An Interview with John Sibley Williams
Last November I wrote a critical essay on Disinheritance by John Sibley Williams. I interviewed John and we discussed topics like the process of writing a poem, favorite poets, and upcoming creative projects.
When it comes to writing a poem, what is your process?
I became the father of twins about six months ago, so I’m now carving out new, flexible routines and processes that balance writing with life’s many other joyful responsibilities. I still write daily, though usually in fragments, in stolen moments, taking notes that will, hopefully, band together into poems. When I sit down to actually write, I often start with a unique concrete image and try to build a world around that. What characters, what landscapes, what ghosts should populate it? What emotions does that image evoke in me? I look through my notes and weigh my own experiences and do my best to create a certain mood and voice to propel the poem forward. But each poem rarely follows the logic I set aside for it. What I think is the first line suddenly becomes the last. What seemed a crucial image (maybe even that foundational image that inspired the poem) becomes irrelevant in the broader context of the piece. Just when I think, deep down, it’s a love poem, a political poem, a pastoral, the lines voice their dissent. They want to be something else. So I follow them down, toward whatever end.
Where do you draw inspiration when writing a poem and putting together a collection?
Not to sound too generic, but I believe everything is a storehouse of poetic inspiration. From other books and current events, from overheard conversations and music, from memories and mythology and the way a bridge sways against the sky or my son’s hand brushing against mine. And I’m heavily inspired by the landscape itself, from weather patterns and bridges and rivers and farmlands 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.
As to the inspiration behind collections, I usually don’t set out with a specific goal. Nailing down what you want to achieve beforehand tends to stifle a poem’s voice and limit a collection’s possible breadth. I think we all write about what fascinates and terrifies us at that moment. So, when compiling a book, I sort through the hundreds of poems I’ve composed over a given time and find the threads that bind them. Then I simply build the collection upon that thematic foundation.
Who are your favorite poets?
Can I cap the list at 100? But seriously, some days I reread George Oppen; some days Paul Celan. Or Stevens or Rilke or Paz or Stafford. I’m an immense fan of Carl Phillips, Eric Pankey, and Melissa Kwasny. More recently I’ve come to adore Ada Limón, Joan Naviyuk Kane, Sara Eliza Johnson, Saeed Jones, and Camille Rankine. This may sound strange, but my favorite poets list changes almost daily.
Are there any future creative projects you can discuss?
I’ve just completed two full length poetry manuscripts that I’m submitting to various contests and publishers. “Skin Memory” is an amalgam of free verse and prose poetry that focuses on bodies— human, animal, celestial, landscape—and how they affect each other. “Keeping the Old World Lit” is a tightly structured set of poems that explore our relationship with history, nostalgia, and cultural and personal regret. Now that those two manuscripts are attempting to find their way in the world, I’ve decided to tackle a project I’ve put off for too long: a series of ekphrastic* poems in conversation with Edward Hopper landscapes.
*ekphrastic means the description of a work of art as a rhetoric exercise. – Driftless Area Review
What was the last good book you read? (And think other people should read and why?)
2016 really was an incredible year for poetry, and I’d be hard pressed to label one book (or even ten) as my most recent favorite. But a few of my favorites have been Ocean Vuong’s Night Sky with Exit Wounds, Sjohnna McCray’s Rapture, Keith Leonard’s Ramshackle Ode, Jamaal May’s The Big Book of Exit Strategies, and Francine J. Harris’ Play Dead. Last year (and now moving forward) I put a concentrated effort into reading works by non-white/male/straight/American poets, and their astounding voices and fresh perspectives further broadened my cultural and creative understanding.
And on the near horizon, I’m really looking forward to the release of Joan Naviyuk Kane’s Milk Black Carbon, Safia Elhillo’s The January Children, Peter LaBerge’s Makeshift Cathedral, Philip Schaefer’s Bad Summon, and Mai Der Vang’s Afterland.
Where is your favorite place to read?
Anywhere, except around loud music. I get a lot of reading done at my local park, which runs along the lovely Willamette River, and on public transportation. And at my favorite café and in my cool sunless basement and on airplanes and lunch breaks at work. My overstuffed carrier bag is always weighed down by 2-3 poetry books, my various notebooks, laptop, and more pens and page markers and highlighters than is probably safe to carry.