John Sibley Williams is the editor of two Northwest poetry anthologies and the author of nine collections, including Controlled Hallucinations (2013) and Disinheritance (2016). A five-time Pushcart nominee and winner of the Philip Booth Award, American Literary Review Poetry Contest, Nancy D. Hargrove Editors' Prize, and Vallum Award for Poetry, John serves as editor of The Inflectionist Review and works as a literary agent. Previous publishing credits include: The Midwest Quarterly, december, Third Coast, Baltimore Review, Nimrod International Journal, Hotel Amerika, Rio Grande Review, Inkwell, Cider Press Review, Bryant Literary Review, RHINO, and various anthologies. He lives in Portland, Oregon.
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Author: John Sibley Williams
Publisher: Apprentice House Press
Author: John Sibley Williams
Publisher: Apprentice House Press
A lyrical, philosophical, and tender exploration of the various voices of grief, including those of the broken, the healing, the son-become-father, and the dead, Disinheritance acknowledges loss while celebrating the uncertainty of a world in constant revision. From the concrete consequences of each human gesture to soulful interrogations into “this amalgam of real / and fabled light,” these poems inhabit an unsteady betweenness, where ghosts can be more real than the flesh and blood of one’s own hands.
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Tell us a little about yourself. When did you begin writing?
I’m lucky to have been passionate about books since childhood. Perhaps it’s in part due to my mother reading novel after novel over her pregnant belly every day. Perhaps it’s in part due to my own restlessness, my need to make things, and my love of words. But I began writing short stories in middle school, and I continued in that genre until my early twenties. A handful of those stories found publication in literary magazines, which was eye-opening and oddly humbling.
I was 21 when I wrote my first poem. Before that, I had never enjoyed reading poetry and had certainly never considered writing one. 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. That was 17 years ago. Since that surreal and confusing moment by that little city lake, I’ve written poetry almost every day.
Describe your writing process. When and where do you write?
Not to sound elusive, but I don’t have a specific location or time of day. Ideas and phrases and images emerge at the oddest times, so I’ve taken to carrying a pocket notebook everywhere I go. During my daily work commute. In the hospital visiting an ailing friend. While walking my dog. Even in the middle of a live 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 approach is to have one or two notebooks filled with phrases and images splayed out before me. Whenever I feel stuck, I reread my old notes and see if any fit the poem I’m working on. Interestingly, that approach tends to yield results that even surprise me.
Can you tell us about your most recent release?
Disinheritance is a collection of tender, lyrical poems exploring the various voices of grief, including those of the broken, the healing, the son-become-father, and the dead. These poems acknowledge loss while celebrating the uncertainty of a world in constant revision. Though many are based on personal experiences, the poems speak to larger, universal human concerns about how to approach mortality and what role we play in each other’s’ lives.
Disinheritance was inspired by a few pivotal moments that occurred within a few months of each other, namely the illness and passing of my mother, a terrible miscarriage, and my wife and I’s struggles to move forward and redefine the landscape of “family”. To explore grief more fully, I adopted the voice of our miscarried child, along with the hypothetical boy he might have grown up to be. I adopted my mother’s voice and my father’s and my wife’s and my own.
I’m honored to say most of the poems were previously published in magazines and anthologies, and Apprentice House Press has set the publication date for September 1, 2016.
How did you get the idea for the book?
Poetry collections stem from a rather different place than longer works of fiction or nonfiction. With the latter, the author often begins with a plot or perhaps a solid character to weave a world around. However, I write new poems every day. Their themes and voices and styles fluctuate according to my perspective at a given moment and to the demands of the poem itself. I never set out to write ‘a book of poems’. How can one know what he’s going to write about tomorrow? Instead, while combing through the hundred or so poems I’d written last year, I noticed a thread that wove through most of them. Grief. Love. Family. Loss. I began organizing the strongest poems into distinct sections, then I ran the manuscript by a few trusted peers. The various poems seemed to cohere, and Disinheritance was born.
What was the most challenging aspect of writing your book?
Most of my work is not overly narrative or overly personal, so it was an exciting challenge to write from a part of my heart still raw and healing. While writing these poems, I often struggled with how much real life information I should include vs. how much I should leave unsaid, how many details vs. how much ambiguity. As every reader has her own experiences to contend with and approaches the world from her own unique vantage point, there’s always that nagging challenge of finding the right balance between being true to my own experiences and being true to the experiences of total strangers. How can a poem be both personal and universal? I suppose that is always a significant (and fun) challenge, though all the more so with this collection.
Which authors have inspired your writing?
As inspiration can come from even a single well-written phrase, many hundreds of poets and novelists have stirred and motivated me. In my earlier years, I poured through Kafka, Marquez, Neruda, Rumi, Whitman, and many others. Each author, each story, each poem opened a new door. And the more I read, the more doors opened.
A few of the contemporary poets whose work has truly astounded and inspired me this year are Ocean Vuong (Night Sky with Exit Wounds), Carl Phillips (Reconnaissance), Keith Leonard (Ramshackle Ode), Camille Rankine (Incorrect Merciful Impulses), Sjohnna McCray (Rapture), Jamaal May (Hum), Roger Reeves (King Me), and Sara Eliza Johnson (Bone Map).
What projects are you currently working on?
I have just completed a new book, Skin Memory, which I’m currently pitching to publishers and submitting to book awards. Skin Memory is a collection of free verse and prose poems that tackle some of the same themes in Disinheritance, including family, grief, and American culture, while adding a slightly harder edge, risking a bit more personally and creatively, and exploring in a deeper way those fears and joys that haunt me.
What advice would you offer to new or aspiring authors?
There’s a reason “keep writing, keep reading” has become clichéd advice for emerging writers; it’s absolutely true. You need to study as many books as possible from authors of various genres and from various countries. Listen to their voices. Watch how they manipulate and celebrate language. Delve deep into their themes and characters and take notes on the stylistic, structural, 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 or stories 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.