First, listen to him read a couple poems from the book:
When did you know you had an idea for a collection, and what was it like putting it together?
This is a book that came together over a period of about seven years. The poems were written in spurts that ranged from several days to several weeks to several months. These periods of writing typically produced poems that were formally and tonally similar. The earliest, including the section starting with “Orb-Weaver,” happened in a night on which I gave myself a piece of paper laid out on the floor for each poem, and I moved from page to page, adding a line at a time. Another couple sections (first and third) were written over a longer period of time. The original intent was for these sections to be their own, shorter collection, which I was calling National Dust Day. These poems were written on copy paper with a sharpie, in all caps, and with no line breaks. The intention was to slow down my thought and compose one liners and non-sequiturs and purely be a vessel of uninhibited thought. Later, I opened a Google doc titled “waterfalls” and mostly wrote into that to complete the remainder of the book. Not long after, I realized that the result of “waterfalls” and everything else felt like it all belonged together, and it became A Better Word for the World.
I sense a range of emotions, even just moving from line to line within the same poem. When you think of this collection, is there one particular feeling that stands out for you in your memory?
I’ve always been a big fan of Poe’s concept of “unity of effect,” even though I definitely stray from the intended effect. I’ve always wanted my poems to move the reader into uncharted psychological and emotional territory through an embrace of any emotion that might imbue a line and build unique contrasts. While Poe may have been writing toward melancholy in one piece and horror in another, my aims are vaguer. It’s that trance-like feeling that I get when I really let language control me.
The section beginning “Orb-Weaver” has nine poems which are tied together by woodland scenes with a lake or a river. Water is also mentioned throughout the rest of the book. The river reminds me of the book’s cover. How did you decide to use this central image of water?
I just love water. I love drinking it. I love wading in it. I love thinking about it. I hate when people capture it in pools and torture it with chlorine. Every one of my river memories is positive. Last year, I told a friend I had finished a book of poetry. He said, “Oh yeah, what’s it like?” I said, “It’s like my poems, I guess. It’s about rivers and the water cycle and whatnot,” which is not all it is, but you read it correctly that I was thinking a lot about rivers. I just love them. They’re calming to me. I prefer a good river to the ocean. I love how water is so essential to life and that there’s this constant rising and falling. We would die without it. It’s the ultimate drama that most people aren’t really thinking about on a day-to-day basis. For a moment, I wanted to title the book The Evaporator and the cover could’ve been a picture of me mimicking Jackson Brown on the cover of The Pretender. When I approached a close friend about potential titles, they told me they’d be more inclined to read a book called A Better Word for the World over a book called The Evaporator. I like both titles, so I don’t know if that was a moment of weakness. Maybe.
Your poem “I Was a Swamp” begins: “In a previous life, I was a swamp / and now in this life driving into a large city / feelings like driving into the internet.” I read this poem as describing a double loss: the swamp was perhaps unfairly perceived as an impure, compromised body of water to begin with, and now there’s no nature left at all, just guilt and alienation. Is there any way to go back and reclaim the swamp?
I think that loss of the swamp came from learning about all the man-made threats facing the Everglades. I liked the contrast between swamp and city and the idea of a reincarnation that can be something much broader than the movement of a soul from one biological body to another. I don’t know about reclaiming swamp. Ecologically, I think once a swamp is gone, it’s gone. There’s just the memory of it. I imagine many people would view swamps as dirty (impure) and inhospitable (to humans) environments, which is a big part of the reason I think they’re cool. I need to get to the Everglades at some point. Composition-wise, I actually started this one in the Notes app while riding in my parents’ car through the interstates of Atlanta on the way to the High Museum of Art to see Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors.
Some poems address a “you,” as in “The Evaporator,” which imagines your own sudden death and says: “And now you sit here / with these words that do not exist / And yet all seasons simultaneously greet you”. Who is the “you”? Are you addressing yourself in a detached way, or are you speaking to someone else? Maybe the reader?
