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2019 Iowa Poetry Prize winner William Fargason talks about his weighty themes

William Fargason was named the 2019 Iowa Poetry Prize winner. University of Iowa Press released Fargason's latest poetry
William Fargason was named the 2019 Iowa Poetry Prize winner. University of Iowa Press released Fargason’s latest poetry book in April, “Love Song to the Demon-Possessed Pigs of Gadara.” (Colby Blackwill)
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In William Fargason’s poetry collection “Love Song to the Demon-Possessed Pigs of Gadara,” there is much faith and failure and feeling of inadequacy. Fargason, who lives in Tallahassee, Fla., and teaches creative writing at Florida State University, brings his full self to the page and the results are poems that are weighty in theme and allusion while remaining as accessible as they are beautiful.

“Love Song to the Demon-Possessed Pigs of Gadara” was selected as one of two winners of the 2019 Iowa Poetry Prize and was published in April by University of Iowa Press. Fargason answered questions about his work via email.

Q: Tell me a little bit about becoming a poet. When did you first start writing? When did you know poetry was important to you? How have you gone about honing your craft over time?

A: I wrote my first poem at age 10, I think, and it made my fifth-grade teacher cry when she read it aloud to the class. I wrote some more in middle school, almost exclusively of death (mainly dogs dying), but I didn’t start writing daily/weekly until I was 17. And since then I haven’t been able to stop. I was always a really quiet kid, and I think poems became my way to communicate with myself and the world, even if I wasn’t sharing them yet. An unsent letter is still a letter. I think it wasn’t until I was 19 that I realized that my writing was actually poems and not just random thoughts. And once I enrolled in my first poetry workshop at 20, I dug further into the craft. To hone my craft, I try to write and read as much as possible. I also surround myself with friends who also write poems, and those poet-friends help me work through multiple drafts of my work. They push me in the right ways, which is needed to get better.

Q: I was struck immediately by how, if not God-haunted, at least Bible-haunted these poems are — something signaled right away by the collection’s title. Many of the biblical moments that appear or underpin these poems are quite dark (and arguably darkened further by your take on them). How do you think about faith and Scripture and tradition as they connect to your work? What questions or ideas or images from your faith tradition most resonate with or recur in your writing?

A: I like that idea of poems haunted by faith. My faith is something I struggle with. I think true faith isn’t easy, and so any of my poems about faith should reflect that. I use my poems to wrestle with my faith on the page and to explore that tension. The Bible is rich in story, in poetry and in imagery. I like to rework some of those narratives (like the title poem) into poems I write. I hadn’t heard a persona poem from the voice of Cain, so I wrote one in the poem “Cain.” Writing about faith is a long tradition, but I hope to add to it my own prayers on the page. Prayers and poems are not that different, and many of my poems of faith are me talking to God, or prayers. Some of the questions these poems of faith deal with are: Is God listening? Is the microphone on? Am I alone in my room? If I’m alone, how alone? I explore the “darkness” of my faith because, due to my mental illness and the toxicity of my Southern Baptist upbringing, the light has never felt as realistic. I wish it did.

Q: There’s a lot of failure in these poems. Do you think of failure or disappointment as central themes in your work? What brings you back to those ideas?

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A: I don’t know what to write about besides failure. If my life felt successful, if I had obtained complete happiness, there would be no need to write the poems — I could just go live my nice life. I dig into feelings of failure in my work because it allows me to confront the mirror of myself. I don’t think I ever set out to write a single poem about failure; the poems just keep coming out that way. My first book dealt with confronting that failure — looking it in the eyes and not turning away. (That’s something I learned from the confessionalist poets.)

My second book, which I’m currently sending out, still deals with failure as a central theme. But my second book deals with other questions of failure: how do I move forward still feeling like failure? How can I look in that mirror and still walk out the front door?

Q: This collection seems deeply personal, as if you are revealing yourself and your struggles and hopes as honestly and completely as possible. How do you think of the character on the page?

A: I try to be as honest as possible, and part of that honesty comes with just being vulnerable. Poets have to be honest with themselves and the page. If not, the page will always reveal where you’re holding back. Vulnerability is often taught as a negative trait in men, but my poems try to push back against that. Often that “character” of myself in my book is just myself. Most of the book is autobiographical. I wish I could be more mysterious about it, but I write out of a tradition that is rooted in realism and autobiography. Of course, there are poems in my book like “Porcelain Nocturne” and “When You Were Out of Town Last Weekend” that exist solely in the imagination. I truly believe in the power of the imagination, but you have to start somewhere. I start in reality, in the narrative of my life, then alter it and build it outward in my poems. I would hope that the character of myself in my writing is a character that is able to grow. I would hate to play the same role in every book I write.

Q: Issues of masculinity and faith — particularly the performative aspects of each — seem deeply embedded in much of what is going on in the country and around the world right now. I couldn’t help but read some of these poems through that lens. What do you think poetry can bring to the conversation at this moment, and how do you think these poems speak (or don’t speak) to the moment?

A: I hope that my book can bring to light how damaging it can be to be raised with ideas of toxic masculinity. Just the act of voicing a poem, putting it out in the world, saying vulnerability is valid — this is a push back against traditional forms of American masculinity that teaches young men to repress any feelings they experience, aside from anger. Toxic masculinity is a performance, but one that damages more than the performer. I hope fathers do better in how they raise their sons. Toxic masculinity didn’t cause my mental illness, but it certainly exacerbated it.

I also hope my poem “When My Father Tells Me My Great-Grandfather was in the KKK” starts to show white people, especially white writers in the South, that they have to face and work to move beyond their racist heritage, and they have to be willing to write about it in all its terrible complexity.

Religion has always been a shield for people to hide behind instead of recognizing and working on their own shortcomings. I think that performative aspects of Americanized Christianity make people feel both defensive of themselves and exempt from interrogating their own harmful behaviors. In examining the performative aspects of faith, I hope my poems pull that shield down and push people to do better.

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Q: What does winning the Iowa Poetry Prize mean to you?

A: Having Brenda Shaughnessy pick my book was such an honor. I had worked on this book for seven years. To have that journey culminate in finding such a wonderful home as the University of Iowa Press was an amazing feeling. Everyone at Iowa has been so great to work with and has helped me bring into reality something I’ve kept inside for years. I feel like I have such good company among the other winners.

Q: What of you been reading of late?

A: I’ve been reading Ada Limon’s “The Carrying,” Patricia Lockwood’s “Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals,” and Eduardo C. Corral’s “Slow Lightning.” Next, I’m planning on reading Diannely Antigua’s “Ugly Music” and some of Robert Creeley’s early books. There are just so many great books coming out, and I have a habit of buying them quicker than I can read them. It’s a good problem to have.

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