John Sibley Williams is the author of As One Fire Consumes Another (Orison Poetry Prize, 2019), Skin Memory (Backwaters Prize, 2019), Disinheritance, and Controlled Hallucinations. A nineteen-time Pushcart nominee, John is the winner of numerous awards, including the Philip Booth Award, American Literary Review Poetry Contest, Phyllis Smart-Young Prize, The 46er Prize, Nancy D. Hargrove Editors' Prize, Confrontation Poetry Prize, and Laux/Millar Prize. He serves as editor of The Inflectionist Review and works as a literary agent. Previous publishing credits include: The Yale Review, Midwest Quarterly, Southern Review, Sycamore Review, Prairie Schooner, The Massachusetts Review, Poet Lore, Saranac Review, Atlanta Review, TriQuarterly, Columbia Poetry Review, Mid-American Review, Poetry Northwest, Third Coast, and various anthologies. He lives in Portland, Oregon.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first collection, Controlled Hallucinations, was a linguistic experiment and structurally different than most of my work. I’d published six chapbooks before that, each with its own tone and themes. But the poems in Controlled Hallucinations bore no titles, meaning it was meant to be read together, fluidly. My concern was that the poems didn’t provide a narrative to bind them. Each was a brief, self-sustaining vignette that played with language and repeated images. Luckily, a lovely small publisher, FutureCycle Press, picked it up and published it back in 2013. The experience introduced me to the world of nonlocal readings, media, and all the things poets must do to get their books in readers’ hands. It was a fabulous experience, and it taught me so many lessons I continue to adhere to today.
My two new or upcoming collections couldn’t be more different tonally or structurally. However, many of the same themes emerge. We cannot change what haunts us. But these new collections are more solid, connective, and the writing comes from a more mature place, both personally and creatively.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I actually began writing short fiction around age eight or nine and throughout high school and my first years of college. It seems strange to say in hindsight, but I was 21 when I wrote my first poem. Perhaps dueto the way it was taught to me in school, before that I had never enjoyed reading poetry and had certainly never considered writing one. The story of my first poetry experience still fills my heart with gratitude and inspiration.
It was summer in New York and I was sitting by a lake with my feet dragging through the current caused by small boats when suddenly, without my knowing what I was doing, I began writing something that obviously wasn’t a story. What was it? Impressions. Colors. Emotions. Strange images. I didn’t have any paper, so I used a marker to write a series of phrases on my arm. Then they poured onto my leg. Then I realized I needed paper. I ran back to the car, took out a little notebook, and spent hours emptying myself of visions and fears and joys I don’t think I even knew I had. Since that surreal and confusing moment by that little city lake 19 years ago, poetry has become my creative obsession and life’s work, the lens through which I better comprehend the world and my tiny part in it.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
Well, that wholly depends on the poem. Some flow so quickly and organically I almost feel as though they’re coming from outside me, written in another’s hand. A few of my poems that have won national contests took me 20 minutes to write. I’m utterly grateful for these experiences. On the other hand, I always have dozens of poems-in-progress, many of which are years old and may never be completed. Sometimes we just don’t yet have the language or experiences to work on a poem. I’ll jot down a few lines, even a few stanzas, and then the poem stagnates. Its context is lost. Then I’ll revisit it months or years later with a new perspective. Suddenly the poem makes sense. Such a mysterious process. Some skill. Some luck. Maybe some magic.
Similarly, many of my drafts closely resemble their polished versions, especially as I tend to edit as I go. But many others could not look more different. Sometimes I’ll scrap an entire poem apart from a few key lines. Then I’ll start a new poem with those lines.
In the end, I think it’s all about the poem’s specific needs and goals. I know it’s a cliché statement, but poems really do have a life of their own apart from the creator. And I feel we need to honor that sentience and work at the pace the poem demands, strenuous as it often is.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
Though this is far from universally true, many of my poems begin with a single image. Be it a dead horse bloated by a river, my young daughter tearing up the paper swans I made for her, or, in the case of “Dear Jonah”, one of my favorite poems in my new collection, children playing in the vast ribcage of a beached whale, I usually start with a single haunting image written at the top of a page. Then I try to weave a world in which that image makes sense. I have multiple notebooks filled with individual lines, words, images without context, and I tend to flip through these while writing to see if any previous little inspirations might tie into the new world I’m creating. That said, I do sometimes start with a concept, theme, or other larger motivation, often cultural or political. But I tend to find these ideas and themes spring naturally from whatever I write, and it usually feels more organic if I begin with an image and let the context find its voice.