I’ve always viewed “you” as the most flexible of all the pronouns. In the context of a poem or song, it has such an inviting aura for both the reader and the poet (as well as any other “character” of the poem). My poems definitely fall in line with Keats’ concept of negative capability, and my use of “you” is a huge part of how that plays out. I don’t find myself to be a very interesting person, so the possibilities allowed by the imagination and by the plasticity of language are the biggest factors as to why I write poetry and not fiction.
Do you have a favorite poem in this collection, or one that feels like the heart of the collection?
I mentioned earlier that I had strongly considered “The Evaporator” to be a titular poem. It’s easily the poem that I have the fondest memory of in terms of composition. What I did was I folded several pieces of copy paper together and drove to a nearby park that straddles the Middle Oconee River. I slowly walked through the park, writing a line or two at a time, just whenever a new line revealed itself to me. Then I went and wrote the poem “Worry Stone,” whose first line contains the book’s actual title. I mentioned the Jackson Browne album/song earlier, but I came up with the title long before writing the poem and coming up with the silly Jackson Brown concept (glad I didn’t do that). I had recently read Kafka’s short story “In the Penal Colony,” which largely revolves around an officer of said penal colony describing, in great detail, a machine built solely to torture and kill prisoners. It’s a really gripping and horrifying story, but I loved the idea of writing a poem that rigorously described a machine, though with a less grisly purpose. I couldn’t figure out what kind of machine that would be, so I decided to write the title on the front of the makeshift copy paper book and forced myself to live up to it. What resulted was easily my favorite hour of writing that I’ve ever experienced, even though it doesn’t even attempt to describe a machine called the evaporator.
What do you want readers to bring to their experience of this collection or take away from it?
I think I can mirror a previous answer: the one where I brought up Poe’s “unity of effect.” I think the ultimate reward would be to know that the reader came out of a poem feeling something impossible to name, something new. Something that would have to have a different name for anyone that feels it. In his book Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema, Andrei Tarkovsky says, “When I speak of poetry I am not thinking of it as a genre. Poetry is an awareness of the world, a particular way of relating to reality.” I really relate to that idea. I write poems to relate to the world and discover new portals of being. I hope that my poems allow the reader to do the same.
Who are your poetic influences?
My poetry sprang from writing songs in my bedroom as a teenager, so definitely songwriters, especially Dave Berman and Bill Callahan. Eventually, I started writing more when I went to college and couldn’t afford the privacy to write songs and not have people complain about the noise. It was in an introduction to poetry class taught by Peter Davis that I really discovered that poetry was my thing. Peter Davis is a unique poet. He showed me that a poem can do just about whatever it wants.
As far as poets, Frank O’Hara and Frank Stanford are probably the biggest: Stanford for his propulsive energy, darkness, and motion. And O’Hara for showing me that it’s ok to write in the way that one speaks. My influences are pretty eclectic, and they really can’t be limited to poetry. I’ve felt inspired by James Tate, Aase Berg, Heather Christle, Jason Bredle, Molly Brodak, Sam Pink, Blake Butler, Jennifer L. Knox. I could name so many.
I also feel very inspired by cinema, particularly the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, who I mentioned earlier, and Werner Herzog for his dedication to “ecstatic truth.”
Will you be able to do any in-person readings this year?
Yes! I won’t be doing a reading tour or anything that extravagant, though. My friend Laura Theobald (who also designed the cover to A Better Word for the World) has a poetry book called Salad Days set to release from Maudlin House in September. I read it last year when Laura and I exchanged manuscripts during the early part of the pandemic. It’s very good. We both live here in Athens, Georgia, so she asked me to read at her release party. So, I’m excited about that, especially since various life situations have prevented me from doing my own thing. And I’m not an extremely social person, so that will probably be the first “normal” thing I do since before March last year. At the moment, details aren’t set, other than that it will occur in Athens, but I look forward to it.