An Interview with William Fargason by Joshua Lavender
Over the last decade, the poet William Fargason has toiled fruitfully in territories of pain and upheaval that would simply scare away many another would-be chronicler. These poems, ranging in topic from mental illness to the legacies of child abuse and racism in families, form the backbone of his first collection, Love Song to the Demon-Possessed Pigs of Gadara, freshly out from University of Iowa Press. A solid introduction to the collection—and Fargason’s work broadly—is the poem “Upon Receiving My Inheritance,” originally published in Rattle, which finds gratitude at the heart of living with the chronic pain of an autoimmune disease. In that poem, as in poem after poem in the book, Fargason distills from trouble in mind and body an elixir of catharsis, insight, and grace.
I first met William Fargason at the University of Maryland, where we studied together in the MFA poetry program from 2011 to 2014. There, I was deeply impressed by his poems’ maturity and versatility and by his precise observations on other poets’ work. And, somehow, Will struck me as a writer on a mission. It was really no surprise when he went on to publish stellar poems in an array of journals and to study and teach at Florida State University. I followed his writing with enthusiasm and was thrilled when his debut book won the 2019 Iowa Poetry Prize.
I’d long wanted the chance to talk in depth with Will about his poetry, and he obliged. This interview was conducted by email throughout April and May 2020. It has been edited for length.
Joshua Lavender: The subject of pain seems vital to Love Song to the Demon-Possessed Pigs of Gadara. Some poems deal with deeply personal pain—I'm thinking especially of the emotional pain in "When My Father Calls Me a Pussy" and the physical pain in "Upon Receiving My Inheritance." Pain can be scary stuff to write about and difficult to approach honestly. It’s also easy to louse up tonally: the poet risks slipping into self-pity or self-congratulation. How do you approach pain with the needed honesty? How do you steer those poems away from unproductive places or tones? Do you have a method for this theme, or what simply works?
William Fargason: You’re right in thinking that pain is central to the book. To separate pain from poetry isn’t something I’m able to do. For me, pain is linked to vulnerability. It’s easy to look into a tree and describe a pretty bird—the poet has nothing to lose, nothing at stake, and nothing to risk. It’s much harder to write about pain in a way that is successful. That said, not every poem I write about pain is successful. For every poem I write that is successful, there are ten poems that are not. To be honest with the pain, I start with my real life, my autobiography. But I don’t limit myself to autobiography in my writing, as some of the poems involve the imagination heavily figured. But the real-life pains are always going to ring the truest in the poems. I can’t write about someone else’s pain, only my own. I do write about my bodily pain, the autoimmune disease I have (ankylosing spondylitis) and the pains that come with my mental illness (depression, panic, anxiety, OCD). Regarding method, I think I always approach my writing with the idea that I won’t show it to anyone. That allows me to be the most honest with the page, to have a communion that otherwise would be interrupted with the idea of an audience or a workshop or a journal submission. If you tell yourself you don’t have to show anyone your poem, then the poem will come out in its most honest form. I have to hold that space between myself and the page as sacred and intimate before ever thinking about letting the reader in. And I think, over the years, I’ve just gotten better or braver at showing people these painful moments, these poems.
JL: Another theme you seem to care a lot about is inheritance, especially figured in what a son inherits from his father. For instance, you treat this theme in "Upon Receiving My Inheritance," in which the triggering subject is genetically inherited disease. It crops up more subtly elsewhere, as in "Cain" ("I will make his body / an offering I did this for you Lord and this / is how you repay me I inherit nothing / but dust"). What about inheritance intrigues you? Can you recall early poems you attempted on this theme, and what about writing them drew you into pursuing it in others?
