Daniel Bailey
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‘There’s this constant rising and falling’: A conversation with Daniel Bailey

I interviewed Daniel Bailey about his new poetry book, A Better Word for the World, published by Apocalypse Party (2021).

First, listen to him read a couple poems from the book:

Daniel Bailey reads his poem: “Landscape in Urgent Care”
Daniel Bailey reads his poem: “The Unplanned Upon Morning”

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.

Daniel Bailey's face inside a box at Kusama's Infinity Mirrors art exhibit.

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.

Daniel Bailey against a colorful dotted background at Kusama's Infinity Mirrors art exhibit.

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.


Check out the book: A Better Word for the World. You can find the author on Neutral Spaces and Twitter.

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listening

A talk with Skye Yvonne, author of ‘Astraethea’

Today I talk with Skye Yvonne, author of the YA novel Astraethea, the first book in a planned series. She’s also known online as Laila Winters. You can find her on Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, Amazon, and her website. – Tucker Lieberman

T.L.: You provide a lot of sensory detail about this world. It seems like a place that the reader could step into. Do you ever feel yourself immersed in this imaginary place?

S.Y.: Astraethea is a world I see so clearly in my own mind that it’s hard not to become immersed in it. I think for any author, it’s almost impossible to not lose themselves in the worlds that they create—that’s the fun part about creating them. If we can’t dive into our own worlds and immerse ourselves in what we’ve built, then we can’t expect our readers to, either.

T.L.: What’s the significance—for us, as readers interpreting the story—of fighting people from Earth? How did you decide to take that perspective?

S.Y.: I love this question because in the very first draft of Astraethea, there was no conflict between the Astraetheans and the Earthlings. The humans truly did come to Astraethea seeking refuge, and Selene initially granted it to them. During revisions, though, I felt that Astraethea was lacking any true conflict beyond unrest and dissent between Selene’s councilors.

I scrapped the entire first draft of the book, and the second, and started fresh on the third. As far as the humans are concerned and conflict aside, Valor and Zaegan became the reason for their significance. They represent different sides of humanity: Valor the best, and Zaegan the worst.

Val ultimately causes the most turmoil at the very end of the book, but he doesn’t come out of it unscathed. His struggles and redemption in book two are important, both symbolically and for his character arc.

That, and if humans ever discovered extraterrestrial life, I’d imagine we’d be brazen enough to go storming in and disrupt whatever peace they might have.

T.L.: I noticed themes of loyalty and persistence. Is there a virtue that feels especially important to you in this story?

S.Y.: Given the betrayal on the very last page of the book, loyalty is especially important throughout the story. The characters are all deeply loyal to one another; Caly is so willing to rush into battle alongside her brother just to have his back that she nearly gets herself killed. Valor goes against his own morals and does the one thing he swore he’d never do just to protect the only friend he has. Loyalty is a core part of who they all are, except for Zaegan who’s loyal to no one but himself.

T.L.: Did you read any stories with LGBT characters when you were a teenager?

S.Y.: Unfortunately, no. Not only were stories featuring LGBT characters relatively unheard of when I was a kid, but I was also very, very deep in the closet. I did read a lot of LGBT fanfiction in secret, though, and writing an LGBT fic was how I first started experimenting with the idea that maybe I truly was in some self-imposed closet.

T.L.: Within the story, you don’t use the word “lesbian” to describe the relationship between the Queen and the Warrior. Is there a reason for that?

S.Y.: There was no reason, no. In their world, society views love and sexuality in a very different way. The prejudices and homophobia that people have here on Earth don’t exist on Astraethea; it’s not taboo or even unheard of for people of the same sex (or of any combination of gender, including our favorite non-binary Kodoreans) to love one another. Because it’s so widely accepted, I doubt there’s even a word in the Astraethean language that describes it or that can be used to self-identify one’s sexuality.

If Caly and Selene were to come to Earth and discover that there were people who disapproved of their relationship simply because they’re both female, I think they would be very, very confused. And Caly might stab them.

Spoiler: there’s a scene in book two where Valor refers to Caly as a lesbian (because for readers who enjoyed book one, who’s not waiting for this confrontation?), and she asks him what ‘lesbian’ even means.

T.L.: Did your story eventually take any turns you didn’t expect when you first started out?

S.Y.: I’m just the author—my characters do what they want, and I simply write it down. Astraethea took so many unexpected turns that it nearly gave me whiplash. The biggest turn, I think, is that in the first two drafts of the Astraethea, Valor’s character didn’t exist. He was always the one who pulled that trigger in the end, but I decided to add his POV throughout the book during one of my final revisions. Val ended up becoming one of my favorite characters, and I hope that by giving him a name, my readers enjoyed him and his story just as much as I did.

T.L.: What other space travel or fantasy stories do you enjoy?

S.Y.: I actually don’t read a lot of sci-fi, and Astraethea likely suffered a bit because of that. YA fantasy is more up my alley; give me magic and fairies and mythical creatures and I am one happy girl.

T.L.: What is most satisfying to you about the Astraethea saga?

S.Y.: Perhaps it makes me a bit vain, but I’m pretty satisfied that Astraethea has been well-received amongst my readers. I self-published the book after 40 rejections (though I received a revise & resubmit offer last month), and I was so afraid that the book was going to fail because I didn’t have the money or resources that are ultimately needed to make a self-published novel successful. And by no means is Astraethea “successful,” but it’s done better than I ever anticipated. It warms my heart knowing that people enjoy what I refer to as my “space gays.”

On a less arrogant note, I’m pretty satisfied with where the series is headed! I’m focusing on the R&R right now in hopes that the agent might pick it up, but I’m excited to start working on the second book. There’s a storm brewing in the human camp, Caly, in a downwards spiral, is far more reckless than usual, and Selene’s character will be a bit different going forward. I’ll also be introducing some new characters and I’m excited for readers to meet them.

T.L.: Who do you want your story to reach? What do you hope they’ll take away?

S.Y.: The only thing I’ve ever wanted is for people to read my books and know that they’re not alone; that it’s okay if you’re a lesbian, bisexual, gay, pan, poly, trans, non-binary, etc. LGBT representation in literature is something I wish I’d been exposed to as a teenager, and because I didn’t have it, I want to give it. Until I started seeing LGBT characters portrayed both in lit and in the media, I wasn’t comfortable coming out. If my writing can help just one person, in any way, I’ve personally succeed as an author.

T.L.: What lessons have your characters taught you?

S.Y.: My initial reaction to this question was, “Don’t take a sword into a gun fight.” But despite a few setbacks, Caly and Atreo are pretty lethal with their swords and so this might not be a good takeaway.

Every character has taught me something different. Caly taught me perseverance and unwavering loyalty. Atreo taught me to think and act rationally in tough situations. As she often leans on Eleon, Selene has taught me that it’s okay to lean on friends and family for support. On the flip side, Valor has helped teach me that family doesn’t always mean blood; it’s the family that you make for yourself that matters most. Andromeda taught me that I really wish I had a prehensile tail that I could use to knock sense into whoever annoys me.

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