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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Our guest today is John Sibley Williams, author of the new poetry collection Disinheritance.
What made you decide to become a published author?
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.
Would you consider your latest book, Disinheritance, to be a one of a kind? How so?
Well, I suppose every book is one of a kind. But in my case, Disinheritance is a bit different than my previous collections. 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.
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.
Although I’m sure countless other poets have written on similar themes, Disinheritance is definitely unique to my own body of work.
Where is your writing sanctuary?
I don’t really 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 (and my “sanctuary”) 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.
What inspires you?
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 bridges and rivers and animals and cityscapes. 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.
What is one thing you learned about your book after it was published?
Although it’s not a new lesson as I’ve been writing for decades, still I am always surprised and enthused by the reactions readers have when first encountering a poem that speaks to them. We have all read poems or novels that truly moved us, that made us reconsider ourselves, that illuminated the beauty and power of language. It has been indescribably rewarding to know my work has touched others in that way. When a total stranger who perhaps stumbled across your book or had it recommended to her contacts you out of the blue to say how much it inspired her, that is a potent feeling. When you’re giving a reading and you can see that glow in the audience’s eyes, that is unforgettable. Even after around 50 or so readings across the country, I am touched every single time someone goes out of their way to express their thoughts on my work. That’s what it’s all about. Trying to use language that lifts up off the page and resonates with people.
Did any real life experiences find their way into your book?
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.
Aside from writing, what’s your passion?
I sort of feel like I’m always writing. Even when at work, when driving, hiking, reading, listening to music. Inspiration can come from anything, so wherever I go I carry a pocket notebook and pen, just in case. But apart from writing, most of my time these days is spent raising my wife and I’s newborn twins. Fatherhood is a full time job, as is writing, so my various other passions have taken a back seat for the time being. Before that, I spent most of my non-writing time reading, watching films, exploring the gorgeous mountains and rivers and deserts of Oregon, and supporting my local literary scene by attending various readings and literary conferences.
What’s next for you?
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.