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SaraEve : If you could begin this interview, what would you ask yourself?
William : Why do you always wait until the last possible moment to do things, like check your email, or reply to interviews? Answer: because in my 33 years of life, I still haven’t managed to figure out proper time management.
SaraEve : You’ve titled your book Rebel Hearts and Restless Ghosts, a line that comes up in the book. From reading the notes, I understand this is an homage to one of your favorite bands, Modern Life is War. Would you like to talk a little bit more about how they have influenced your writing and the shape of this book?
William : There are two pieces to why & how MLIW came to be a huge influence on me, and they’re somewhat intertwined. I’m from a very small town in PA that has a population of less than 500. It’s a town that seems to have utterly nothing to boast about, except for perhaps its insignificance. It’s a struggle to find anything to take pride in when you live in a place that stifling; it’s even more difficult when every day it seems like people from the coasts (or just from cities hundreds of times bigger) dismiss everything you do as being valueless because it doesn’t come from a major population center. The thing about MLIW is that they’re from Marshalltown, IA…and not apologetic about it. Jeff [Eaton, lead singer] wrote lyrics that spoke to the experience of being “just a factory worker’s son from a railroad town” and the frustration of knowing that “there’s something happening somewhere, and we know we know we gotta get there” – themes that spoke to me much more deeply than some song about the hard streets of New York, or wherever. It was inspiring to hear someone speaking about experiences I shared, as though they mattered. When I started writing the poems that eventually would become the book, I knew that I wanted to write my own experiences without fear or apology, to represent where I came from rather than where I thought I wanted to be.
SaraEve : For the past two years now you have been aiming to submit 100 poems for publication, regardless of your acceptance rate. This is an admirable feat and your commitment to the craft is something that should be celebrated (high fives to you!) How has this practice helped to push your writing?
William : It’s become a part of my editing process. If I ever think a poem is done, or rather that I can take it easy and not put the work into a poem 100%, there’s nothing like getting told a dozen or more times that the poem isn’t good enough yet to make me go back to the notebook and keep working. Of course, the inverse of that also applies – I tend to sit on a poem forever, telling myself that it isn’t good enough to show anyone yet. Having the goal of 100 rejections has kind of forced my hand, and made me be more vulnerable with sending out work that I might otherwise have hidden under a bushel forever because I didn’t believe it was as perfect as it should be.
I guess it keeps me always striving for the balance between accepting the inherent imperfections of being a human artist, while also never settling for any less than the best I am able to do at the time.
SaraEve : Thank you so much for your dedication to suicide prevention and mental health. It is a serious topic that needs to be addressed and I find that more and more poets are speaking out about their experiences with mental health. Can you talk about how you start a poem when dealing with some of these darker issues?
William : I’m not really sure there’s a conscious process in that. Most of the poems I have that speak on my struggles with mental health and suicidal ideation never really start out as poems, at least not in the sense that they’re meant to be shared with an audience or a reader. I have a poem in the book titled “Letter To Myself Following A Second Failed Suicide Attempt” that is just that; a conversation with myself, trying to work through the things I need to allow myself to believe. Eventually, I come to realize that I might be saying something that a younger version of myself would have needed to hear, and that if I needed those words then maybe someone else does too…so I start crafting them into a more purposeful poem.
SaraEve : Who are the poets that you keep going back to?
William : Ryler Dustin’s Heavy Lead Bird Song was the first book of poetry I ever bought, and I’ve often gone back to that one. Philip Levine is someone I discovered late, but his work definitely strikes a fire in me. Of course, I continue to draw water from the well of punk rock & hardcore – Jeff from MLIW, Aaron Bedard from Bane, Pat Flynn from Have Heart/Sweet Jesus/Free, Sean Murphy from Verse, George Hirsch from Blacklisted, etc. A lot of these guys, I read their lyrics the same way one might read a collection of poems.
That all being said, the people who most excite me are the people getting up to read their first poem ever on the open mic, the people who don’t know “how” they’re supposed to be poets so they just write, recklessly, fearlessly, without any preconceptions about proper form, structure, line breaks…all the stuff that we all tend to get caught up in the further down this rabbit hole we go. The kid who’s reading a poem at the open mic because they literally can’t help but share their art with anyone who is willing to pay attention – that’s who I truly believe is the future of poetry, and who I keep looking to for reminders of why I want to do this in the first place.
