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Sheridan Alumni Spotlight: An Interview with Jacob Alvarado

Interview by Jenna James

Jacob Alvarado is a writer, poet, and publishing professional. He was the Editorial Intern for The Ampersand Review of Writing & Publishing, where he worked on Issue # 03 and co-created "Cornelius's Chapbook Corner", and the inaugural poetry editor for B222 Journal, where he worked on Issue # 1. Currently, he works as the Events and Communications Assistant for Knife Fork Book, a Toronto-based poetry micro-press created by publisher and poet Kirby (She, Poetry is Queer). His writing can be found in The Ampersand ReviewSerendipity NewsMag, and The Publisher's Desk from Pandamonium Publishing House. Follow him on Instagram @jacobalvaradopoetry. 

Jenna James: This is probably the easiest way to get to know someone in publishing—what do you like to read and what do you like to write?

Jacob Alvarado: In terms of what I read, I’ve been trying to expand my horizons a little bit lately with that. I’m the type of person to find my thing and get very fixated on it so coming out of school, I did a lot of searching as to what that might be. I really fell in love with poetry through taking Paul’s poetry workshop so I’ve started deep diving into literary CanLit poetry and that’s kind of been my biggest passion ever since. But I read all kinds of stuff—I read a lot of fiction, I’ve been trying to get more into nonfiction too to read as widely as I can.

In terms of what I write, my focus is poetry and that’s been what I’ve been working towards. I actually just found out recently that I’ll be getting a chapbook out sooner than later so I’m very pumped about that!

I’ve kind of fallen into writing different kinds of non-fiction here and there as well. The biggest example of that being that when I was working with The Ampersand Review, I wound up doing a lot more different odd jobs than other editorial interns did just because the unsolicited submissions process was a lot smaller because they were soliciting a lot of things more directly from people they knew so I wound up writing all of these book reviews for them and did quite a few and got really good at that. So now also that’s something I write a lot of too is book reviews and it’s got me thinking more critically about writing and stuff so that’s been really fun too.

JJ: I’m currently working on my first book review for The Ampersand Review!

JA: Yay!

JJ: YAY! I think I’m a little bit out of practice, but it’s going okay.

JA: Yeah, I felt the same way when I was doing my first one—it gets easier. What are you reviewing?

JJ: I’m reviewing the tenth anniversary of Kate Cayley’s short story collection, How You Were Born. It’s an easy one to write about because it’s very easy to get caught up in and love because it’s so good.... so I’m very thankful that it’s so good.

JA: That’s awesome! I can’t wait to read it.

JJ: Yeah! I’m excited to write it. So, what drew you toward your current role as Events and Communications Assistant for Knife Fork Book?

JA: It’s funny because it really all just sort of... it was one of those weird things where I kind of just stumbled into it pretty organically. The publisher of Knife Fork Book—they’re named Kirby—I met them at random because Kirby is good friends with Tali and my cohort was actually in Tali’s first ever Sheridan class and she brought Kirby in to talk about chapbook publishing and independent publishing because KFB is an all-poetry press, mostly chapbooks, they started doing full lengths now but historically speaking it’s been very indie. I was just really interested in everything Kirby was talking about in terms of do-it-yourself publishing and finding a way to get the work out there that you want. Especially if you look at or have seen what the books KFB puts together: they’re very pretty looking and often very polished compared to a lot of other chapbook presses. There’s nothing wrong with being rough around the edges, but I never knew you could do that with something smaller scale. I was really interested and talked to Kirby after and sought them out at book sales and then we organically started to become friends. I was starting to help out a little bit here and there and eventually I said, “I know this is a chill thing and not necessarily consistent hours, but I’m looking for a full-time thing and it would be kind of nice if I had a title and more of a role.” And they said “That makes sense! You can do that.” So... yeah it just happened like that! I come in and help out with events as they come up. That’s the biggest thing I've been doing running book tables and talking to people and being an ambassador for the press of sorts and then just kind of doing some odd jobs here and there as well. But it's been fun!

JJ: That lends really well to the next question: do you have an average workday or—I guess you answered it pretty well, going to different book launches and stuff—but what would you say is the most average workday for you or is there not one?