WF: I think a lot of why I write about inheritance is built into my name. I’m William Haliburton Fargason, IV. There are three generations of myself built into me. And this patrilineage is marred with alcoholism, abuse, and trauma. I made a choice, if I have children, to not name my son the fifth. This is a signifier of something explored in my poems. At some point in a family’s history with abuse, the abuse needs to stop, but this only seems possible if someone names it and makes conscious efforts to end it. I think that is what the speaker of so many of these poems struggles with—one foot in the history of what they inherited and one foot in the future of what they don’t want to pass on. There’s a division of the self, a splitting from the past and rebuilding of the future. Children don’t get to choose what they inherit, and neither did I. Some of it was genetic, some learned, but either way, the speaker in so many of the poems is trying to do better than the generations before him. An early version of “Upon Receiving My Inheritance” was written about five years prior to the book version, and I hadn’t quite gotten a hold yet on how to write about my chronic pain. The version in the book only takes the rough idea and title from the earlier version. Most of Love Song deals with me not wanting what I’ve inherited but still having to deal with inheriting it, as explored in “Forecast” and the poems you mentioned.
JL: Why is "Love Song to the Demon-Possessed Pigs of Gadara," which dwells on Christ's performance of exorcism in the Book of Luke, the collection's title poem?
WF: I originally wrote that poem because I felt bad for the pigs. The story in the Bible is one of triumph—of Jesus performing a miracle—not one of loss. I thought it was a little tragic that Jesus’s miracle only came at these pigs’ loss. I know much of the Bible has already been written about in Western poetry for many years before I started writing, but I had never seen a poem about these pigs. So, I wrote one. The further I got away from the poem (the more years it sat in a metaphoric drawer), the more I realized the speaker of the book was similar to these pigs—seemingly chosen by God to suffer, ignored in their suicidal drive. The speaker of my poems feels much closer to these pigs than they do to the man who had his demons cast out or even to Jesus.
JL: In several poems, I read a troubled relationship with faith or simply God. You engage faith on different terms than such poets as Christian Wiman, Mark Wunderlich, or Anya Krugovoy Silver, who express doubt from a “devotional” standpoint. I think you're miles away from Gerard Manley Hopkins. What’s the story here?
WF: Some of the poems in my book that deal with faith are influenced by Olena Katytiak Davis and her book shattered sonnets love cards and other off and back handed opportunities. As far as a story of my struggle with faith: I grew up Southern Baptist, which damaged me as much as it helped me. I spent many years in churches, and then many years not in churches. I was told to pray more when I developed major depression and anxiety in middle school, and my unanswered prayers seemed to echo a lack of my faith. This can really mess up a kid who just wants to feel okay. I consider myself a Christian, even though I don’t like the contemporary American version of that term, as it’s often weaponized in terrible ways. And as such, I would rather call myself a believer. I struggle with my relationship to God, the push and pull of my faith, and I want the poems to reflect that. If my faith was easy, there would be no reason to write about it.
JL: Besides pigs, animals of all sorts—deer, foxes, polar bears, bees, tigers, buzzards, coyotes, songbirds and gamebirds—appear all throughout your poems. You even make a derelict mattress by the roadside come alive like an animal. What's your fascination with animals all about?
WF: I grew up living in the woods outside Birmingham and hunting deer, turkey, doves, etc. There is a certain symbology associated with animals, and I think these animals found their way into the poems as both symbols and as part of the natural landscape I grew up with. I also like to follow Ezra Pound’s idea that “the natural object is always the adequate symbol.” I’ve never been much for abstractions in poetry unless the natural world is fully fleshed out. That natural world can be fully in the imagination, like Marianne Moore says, “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” These polar bears and tigers and coyotes are the “real toads” of my poems.
JL: A technique of alternating stanza lengths often appears in Love Song. A few of the poems in question are "Ash on the Tongue," "Elegy with Digital Flowers," "Nocturne for a Red Fox," and "Forecast." You alternate between three-line and two-line stanzas, or between two lines and one. Rhythmically, it syncopates the poem. Some poets intend it to signal something's off-kilter. Others may like how a standalone line calls special attention to itself. How does it strike you? Did you write these poems toward or against a sense of regularity?
