Susan Tepper:  Bill, some poems linger taking their time opening, while the portal into your dreamlike poemSon of Goyahas a striking immediacy:

My father paints walls
My father paints walls
because the daylight is malignant

Malignant, used in such close proximity to the images of paint and sunlight stirs this poem in a way that feels dangerous.

Bill Yarrow: The poem opens with the “daylight” (not the sunlight) being “malignant” because for Goya being in public was dangerous. He had strained relations with the King (Ferdinand VII) and feared for his life. “Malignant” also functioned for me as a reference to my father’s cancer (he had just been diagnosed with cancer at the time of writing this poem). So, yes, there is a feeling of danger and lurking death as the poem begins.

Susan:  I felt the poem had to be operating on a personal level, too.   The repeat line “My father paints walls /… ” is such a strong physical image.  Besides Goya, I was getting a man who is not an artist painting the surface of walls.  Spreading paint (himself) across time and what is left of time.  A left imprint on the future, from out of a son’s desire.

Bill: Yes, your intuition about the poem being personal is exactly right. The poem is about Goya and his son but also about my father and me. My father was not a painter exactly, but he was handy and good with tools. I have many memories of my father with a paintbrush painting the walls of the penny arcade he owned and ran on the boardwalk in Ocean City, Maryland, from 1947 to 1977. Stanzas 2 to 4 are about the artist Goya, but they are also about my father suffering from the effects of mesothelioma. The “private darkness” in stanza 5 refers to them both.

Spreading paint (himself) across time and what is left of time.  A left imprint on the future, from out of a son’s desire.  Susan, that is very well said. Yes, painting oneself across time-that’s a good definition of writing also. I tried to make painting and writing equivalent in the poem.

Susan:  This is a deeply sensual poem that reflects Goya’s work which always struck me as mystical but also sensual and earthy and abundant.  Your poem is all of that, and more.

You end the first stanza with: “…because time’s wife spits through cracks/

Profound.  It raised the hair on my arms.  Can you recall the visual image or a feeling that came to your mind when those words were written?

Bill:  I wrote the poem a long, long time ago in 1977 when I was 26. I remember the image just coming to me at the time. In fact, that whole stanza just came to me in a rush. When I wrote poems back then, I didn’t work from visual images. I almost always worked from the sounds of words, the assonance of “time’s wife,” the consonant play in “spits through cracks.”

Some of Goya’s work is mystical, but the Goya referred to here is the old man Goya who, alone in his house outside Madrid, painted fourteen paintings (the Black Paintings) on the walls of his rooms.

Susan:  You numbered the stanzas 1 through 7.  It sets them off perfectly.  I wondered if 7 was chosen for any particular reason or if the poem just landed that way?

Bill:  Interesting question! Originally the poem had nine parts. I edited it and edited it over the years as it came back from magazine after magazine. I could never get it quite right. I got it down to eight stanzas. Still didn’t work. Finally, in desperation of ever getting it published, I put in on The Woodshed in Fictionaut  in November 2010 where Sam Rasnake saw it and brought it into his creative writing class and shared some of the comments of his students with me. Their comments and Sam’s help were invaluable. I saw through their gifted eyes that one of the stanzas was just killing the poem. I eliminated it, made a couple of small changes, and Sam graciously took it and published it in blue five notebook in January 2011. Anyway, the number seven has no meaning except that it’s half of fourteen (the number of Black Paintings and the number of lines in a sonnet)!

Susan:  Cool!

In stanza number 3 you write:  “The King has commanded / … to scratch / envy’s initials on his heart / with a pebble and a rag /

Envy.  Cruelty.  Misery.  War.  The beat goes on…

I’ve heard tell we are in the same play over and over and just the costumes get changed.

Bill: Yes, paraphrasing Aristotle, history is what happened; fiction is what happens. Happens over and over. Emotions never change. The human story never gets boring. As Pound says: “Literature is news that STAYS news.” All those productions of Shakespeare plays in which the plays remain the same but the costumes and the sets are continually changed!

Susan:  Bill, in stanza number 6 you write:  “I am not against the darkness / ”

Well, that line broke me.

A thought:  Goya / Father / Son = Triptych (3 panel painting)

Do you see any parallels?

Bill: The idea of the triptych is a good one, but which father and which son? Goya /God / Jesus?  Or Goya / his son Xavier /the author of the poem? Or Goya /my father /me? There are a lot of possibilities, I think.

And what kind of darkness? Shadow? Satan? Sin? Melancholy? The darkness of some of the paintings?- Saturn devouring his son, for example. What did Goya’s son think when he came home and saw that particular image on the dining room wall?

He thinks, I am not exactly against all this (it is art, after all), but…what happened to my father?

Susan:  In stanza number 7:

“Last week I returned home / and entered the house of a deaf man /… / I entered the house of Goya the painter /… ”

Bill, I don’t know which three on the triptych either.  Only that you’ve written a poem that feels essential.