Poem from rebel hearts & restless ghosts:
Letter To Myself Following A Second Failed Suicide Attempt
Hey kid, what the fuck were you thinking? Did you honestly believe
the lie that was fed you that life will never get any better than this?
Did no one ever tell you that you shouldn’t listen to ghosts? What
could something dead possibly have to teach you about the fine art
of staying alive? You’ve put too much belief in whispers, given
credit to the chains they drag over your body. When you try to count
enough reasons to want to wake up tomorrow, do you not realize
the scraping sounds in your chest are merely the cheapest product
of the oldest crime? There is a reason those eyes, candle burning in
your haunted sky are glowing green. You still suck breath between
gritted teeth in spite of the ghouls’ most dedicated efforts. I know
right now your wrists are spitting crimson. I know right now,
you are trying to dry-swallow one more pill. Believe me when
I say even at your most embarrassingly awkward rock bottom,
you are still a fucking thunderstorm tucked beneath your breastplate.
The hypnotic rhythm of pulse in your temple represents
one thing all the wraiths hovering above your bedside cannot have.
Too cowardly to bloody their hands trying to remove it by force,
they instead resort to a weaker form of warfare. This black hole
you are so desperate to drown in is nothing more than a chemical
siege they have laid on your mind. Remember this: you are
not bottle rocket, but pipebomb. Not train derailment,
but slow-burning fuse. You are not knife wound. Not sword-
swallower, not fallout. You are sky. When tomorrow spills
from your poison gut like shards of broken crystal, do not bother
picking up the pieces. It is not you who has shattered, only the glass.
Review of rebel hearts & restless ghosts by SaraEve Fermin
May our screams pull God from the sky.
William James isn’t saying he is the Punk Rock Poet Preacher we need. All he is asking is that we honor the voices that carved us into our truest selves, the grief and joy and fear and hope and kaleidoscope of experiences that make life worth sticking around for.
When I was 22, bad chemicals in my head
caused me to believe death had forgotten I existed,
and would perhaps need my helping hand.
This is depression, stripped down to its bare bones. As a person who lives with major depressive disorder, this statement cried out to my bones. James does a brilliant job of describing the stark aloneness of depression, but also hope. The hope of survival, of making it through, of knowing it might not exactly get better, but maybe different.
restless. Wanderlust. Call me getting the hell out,
call me escape. City life. Streetlights, lock your doors,
call me restart. Call me not dying in your
hometown, call me 600 miles away from high school.
Call me success story. Call me happiness is
a new life in a new world. Call me living free
instead of dying. Call me home-
sick. Call me home.
The book is divided into eight sections, each section marked by a Modern Life Is War lyric. The hardcore punk rock life shows up several times in the book, both as memories of days past and thoughts on being the “old fuck” at the show. A contributing editor at Drunk in a Midnight Choir, James has written several pieces on how music has influenced his poetry, as seen here-
The microphone becomes
a cube of sugar dropped on an anthill – enveloped by voices
eager for their chance to share in the sorcery of the night.
This book also contains a kick ass not generic poem about pomegranates, a love poem that breaks ribs, a persona poem about the Golden Gate Bridge and poems with supplemental link. It is 80 pages of beauty and sincerity, of New England determination and a commitment to suicide prevention. A Timber Mouse book, you can preorder rebel hearts & restless ghosts at williamjamespoetry.com.
Photo courtesy of Lauren Elma Frament
SaraEve Fermin is a performance poet and epilepsy advocate from New Jersey. An East Coast heart jumping circus trains, she is the editor-in-chief of Wicked Banshee Press. Nowadays can be found volunteering at National Poetry Slam Events. She is a Women of the World Poetry Slam Competitor and her work can be found in GERM Magazine, Drunk In A Midnight Choir, Free Verse Magazine and Transcendence among others. Her second book of poetry, The View From The Top of the Ferris Wheel, will be published by Emphat!c Press in 2015. She believes in the power of foxes and self publishing.