I’m rarely working on a specific book. I simply write and write and build books based on the common threads in the poems themselves.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Sharing my work in a live environment is an essential component to continued inspiration. I don’t approach readings as compulsory or goal-oriented, meaning book sales aren’t my main motivation. I learn a lot about my work from performing it before an audience; even poems I’ve written years ago take on a new life. Although my composition process involves reading each line aloud over and over until it sounds right to my ear, audience reaction to my tone, cadence, and enunciation (and my overall presentation style, including gesture and personality) provides a fresh way of perceiving my work. I recognize the intense energy (or lack thereof) certain poems tend to engender in an audience, and I’ve even revised poems based on how they resonate orally to others. In the end, whether it’s spoken or on the page, we’re trying to communicate our vision of the world. We hope to translate our experiences in a way that will resonate with others. And how better to do that than eye-to-eye, directly from mouth to ear?
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
Though each poem possesses its own unique demands, themes, and structures, my work is always heavily rooted in human attachments and disconnects: to others, to self-perception, to culture and politics, to nature, to language, to the past and future, to hurt and healing. Attempting to balance concept and emotion, my work is geared towards a generous, inclusive approach to discourse, to storytelling. I’m interested in the drama and tragedy of the human condition, the ways we define ourselves and seek meaning in our lives.
The topics through which I explore these themes are greatly varied and derive from a broad range of passions: family, tradition, art, culture, history, politics, landscapes, and seasons. The structures I employ are similarly varied, from narrative to experimental to prose poems, according to which structure best conveys the poem’s specific goals. However, regardless of topic, I always try to express a sharable, universal experience by balancing concept with emotion and by focusing on layered metaphors and the innate musicality of language. I hope my writing successfully emphasizes form and sound, as rhythm carries a resonance beyond literal and figurative meanings.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
That’s a huge, loaded question, and it’s one I don’t feel particularly comfortable answering. I don’t really believe in creative should’s or hard-defined roles. Roles end up coffins for creativity. I don’t feel poets should confine themselves by adopting responsibilities that aren’t intrinsic to their creative drive. Isn’t a writer simply someone who writes? And people write in different ways on different themes for different purposes. Although my new collection, As One Fire Consumes Another, explores weighty cultural themes and histories in an attempt to understand why we do what we do to each other, as well as my own (rather privileged) identity in our country’s tumultuous political climate, my previous collection focused on the intimate themes of parenthood, progeny, and personal fears. Writing about a garden or Trump’s immigration policy are both equally valid and equally necessary. Poetry unravels, reveals, explores, regardless of its larger purpose.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Although my writing process is a personal endeavor, I do enjoy participating in my writing group. We’ve met every other week for nearly nine years. I use their critiques and comments as a filmmaker does a test screening. If a poem resonates with most of the group, then it’s probably working. If everyone feels certain lines, themes, or the poem itself are in need of serious revision, they are probably right. A poet can simply be too close to the material to recognize its universality or lack thereof. So feedback is essential. However, I try to retain a balance between initial inspiration and outside critique. We need to stay true to our visions. If, even after harsh criticism, I still love a poem, I likely won’t revise it much. I want to be proud of each poem, and revisions can hamper that. But I do tend to revise, at least a little, based on such feedback. Changing a single line (heck, even swapping a for the) can open a poem up to greater resonance.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
There’s a reason “keep writing, keep reading” has become clichéd advice; it’s absolutely true. You need to study as many books as possible from authors of various genres and from various cultures. Listen to their voices. Watch how they manipulate and celebrate language. Delve deep into their themes and structures and take notes on the stylistic and linguistic tools they employ. And never, ever stop writing. Write every free moment you have. Bring a notebook and pen everywhere you go (and I mean everywhere). It’s okay if you’re only taking notes. Notes are critical. It’s okay if that first book doesn’t find a publisher. There will be more books to come. And it’s okay if those first poems aren’t all that great. You have a lifetime to grow as a writer.
Do we write to be cool, to be popular, to make money? We write because we have to, because we love crafting stories and poems, because stringing words together into meaning is one of life’s true joys. So rejections are par for the course. Writing poems that just aren’t as strong as they could be is par for the course. But we must all retain that burning passion for language and storytelling. That flame is what keeps us maturing as writers.
10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I don’t have a specific location or time of day, especially now that I’m a parent. I must steal every moment I can. However, even before fatherhood, I found that ideas and phrases and images emerge at the oddest times. I’d taken to carrying a pocket notebook everywhere some years ago. During my daily work commute. In the hospital visiting an ailing friend. While walking my dog. Even in the middle of a concert or film. Though I tend to write best when outside, inspiration can come from anything. At its core, I think creativity is all about curiosity and how one chooses to communicate with the world. As adults, we’re programmed to think linearly, reactively, and, dare I say it, boringly. But if we retain a bit of that childhood innocence, that unabated curiosity, then we can find metaphors in everything. Why look at the night sky and think “sky, moon, stars”? Why can’t the sky be a river? Why can’t the stars be that part of our hearts we leave open to love?