WF: In “Ash on the Tongue,” where I alternate between couplets and a monostich with the poem ending on a monostich, I tried to follow my favorite quote about form, which is by Robert Creeley: “Form is never more than an extension of content.” The speaker in this poem struggles with a connection to God as they are surrounded by beauty in Yellowstone; part of this lack of connection is due to the speaker realizing they have depression. Formally, the couplet invokes a togetherness, a unity, and the monostich invokes a separation or aloneness. By alternating the form in this poem, I can mimic the speaker’s feelings of connection and disconnection to the God they are supposed to feel connected to. I also use a long-line form that I got from Ellen Bryant Voigt in this poem. Her brilliant book Headwaters features these long lines with no punctuation, and that form allows different phrasal units—clauses, prepositional phrases—to attach themselves to the beginning and ending of different sentences in the poem, creating a nice duplicity in the language. Other poems in my book, like “Anchor,” also use this Voigt form. Like “Ash on the Tongue,” “Anchor” uses couplets throughout and ends on a monostich, mimicking the content of the poem (the father leaves the son alone to tend to the boat).
Form should always be intentional. Every enjambment should create an argument. If a poet doesn’t take their form this seriously, whether it’s free verse or metered, they’re missing a huge opportunity to use the craft to achieve an emotional and intellectual response. I spend a long time with each poem, listening to it and putting it in the form it needs to be in. The poems will always tell you the form they need if you listen to them.
JL: Personally, I far prefer the formal variety in Love Song to “project books” in which a poet sticks doggedly to a form, received or invented, just to see what it yields across a spectrum of topics. But I have to admit, in my own poem-writing, I feel I’ve stumbled across a form more often than I’ve seen it emerging from the content. Happy accidents. How do you find your way to new forms? Do you study other poets’ (like Voigt’s) techniques heavily? Do you use exercises? What poem in the book was the hardest to get right formally?
WF: Sometimes I find my way to new forms by seeing a poet I admire use them, as is the case with the Voigt-form poems. I also put poems in the book that experiment in form by having no punctuation and lots of visual caesuras on the page (such as “Worry Stone”). Poems like that use a more associative logic in their movement, so they need a form which mimics that. The visual spaces, or caesuras, in the lines give some sort of pacing and order to the words, but the lack of punctuation makes the poem more stream-of-conscious. Using a form like this is nice because, with associative poems, anything can enter the poem. A poem’s form sets a precedent for what can make its way in. Often, the more narrative poems like “Birthmark” use a more traditional variation of a pentameter line in tercets. Two of the poems, “Worry Stone” and “Anchor,” were hard to get right formally because many of their lines were originally too wide to fit the physical page of my book. I had to readjust the lineation of a few lines on both poems so they wouldn’t wrap (like many C.K. Williams lines do).
JL: Who are some contemporary poets you especially admire? Say, just three? What do you love about their work?
WF: I’ve been reading a lot of Shane McCrae’s work recently, and I think he’s one of the best writers writing right now. He deals with complex and important themes—race, love, spirituality—and he does so with such impressive form. He often uses colloquial speech and breaks the lineation into syllabic phrases that represent the challenges in voicing and working through these themes. I also really love Chen Chen’s debut When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities, how the speaker’s voice there comes to life on the page as they discuss a family that doesn’t accept their sexuality. And another writer I love and have been reading recently is Ada Limón, who extends a confessionalist tradition from one of my other all-time favorite poets, Sharon Olds. All three of these contemporary poets’ work feels like some of the most honest and important poetry being written now.
JL: Using a sinuous lyricism, your poem “There Is No Power in Blame” does wonderful things with repetition. I can’t find the literary term for anaphora that occurs anywhere in the line. Where else have you seen this device used to fine effect?
WF: I’ve always been drawn to poems that use repetition. It could be because my first exposure to poetry, as most people’s is, was through song lyrics. I love to use anaphora in my poems because it not only elevates the musical quality of the poem but also allows me to let anything I want into the poem. Anaphoras become the ballast of the poem for me, the tethers to reality, and by using them I get to let my unconscious mind unravel itself on the page, as long as it comes back to that repeated phrase. I do this, as you mentioned, in “There Is No Power in Blame,” as well as in “Song,” “Not an Entrance,” “Upon Receiving My Inheritance,” “When My Father Calls Me a Pussy,” “Cain,” “Because Because,” and “Polar Bear.” There are definitely poems and poets I’m indebted to for anaphora: Richard Siken’s “Saying Your Names,” “Boot Theory,” and “You Are Jeff” from Crush; and Joshua Weiner’s title poem from The Figure of a Man Being Swallowed by a Fish. Both these poets use repeated words and phrases that add not only urgency and speed but also elevated lyricism to their poems.
