“When My Therapist Tells Me My Depression Must Help My Writing”
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What inspired you to bring your work to Broadsided?
Poet William Fargason: I have always loved broadsides—I collect them, and I have them hung up in my apartment. I loved the process Broadsided goes through in pairing my work up with a visual artist. There is so much powerful overlap between written art and visual art, and broadsides are the perfect medium to showcase this.
What drew you to create a visual response to this poem, in particular?
Artist Millian Pham Lien Giang: The lines “I don’t want my pain / to be what I make from but I don’t have / a choice” resonate with my art practice, in which I negotiate between this desire and necessity daily. It is also a common concern for many visual artists to not get pigeon-holed into performing their trauma in their art. Creating works that avoid this trap requires a conscientious effort, and I appreciate how the poem does this by building up imageries to draw me into the landscape of the speaker’s mind instead.
How did this poem come to be?
Poet William Fargason: The mode of the poem is a “When ___ Says/Does ____ to Me” form that I came up with. I have other poems in this mode, where the title serves as the springboard to the body of the poem, which is the response. An former therapist I had said that my depression must help my writing, and I don’t think she meant it as a critical statement. But that statement stuck with me, and I needed to form a response to it. Often, I can’t think of a good response in the moment, so the response percolates for days/weeks until it comes out in the form of a poem. This sonnet is that response.
How did this image come to be?
Artist Millian Pham Lien Giang: The images elicited from the lines “lampshade’s fabric pulled / taut” and “I build the fort every night / and take it down every morning” reminded me of these recurring motifs I’ve been tackling in my studio: Vietnamese conical hats and hair as symbols for home and memory, and this sense of continued search for stillness and belonging. The conical hats have many purposes, but in this case the wearers are school-age women in Vietnam wearing them either as part of a school uniform or to shield the sun so they could complete their daily job. There’s a continued struggle to process, make sense, and live with the elusive world of the self as apart from something else. To this end, I wanted a corona as a dark halo to contrast with the brightness of the hat and hair.
What did you think an artist would pick up on from your poem? Does the artist’s response make you see the poem differently?
Poet William Fargason: I thought an artist would pick up on anything visual in the work—the image of the tent, the lampshade, etc. But I was so struck by how well the mood of Giang’s piece captured the overwhelming weight of depression. Their piece is a new lens through which to see my poem, and I think it compliments and complicates my poem in a really productive way.
Poet William Fargason asks Millian: How did you decide on the structure, or layout, of the piece and the images you included? Did this structure develop as you worked on the piece, or was it planned with sketches?
Artist Millian Pham Lien Giang: I’ve been working with a long vertical format in my studio for the last year. It mainly came from my current research on Vietnamese mother-of-pearl inlay lacquer, and I wanted to work on some of the same challenges of this aesthetic and format for this collaboration. I had a general idea planned out from loose sketches, but my training as an artist to creatively problem solve mainly came through the intuitive process of paint application, beading, and other in-process decisions. Some of the major decisions such as darkening the inside of the halo to suggest an eclipse came after certain parts of the composition were completed. I embrace being methodical and intuitive in my artmaking to balance out the visual with the conceptual.
Artist Millian Pham Lien Giang asks William: Do you see traditional signifiers of gender in the art I created? If yes, how do they change or affect the poem? If no, how do you think it remained neutral to the poem?
Poet William Fargason: I didn’t see traditional signifiers of gender in the piece, at least not in the literal sense, but I wouldn’t describe it as neutral either. In general, no art is neutral. I do write a lot about masculinity in my work, and this poem is about a man going to therapy and expressing himself. Those two things were taught to me, a boy growing up in Alabama, as not masculine. I appreciated the art itself not being a literal depiction of the poem. There’s always productive friction when two art forms are next to each other. What jumped out to me most about the piece is how much it reminds me of a nocturne—the color palette is similar to moonlight. The column itself reminds me of a waterfall, in both its destructive and generative power, which could be connected to what I was taught about gender, in direct and in more subtle ways.
Did anything shift for you or come into new light as you began working on your visual response?
Artist Millian Pham Lien Giang: This was a challenging poem to respond to simply because it resonated so much with me and pulled me into the speaker’s world so well that I had a hard time not simply illustrating the imageries. I took some time to work through what belongs to the poet and what I could bring to the table and how our works could intersect. This challenge made me rethink how I could increase the visual poetics in my work to balance with the imageries in the poem.
Have you ever written work that has been inspired by visual art?
Poet William Fargason: Yes! I have a poem about a Jackson Pollock painting coming out in a few months. I also wrote an unpublished chapbook about the Thematic Apperception Test. I would look at one image/slide of that test, then write a poem in one sitting about it. I collected the best poems from that project into the chapbook with their accompanying image on the opposite page, but I was told I couldn’t publish it due to the private medical nature of the test. It was a great ekphrastic project for me, though, and very generative for my work.
Describe your dream “Vectorization”—where, in your wildest dreams, would you most like to see this broadside posted in the world?
Poet William Fargason: Honestly, I would love for this to hang in an area where 20-year-old me could’ve seen it and felt slightly less alone. And for that, it would’ve hung up in the English department at Auburn University.
Artist Millian Pham Lien Giang: In art schools! Young makers need to know that they are not alone in feeling like they’re being boxed in. They can define their own boxes or build their forts on their own terms.
If this Broadsided collaboration were a type of weather, what would it be?
Poet William Fargason: Rainy.
Artist Millian Pham Lien Giang: A solar eclipse.
Do you have a favorite, generative prompt for artists or writers you’d like to share?
Poet William Fargason: I often taught an ekphrastic prompt to my creative writing students where they had to write a poem in response to a painting, sculpture, or other piece of visual art. In that way, it was sort of like the Broadsided method, but the students’ poems responded to visual art instead of the other way around.
Artist Millian Pham Lien Giang: Make small movements…. often.
Read any good books lately?
Poet William Fargason: I got to read an early version of K. Iver’s Short Film Starring My Beloved’s Red Bronco, which is one of the best debuts I’ve ever read. Also I read Victoria Chang’s Obit, which is a really powerful book of elegies.
Artist Millian Pham Lien Giang: I’m finishing up NK Jemisin’s Broken Earth series, which kept me company as I worked on the art for this broadside.
Seen any good art lately?
Poet William Fargason: I finally saw the movie Everything Everywhere All at Once, which was incredible. And I saw my first Broadway show, Hadestown, this past weekend, which was also incredible.
Artist Millian Pham Lien Giang: Mainly my students’ work in the “foundations” course I’m teaching. Our program at Auburn University recently adopted a new curriculum for our foundations courses, and I had the pleasure of teaching these new courses and saw how students, when given the proper challenges, rose to the occasion. They made such good explorations on gender, race, and identity issues. There’s something magical when a person realizes the power in their voice and I was lucky to have seen so many instances of it recently.
Anything else? (Here, we invite the collaborators to invent a question, add a comment, or otherwise speak to what the questions so far have not tapped about their Broadsided experience).
Poet William Fargason: Thank you, Millian, for the beautiful piece of art! Seeing it with my poem was such a gift.