My process is a bit different with every poem. Some pour forth as if on their own, leaving me the easier task of revising for sound and clarity. Other poems take serious effort, time, and struggle. But generally my routine includes having notebooks filled with phrases and images splayed out before me. My goal is to find connective tissue, loose threads, unexpected contexts, from which a poem may emerge.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
When my writing gets stalled, I usually take it as a sign that my mind needs a break. Often writers block hits me after an extended period of hectic writing. Six months. A hundred poems written (not all of them good, of course). I’ve opened my heart and explored the ways it hurts. Then…the page goes blank on me. And that’s okay. It’s an essential part of the process, as sleeping is to wakefulness. I take that time to regroup and work on other things. Sometimes I forget there’s a whole world out there. I forget I actually have hobbies and interests outside of writing. So I take these stalled times to get inspired by the non-literary world, and I wait until the need to write returns. It’s rarely a long wait. Then, as a warm up, I tend to write a few choppy, rather poor poems that no one will ever see. Then, hopefully, the better writing returns in full force.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
I’d love to say something poetic here. Is it calming sandalwood streaming from a candle? Summer rain baking on the driveway? Freshly sliced onions frying in a pan? As I’m a parent of twin toddlers and two aging pets, the fragrance that defines home for me at the moment is…less lyrical. You can imagine the scents of which I speak. However, they’ve become comforting. They speak to the hard work of love and nursing a new generation.
13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Not to sound coy, but I believe everything is a storehouse of inspiration. It all depends on the author’s curiosity and on retaining an open mind. From other books and current events, from overheard conversations and history, from memories and mythology and the way a bridge sways against the sky and my son’s hand brushing against mine. And I’m heavily inspired by the landscape itself, from weather patterns and animals and cityscapes and rivers and the bridges that span them. And sometimes ideas seem to materialize from the ether, as if they never existed until that moment.
But I think most of my ideas stem from how things interact with other things. Be it people in love or coyotes sniffing a deer carcass or clouds darkening the sky or trains shooting through the night, warming the rails. The effects one thing has on every other thing are astounding, ever-changing, and so very inspiring.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Although I could name dozens of poets whose work I return to again and again to inspire and sustain my own, the book that’s had the most lasting impact is Man’s Search for Meaning by psychologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor E. Frankl. With each fresh reading of it, I find new questions to ask myself. This seminal work frames much of my understanding of human nature, and I don’t think a day goes by in which its insights aren’t validated in my daily life. From it I also better realize our motivations and basic intangible needs, which translate into the landscapes I write about and the characters I populate them with.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
If I had greater resources (monetary and time), I’d love to open a youth poetry camp here in Portland. To supplement traditional poetic education and to keep young people thinking and writing during the summer, the camp would include instructional and inspirational speakers and guest teachers. The group would travel extensively throughout the area and learn to write in different settings, from city to country. As Portland is within driving distance of mountains, deserts, rivers, and an ocean, not to mention the uniqueness of the city’s downtown, youth could practice writing about their world with their feet actually sunk deep in those various soils.
16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
Well, apart from the usual childhood career desires, I don’t recall ever having wanted to do anything but write with my life. However, if the opportunity arose to work in another medium apart from the written word, I’d work in film. I have a few scripts buzzing about in my head, many rather well sketched out. Given my obsession with unique, haunting images, I’d love to write and direct darkly dramatic independent films. Another occupation within the film industry I can easily imagine adoring is practical effects artist. If there’s anything the writing life lacks, it’s using one’s hands to turn images into tangible objects.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I fear I don’t really have an answer for this one as I didn’t choose to write in any objective sense. I haven’t sat down to compare writing against other potential creative endeavors. In answer to the common question “why do you write?”, I can only say “ I don’t know how not to.” I make sense of the world through language. Without it, I’d be lost; I would be a different person.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Given my hectic schedule, which allows little down time, I tend to read sample poems and do some research before acquiring a new book. So I’m rarely disappointed in anything I read. A few poetry collections that recently tore at my heart and inspired my own writing include Nostalgia for a World Where We Can Live by Monica Berlin, Cenzontle by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, and Cutting the Wire: Photographs and Poetry from the US-Mexico Border, a powerful cultural collaboration between photographer Bruce Berman and poets Ray Gonzalez and Lawrence Welsh. As I’m a fan of darker films, especially horror, arguably my favorite film of the past year was Hereditary, which moved me emotionally and terrified me as a parent.
19 - What are you currently working on?
As I have two new books coming out this year (As One Fire Consumes Another, winner of the Orison Poetry Prize, and Skin Memory, which won the Backwaters Prize), I’m not working on a specific project at the moment. I’m just writing and writing, trying to push my own boundaries, stretch my comfort zone, and experiment with new styles and structures with the hope something fresh and authentic will come of it.