JL: “Ode to the Mattress on the Side of the Interstate” is one of my favorite poems in the book. Here, you pay careful, even loving attention to what we’d usually see as an eyesore, situated in the landscape as if in its natural environment. The act of attention and the subject you bring it to bear on remind me of Richard Hugo’s “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg.” In my reading, the act of attention in “Ode” supports the speaker’s identification with an object; the poem enacts an elision of separateness between seer and seen. How did the poem find its way from the moment you saw the abandoned mattress? Do you think the poem or its process indicates something about the way you see things in the world?
WF: I felt drawn to this object, this discarded mattress, in the way that I felt drawn to the pigs in the title poem. This thing was overlooked by everyone else. I’ve heard that a poet’s job is to pay attention. And as such, I felt my role was given to me on the day I saw that mattress. I saw it and it stayed with me; as C.K. Williams says, “Some of the words that come through me now seem to stay, to hook in.” Some poems are just given to us. And most poems I write about objects, events, or other people eventually come back to myself—the viewer, the speaker. I can’t separate the self from the feelings or from the event itself. Everything is always filtered through my body and my emotions. I can’t record events like a camera can, so I don’t try.
JL: Love Song strikes me as a book born in a poetic crucible. Its coherence, harmony, and gestures to real life remind me of Fred Chappell’s Midquest, Anya Krugovoy Silver’s I Watched You Disappear, Claudia Emerson’s Impossible Bottle. I imagine an arduous process of collation–a gradual, painstaking honing-in on the right vision. Is that accurate? How did Love Song come together?
WF: It took me over seven years to write the poems in this book, with the earliest being one from late 2011 and the latest being one from early 2019. I put together the book’s first draft in 2014; from there, I kept revising it until it got published. It was hard for me to let the book just “sit.” I needed to keep my hands in the clay. If I wrote a new poem that felt like it worked for the goals and with the themes of the book, then I would add it. Eventually, you can only add so many new poems before you have to take out others. So for a period of five years, I kept revising the book, adding and deleting. I know I cut at least another book’s length of poems from Love Song in the process. But with each addition and deletion, I tried to refine the vision, the shape, and the scope of what I wanted the book to look like. One of the hardest things about this was knowing when it was done. I’ve heard that no poem is ever done, merely abandoned. I think of books the same way.
JL: In the third section, I see a constant negotiation between an “I” and “you” which creates an intimate space, resounding with personal histories. This finds its counterpoint in the section’s last poem, “There Is No Power in Blame," where the “you” disappears and the “I” tries to strip himself of illusions. How did you land on this pattern?
WF: Most of the time, the “you” in this book is the speaker’s lover—that imagined or real Other. I like the address of “you” in the instant intimacy it invokes. “There Is No Power in Blame” had to be the last poem of that section. Once I said what I did in that poem, there was nothing else for me to say. It’s a poem of exhaustion, of disappointment in the self. Any poem about a “you” always needs to come back to the “I.” The “I” is the viewpoint from which the reader experiences a “you” in the first place, so it’s unfair to the writer to not include themselves in that vantage. The title “There Is No Power in Blame” comes from a quote Stanley Plumley told our class once: “There is no power in blame in a poem unless you also blame yourself.” So I think that poem turns the mirror and the camera back on the speaker. As much as many writers would like to, there is no way to fully separate the “I” from the writer. The “I” is the shadow cast by any other character in the poem. The “I” is always there. When you pretend the “I” isn’t there, it just makes it more apparent how much it really is.
JL: A theme of healing starts in the fourth section’s second poem, “Song,” which meditates on the hope available in love. I can see the speaker turning away from the “blame” with which the previous section ended, toward something else, something more than merely cathartic, something life-giving. He turns a corner. What has the process of healing been like for you? What helped you turn corners?