JA: There isn't really one, especially because the press is so small. I wouldn't say it's been the most formal role or the most consistent role—I just come in where I can. The biggest part of my job has definitely been representing the press at book booths. I've had a hand in doing some things I didn't expect to do. Like at The &nd Festival last year, for instance, I wound up designing the book table just because I kind of got free reign to do that. I thought, “I've never done this before. I wonder how that would work.” And then that ended up going really well!

I wound up doing a bunch of work on the website recently and I did a ton of research because we now have a page that catalogs everybody who volunteers with the press or works with the press and then also a page of every author and their bio and their information. That took a very long time, but it looks really good now.

I would say my main job is basically helping to advocate for the press being part of the face of the press along with Kirby. Especially since Kirby's one person and can't be everywhere at once. So, I help with the presence of the press, in that way.

JJ: I know for a lot of people in our program, making their way into the industry is a bit of a daunting thing. What is something that you wish you'd known before joining Knife Fork Book?

JA: I don't even know if this is something I didn't know necessarily, but it's maybe something I didn't put as much importance on. I, along with, I would say, most people coming out of CW&P are definitely much more on the introverted side. So, I know from experience that talking to new people can be hard and putting yourself out there can be hard. Especially when you're interacting with a teacher who you really respect and feel intimidated by, or you've got guest speakers coming into your classes a lot still (I'm assuming). And so, it can be easy to see this author who's got a ton of books or, I don't know, maybe somebody like Paul, who's been a publisher forever and has a lot of experience, and maybe intentionally or not create that distance.

One thing I'm realizing more and more as I work with KFB, and as I meet more people and interact more with different people in publishing is just that relationships are everything. And being nice to people is everything. I would hope everybody's being kind to one another, but I guess maybe the way I would put it is that being nice with intention is really, really important. With Kirby and Knife Fork Book, for instance, the turning point that I look back on and I think about was when they had a book sale. They used to have a brick and mortar location in Toronto and just couldn’t keep it up, so they had a big clear out sale. I live a fair journey outside of the city and it's not always the easiest thing for me to get in, but I really felt a connection to what they're doing. I didn’t know where it was going to lead necessarily, but I wanted to just be nice and reach out and say hi again because that class visit impacted me. So, I made the trip and I went and I pushed myself to do that. And it was hard because I was super nervous, and I didn't really know what I was going to say, but I came and said a nice thing and got some books and then that was the start to us texting back and forth.

And then that led to a friendship! You never know who that person is going to be that gives you that in.  Being nice with intention was something I wish I knew before, because before KFB and before being in this role where I was at book tables and interacting with tons of people. I don't think I fully understood that importance. I'm managing, obviously, but the first time I was at a book table, it was a huge learning curve. Sitting there for a ton of hours and my job basically being to talk to people. The earlier you can start getting that practice in and getting in that rhythm, the easier that kind of thing is.

Even if you're in your cubicle in an editorial role, and that's what you want to do—which is great—the relationship building is going to come up and it's going to be really important. 

JJ: That's a really good tip. I guess the other side of that would be what's the thing that you've brought with you from CW&P that you've been coming back to in your work in the industry?

JA: The one that's coming to mind right now, definitely working with KFB and then even in life in general as well is the importance of attention to detail. In this program, you're taking editing classes all the time, and you're revising your own writing all the time, and you're helping other people revise their writing all the time with feedback letters and so on.  And I think that that obviously does things like make you more sensitive to the little errors in writing and helps you polish your own stuff and all of that.

I think what I've realized as I've gotten further and further from my time in school is that the importance of getting the little things right and the way getting the little things right adds up to making things so much better has been something that's really impacted me.

It was noticing those little differences in book design that made me interested in a book in a way that other people might not have. At The &nd Festival again, for instance, I got a lot of people who came to the booth and told me they came to the booth because my display looked really good. And that was just a little thing. I put a lot of work into getting the details right and that’s just one little example. But overall, I think a big thing I took from the program was just having this attitude of  giving your best at every little part of the process, because that will just always add up to a better product. Even if it feels like a slog in the moment, or if it feels like it's not the most efficient, doing your best and giving your all makes life better and it makes your work better. 

JJ: I totally agree. And a good segue into our next question: what is something that you see in the publishing industry right now that excites you? This is kind of broad, but what is something about the directions that you see the publishing industry moving in that make you optimistic? 

