10 Questions for John Sibley Williams

Elizabeth Mikesch

Almost immaterial
                             in the way of paper

animals folded fireside — haloed and almost-
burning,            a branch of sun lit starlings. . .
from "CLosure" (Volume 58, Issue 3, Fall 2017)

Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
Although I’d written short fiction since childhood, I was twenty-one when I composed 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 first atrocious (yet honest) poem was aptly titled “The Dock,” and the process of passion turned to language changed me forever.

What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
Not to sound evasive, but I tend to find inspiration in almost all poetry, be it unique syntaxes or structures, unexpected assonance, rhythm and flow, narrative thrust, the organic fusion of opposing contexts. Everything we read influences in some manner, even if it shows us how we don’t want to write. I’m in constant admiration of poets breaking down all boundaries, fracturing the ‘universal rules,’ and infusing their work with socio-political content in stark, surprising ways. I’ve learned from Jordan Abel, Sherwin Bitsui, Craig Santos Perez, and so many others the tenderness that can be achieved by viewing history through prose-like, experimental poetry. I’m in awe of this new wave of young rural poets (like Joan Naviyuk Kane, Sara Eliza Johnson, Ansel Elkins, and Philip Schaefer) who expose the beauty and contradictions in our encounters with the natural world. Traci Brimhall, Natasha Trethewey, Ocean Vuong, and Ada Limón break me down and build me back up every time I read them. And then there’s Carl Phillips, who I consider one of the most profound poets writing today and whose books I return to again and again.

What other professions have you worked in?
While studying for my graduate degree I worked as an assistant teacher in a variety of subjects, as well as a tutor for students with developmental disabilities. Currently I work as Marketing Director for a small book publisher in Portland, Oregon.

Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
All sorts of locations—real and imagined, lived-in or visited or created—have influenced me over the years. After living in Central Europe for a few years, I found my poetry seeped in stonework and art and an older history. After spending a few weeks in Iceland, I wrote for many months about that strong, subtle landscape. Currently, most of my poetry is situated in rural and suburban America.

Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
Although I love music, I cannot write or edit with music of any genre playing in the background. I need either silence or the white noise of nature, traffic, and human conversation.

Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
Though it’s not always possible, I strongly prefer to write outdoors, be it at my local park, which runs along the beautiful Willamette River, or a favorite café or my own porch. When I sit down to write, I have a few notebooks filled with bits and pieces, phrases and stray stanzas, which I often pull from and fuse to kick-start a poem or to tease out its latent context.

Who typically gets the first read of your work?
I workshop many of my new poems with an intimate circle of Portland-based poets like Jeff Whitney and A. Molotkov. We have met bi-weekly in a semi-formal setting for nearly a decade now. I owe so much to their critiques and insights.

If you could work in another art form what would it be?
Although I appreciate all manner of art, I have a particular passion for film. My non-literary dream would be to write and direct projects I’m particularly passionate about.

What are you working on currently?
I currently have a full-length manuscript of free verse and prose poetry, Skin Memory, that I am in the process of submitting to certain presses and contests. In terms of new compositions, I’m working on a uniquely structured prose poem-ish series tentatively titled Say Uncle, which splices cultural/political/historical fears and horrors with bits of rural and suburban Americana.

What are you reading right now?
I tend to read about two poetry books every week, and I bounce back and forth between them to keep the inspiration diverse. Currently I am reading Hala Alyan’s Hijra and rereading Eric Pankey’s Trace.

JOHN SIBLEY WILLIAMS is the editor of two Northwest poetry anthologies and the author of nine collections, including Disinheritance and Controlled Hallucinations. A five-time Pushcart nominee and winner of the Philip Booth Award, American Literary Review Poetry Contest, Nancy D. Hargrove Editors’ Prize, Confrontation Poetry 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, Poet Lore, Columbia Poetry Review, MidAmerican Review, Third Coast, Baltimore Review, Nimrod, RHINO, and various anthologies. He lives in Portland.