WF: The fourth section is about healing, or as much healing as possible. In a book as heavy as Love Song, I wanted there to be some hope, even if that hope doesn’t always seem believable for the speaker. In my personal life, I’ve used medication and therapy to help me with my depression and anxiety. I was hospitalized for panic and depression in 2013, and that experience became the push toward healing in the book. That real-life experience gave me the last part of the arc of the book. Therapy and medication don’t solve everything, but they can surely help. Love can always help, but this book doesn’t believe in the staying power of love. Sometimes you have to seek out help through therapy and medication outside of the external validation of love in order to keep yourself alive. And that’s the real hope at the end—the speaker chooses to stay alive.
JL: Tell me about your second book. Do any threads strongly tie it to the first? Or is it quite another animal? Are there any new themes or experiments you're particularly excited about?
WF: My second book is continually “done” until I write a new poem that I feel needs to be in it. Right now, it’s called Shed the Velvet. But the title of my first book changed five times before I settled on Love Song to the Demon-Possessed Pigs of Gadara. My second book picks up more from the fourth section of my first book, geared towards healing. My first book can seem rather hopeless at times, despairing even, but in that fourth section I start to look at healing, or at least staying alive. My second book really tries to explore the questions: How do you move forward with this much pain? How do you stay alive despite it? And I think some people might read my work and think of that as “depressing,” but to me, that’s the honest work of healing and, well, writing. The second book explores therapy and medication more directly, and also goes further back in my family’s history in regard to patriarchal trauma, picking up where poems like “Elegy with Digital Flowers” and “Snowstorm, Mid-January” leave off. There are some overlapping themes with my first book—fathers, mental illness, spirituality—but I try to explore new themes as well. I write more about race in the South and try to navigate that complicated history and my place within it. I also write about my new marriage. In my first book, the speaker spun in circles, often not knowing which direction to walk. In the second book, the speaker knows which direction to walk, even if that walking involves Sisyphean struggles. Formally, the new book has a lot of sonnets, a lot of poems using visual caesuras, and a 34-part prose poem, “Velvet,” in the middle section that links many of the poems is the first and last section. That poem blurs the lines between poetry and creative nonfiction, between autobiography and the imagination. I’m very excited about this new book, and it helps my own mental health to have a new “project” to work on, to continually turn my hands to the next things, to keep my hands in the clay.
JL: Looking back, which teacher of writing has most impacted or influenced you, and why? What did they teach you so well?
WF: I’ve studied with three groups of writers at each university I went to. From my earliest teacher of poetry, Peter Campion, who believed in me twelve years ago, to the wonderful writers at Maryland who helped me find my voice, to the professors at Florida State who helped me put this book together—they all were so helpful. I will say the one professor who impacted my poetry deeply was Stanley Plumly. I miss him dearly. I wanted so badly to give him a copy of this book, but he passed away two months before I got word that Love Song would be published. I still hear Stan in my head as I write today. He was a brilliant and wonderful poet, as well as a tough and caring teacher. He pushed me to make my poems better, and it worked. He once told us, “Books are made of other books. Poems are made of other poems.” I like to think that poets are made of other poets, and each teacher I studied with helped me discover my own self as a poet. I owe them every line.
William Fargason is the author of Love Song to the Demon-Possessed Pigs of Gadara (University of Iowa Press, April 2020), the winner of the 2019 Iowa Poetry Prize. His poetry has appeared in The Threepenny Review, Prairie Schooner, New England Review, Barrow Street, Indiana Review, Rattle, The Cincinnati Review, Narrative, and elsewhere. He received two awards from the Academy of American Poets, a scholarship to Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and a 2018-2019 Kingsbury Fellowship. He earned a BA in English from Auburn University, an MFA in poetry from the University of Maryland, and a PhD in poetry from Florida State University, where he taught creative writing. He is the poetry editor of Split Lip. He lives with himself in Tallahassee, Florida.
Joshua Lavender studied English at Georgia College and earned an MFA in poetry from the University of Maryland. His poems have appeared in Able Muse, One, Free State Review, Still: The Journal, The Southern Poetry Anthology, and Stone, River, Sky: An Anthology of Georgia Poems. Presently, he teaches writing at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro and is working on his first novel.