Bill:  “…entered the house of a deaf man”
“The house of a deaf man” is the literal translation of La Quinta del Sordo, the name of the house where Goya lived and painted the Black Paintings. He was 74 when he painted them. He was literally deaf. In the poem, I tried to suggest that he was figuratively deaf as well.

“feels essential”  Thank you, Susan! I’m just happy that it works.

Read Son of Goya by Bill Yarrow

Monday Chat is a bi-weekly series in which Susan Tepper has a conversation with a Fictionaut writer about one of his or her stories. Susan is Assistant Editor of Istanbul Literary Review, fiction editor of Wilderness House Literary Review, co-author of new novel What May Have Been, and hosts FIZZ, a reading series at KGB Bar.

  1. Sam Rasnake

    “Son of Goya” is an amazing poem, and enjoyed the discussion here, Susan & Bill – especially the comments on the triptych.

  2. Meg Tuite

    I loved this Bill and Susan!!! Great poem and I love that Sam put it in his workshop and the students helped you to whittle it into the shape it’s in now which is sublime!! Thanks for the insight!!! There is always so much lurking beneath the words of a Bill Yarrow poem!!
    Thank you Bill and Susan!!! Great interview!!!

  3. estelle bruno

    I am not familiar with Goya, but after reading your fantastic poem and yours and Susans marvelous chat, I have learned so much from you both

  4. James Lloyd Davis

    Love Goya. Loved this poem. Thank you for the insight.

  5. Gloria Mindock

    Nice chat both of you and a great poem Bill.

  6. Foster Trecost

    Great insights! Bill, your poetry appeals to me in many ways, but something present in almost everything you write is an intellectual effort that must be given by the reader. Anyway, this is super good work, and Susan, you did a wonderful job. Thanks, both of you.

  7. Kari Nguyen

    I’ve always found Bill’s work to be consistently brilliant and layered. Loved the insights and the interview. Thanks to you both!

  8. susan tepper

    Thanks to everyone who has commented so far on Bill’s chat!

  9. Robert Vaughan

    Your work, Bill, is multi-layered, profound and also deeply metaphorical, and its mystical quality shines through in this piece: the multiple (or more!) meanings, the triptych (but which one?), the father-son relationship explored, and the artist(s) (both Goya and the poet). Through Susan’s insights and tremendous interpretations, I have reached a new level I didn’t think possible of admiration, and awe…Bill Yarrow, was already a fan, now a fan for life!

  10. MaryAnne Kolton

    Bill and Susan, Especially well done!

  11. Darryl Price

    Bill and Susan–you’ve brought to light the process for all to see. Well done. The questions raise all the crucial points and the answers give us air,and purpose to pursue all that art provides for living. Thank you both.

  12. Stephan Anstey

    I admit it, I’m a sucker for process. Thanks so much to Bill for sharing such intimate details of how he crafted this. The Pound quote is incredibly fitting too.

  13. Bill Yarrow

    Sam, Meg, Estelle, James, Gloria, Foster, Kari, Robert, MaryAnn, Darryl, Stephan–thank you all for your kind, kind comments!

  14. Marcus Speh

    amazing piece of artistic dialog on this wonderful poem. this amounts to a flash course on poetry. i especially appreciated the private connections—in addition to the historical ones that lay more bare and are more visible to the eye. i do believe that our collective unconscious perceives sees more deeply into good art & you’ve just both created a powerful manifesto for this thought. kudos, guys!

  15. susan tepper

    Yes, thanks to all who have left words or have read the chat or both. It was thrilling to chat this poem with Bill. I saw the Goya exhibit at the Met a few years ago and it was huge and phenomenal. Then Bill wrote this phenomenal poem and it really tapped me which made the chat easy, plus Bill gave great answers.

  16. JP Reese

    This is a wonderful give and take. Excellent questions, and resonant answers. I love to read about the method behind creative output, and Bill’s explanations and connections are fascinating.The answers show the importance of an artist maintaining a catholic curiosity and the desire to inculcate a wide knowledge of the learned world into the creative process. Artists feed off one another and often, as is the case with this poem, the final product is deeply satisfying on many different levels. Lovely interview.

  17. J. Mykell Collinz

    Along with reading the poem once again, I very much enjoyed the interview. My thanks to both Susan and Bill.

  18. Bill Yarrow

    Marcus, Susan, Joani, John–for your comments, your support, your friendship…I’m very grateful.

  19. Linda Simoni-Wastila

    This interview does what I wish every great poem or story allowed — put me, the reader, in the river of contest from which the piece swam from. I remember reading this poem in BFN, enjoying the word-art of it, but now, coupled with the interview, the poem goes to an other higher, deeper level. Thanks for sharing this, Bill and Susan. Peace…

  20. Jules Archer

    So good to get into the mind of Bill Yarrow. Great interview, Susan.

  21. Bil Yarrow

    Thank you, Linda and Jules!

  22. susan tepper

    Also wanted to put in a last thank you to all who read, commented, or both about Bill’s chat, and hope you went on to read the poem which is a small treasure.

Leave a Comment