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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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Thank you for this interview! I’d like to know more about you as a person first. What do you do when you’re not writing?
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.
When did you start 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.
As a published author, what would you say was the most pivotal point of your writing life?
There have been so many pivotal points in my writing life so far, and each new book, award, and magazine publication feels like another huge step forward. I suppose my first truly pivotal moment was in middle school, when an English teacher who really supported and believed in my short stories took it upon himself to submit my work to a youth writing contest. I only found out about this when the following year he placed a copy of the anthology in my hands and said “now you’re a published author.” My head spun. I was holding an actual book published through a literary organization, and it featured one of my stories. That was the moment I realized that my writing might resonate with others, that I was not only writing for myself.
If you could go anywhere in the world to start writing your next book, where would that be and why?
I have been lucky enough to have done a bit of traveling in the past. A cross country drive back and forth across America and a few years living in Central Europe have heavily influenced my work. But now, if I could live and write in one specific place for a few months, I think it would have to be Alaska, especially the Inside Passage. I adore the art and culture of Northwest indigenous tribes, and their unique histories and struggles have fascinated me since I was a kid. And such landscape and wildlife!
If you had 4 hours of extra time today, what would you do?
I really hope this doesn’t sound cliché or evasive, but I would write. If my full time job and all my wonderful duties at home fell into the normal 24 hour cycle and four new hours mysteriously emerged, I would have so much more distraction-free writing time.
Where would you like to set a story that you haven’t done yet?
Recently my poetry has tended toward Midwest and Western inspirations, from the miles upon miles of wheat and hay bales to the bison and barn fires and quaint towns scattered across the heart of America. There’s something rustic and mysterious about endless fields and huge skies and lives spent toiling the land. But for a future book, I think I might focus on uniquely Northwestern themes and landscapes. Though I’ve lived in Oregon for eight years now, I’m still constantly surprised and inspired by the ever-changing terrain and by the rugged fishermen and loggers who live here.
Back to your present book, Disinheritance, how did you publish it?
After I compiled, edited, and ran the completed manuscript by a few trusted peers whose critiques I trust, I began querying various poetry publishers whose books I admire and whose editorial visions seemed a good fit with my work. Luckily, it only took a few months before Apprentice House Press, out of Loyola University, accepted it. I adore small presses and university publishers. Often staffed by volunteers and students, they are so passionate and supportive of their authors, and I was excited to join AHP’s 2016 list.
In writing your book, did you travel anywhere for research?
Disinheritance didn’t require any travel, though two of my previous chapbook collections were inspired by personal experiences in unique locations. The poems in From Colder Climates are primarily focused on my time in Iceland, and The Longest Compass sweeps across mainland Europe, from Austria to Czech to Greece.
Why was writing Disinheritance so important to you?
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 in this collection, I adopted various unique voices, like those of our miscarried child, the hypothetical boy he might have grown up to be, my mother in her last moments, and my wife as she struggled to cope.
So Disinheritance shows a far more personal side than most of my poetry, though I hope the poems speak to larger, universal human concerns about how we approach mortality and what roles we play in each other’s’ lives.
Where do you get your best ideas and why do you think that is?
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.
Any final words?
I’d hate to waste my final words talking about myself, so, if I may, I’d like to give a little advice to new 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.