JA: I think this is a trend we've been seeing for a little while now, but it's been sticking out to me recently. I've been working on a book review recently—I actually just sent some edits back to my editor yesterday, so that should get going pretty soon, which is nice—but this book I was reviewing was really cool because it's... in some ways, it's a fairly traditional, murder mystery story, but then it weaves in these elements of indigenous folklore and wendigo-type stuff, so there's kind of this horror element to it. It's this really cool fusion and I hadn't read anything like it before—I was very excited to review it. It just got me thinking about how welcoming books being published nowadays are. The experiences of different cultures are getting integrated into the mainstream and there's space for things to be fused together and for things to be a little bit weird and in a way that I don't remember from when I was younger, for instance. And it's a fairly major novel coming from McClelland & Stewart. It's still in a Canadian context, but it's from a mainstream publisher. This is not some little indie thing. And it's so easy to get poetry from all kinds of different people from all kinds of different cultural backgrounds.

Even with a small publisher like KFB, you'll see diverse authors come up. Actually, the biggest thing with KFB that's really cool is that a very large percentage of the authors are all queer and from different aspects of the queer experience.

I think what I'm trying to say is that diverse writing is so widely available and that trend just keeps  moving and we're seeing it get pushed by bigger publishers and smaller publishers alike. And there's just so much space for that kind of thing and that’s really exciting for me to see. You know, as a queer person myself, there's a very personal aspect to seeing that out there. And as someone who's interested in the world and who wants to see a lot of things, seeing different cultures be presented has been really exciting. It's so easy to gain access to all these interesting perspectives and that just makes me really excited to keep reading and to keep seeing what KFB does and to keep being in this world of publishing. It's an exciting place. 

JJ: Absolutely. Me too!

So, you mentioned a chapbook project in the works. How do you envision your writing life in five years compared to your publishing life? Where do you see yourself pushing forward and jumping off from your current role? 

JA: The KFB role has been very unique in that when I was starting it, it was kind of becoming clear it was a bit more informal and not necessarily regular. It was kind of stressing me out a little bit, to be honest, because I knew it was a part time thing. I wasn’t relying on it for steady income necessarily, but it was more that I was ready to go be told what to do and have this all be clear... and it wasn't that, but what it led to was getting this much deeper relationship with Kirby which I would say has almost become an informal mentorship of sorts. I hear a lot about the goings on of the press and I'm privy to a lot of what the editorial direction of things are, even if that's not my role.

What I'm trying to say is even if I wasn't in this defined role or in the editorial side of things right away like I wanted to be, I think getting closer to Kirby, and being privy to how one of these smaller operations runs and gets its funding and how Kirby decides what to select—those kinds of things have ignited my desire even more to learn more about how an editorial process works.

My immediate career goals right now, and what I've been working towards is trying to get some kind of editorial assistant job at a publisher, just so I can kind of  see how a bigger machine runs. I would imagine that that would be my way of making money going forward.

What I keep getting the bug for more and more is to learn enough to be able to run my own independent press and to do something like I see Kirby doing. And I mean, there's a whole community of chapbook makers and indie press people. So that's definitely a world that I definitely want to be able to put my mark on one day in a tangible way.

In terms of my writing, it's been funny. I've been thinking a lot more. I probably don't have the clearest answer with this just because I've been kind of going through a funny period with my writing. I would say there was a kind of a big period of discouragement and not feeling like I totally had a direction. And then I got this chapbook news and I was like, “Okay, I might have a thing out now!” And I might have a reason to feel legit. And that's exciting.

I would say with the writing, that's a thing I'm taking a day at a time. Especially being in poetry, one thing I'm really learning about my writing is that being so forceful about where you want to go that you don't leave room for the work to kind of surprise you and to go in the way that's most natural can be a damaging thing. And as somebody who likes to have control over situations, it's been a bit of a learning curve for me. So, I would say that's been my attitude with my writing lately. I learned to let go a little bit and take it a day at a time and to keep putting in the work and to get better.

Writing is a blue collar profession, right? It's about putting in the work day to day, or at least as regularly as you can and watching yourself grow. I certainly wasn't expecting to have a chapbook this soon. So you never know!

JJ: That is absolutely amazing. I'm so happy for you—I can't imagine! I think it's definitely the dream: coming out of the program and finding  something that you're good at and finding ways that your writing can flourish. I think it's what everyone that goes through this program hopes to happen. So, congratulations again, and thank you so much for talking with me.

JA: Yeah, my pleasure. This was fun!

JJ: I hope we can talk again soon and I will be keeping my eye out for your chapbook.

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