What are you looking forward to?
I’m absurdly privileged to be able to devote time and energy to something I love, and I hope to keep that up as long as possible.