John Sibley Williams is a Northwestern poet who has gained high praise and acclaim for his works that include a number of poetry collections, chapbooks and published poetry in literary reviews and anthologies, including the Yale Review, Southern Review, Sycamore Review and others. He is a 19-time Pushcart nominee and has won numerous other awards. In addition to being a poet, he is also an editor, writing coach, and literary agent. He lives in Portland.
His most recent accomplishment is as the author of "As One Fire Consumes Another," which won the 2019 Orison Poetry Prize. He will be in Meridian and Boise on Saturday, August 3.
I recently chatted with him via email about life, poetry and the pursuit of happiness.
Jeanne Huff: Before we start talking about your poems, can you tell us a little about yourself — where were you born, what was your growing up like?
John Sibley Williams: I was born in suburban Boston, a small town of about 20,000 people, in 1978. Growing up an only child in the '80s and '90s meant I spent most of my free time riding my bike all over the area, causing a bit more trouble than I had any right to, and otherwise trying to discover how I fit into the world through unsupervised physical activity. I also read … a lot … wolfing down a few books a week. We had a houseful of cats, though mine was the only bookshelf in the house.
Although I rebelled quite a bit in that awkward way of young boys, in hindsight I realize just how lucky and privileged I was to have so much freedom to invent and reinvent myself.
JH: Do you think your early experiences helped to shape who you have become as a poet?
JSW: Although I have a wealth of incredible and painful memories from childhood, I don’t know if any specific one (that) sparked my desire to write. I’m told my mother read to me in utero every night, and just maybe those dimestore paperbacks reached me down there.
But likely the most significant factor was being an only child. I had a rather wild and full imagination, which led me to invent my own world, populating it with characters, acting out scenes, reading books aloud to myself, and other strange things that felt at the time and continue to feel magical.
JH: What is the first thing you ever wrote?
JSW: I don’t recall the first story I wrote, as I began at a very young age. In elementary and middle school I tended toward scary little tales in the vein of "The Twilight Zone" and "Alfred Hitchcock Presents." But I do recall my first story that was published. In eighth grade my English teacher, unbeknownst to me, submitted a Thanksgiving-themed horror tale I wrote for class to a youth literary journal. A few months later he pulled me aside after class to tell me the good news. I was shocked, humbled, terrified, and a few other emotions jumbled together. I still feel that way to this day with every publication and book.
JH: Do you remember the first time you fell in love with poetry?
JSW: Although I began writing short fiction around age 8 or 9, poetry didn’t find me (I didn’t really find it) until I was 21. Perhaps due to the way it was taught in school, before that I had never enjoyed reading poetry and had certainly never considered writing (a poem).
The story of my first poetry experience still fills my heart with gratitude and inspiration.
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.
Since that surreal and confusing moment by that little city lake 19 years ago, poetry has become my creative obsession and life’s work, the lens through which I better comprehend the world and my tiny part in it.
JH: Written or spoken — do you prefer to read a poem or to have it read, or do you prefer to hear it or to speak it aloud?
JSW: Although true of all literary genres, poetry in particular demands to be read aloud. Its internal inflections, rhythms, and cadences can certainly be recognized and enjoyed from the page, but it is in vocalization that poems come to life.
My composition process involves reading aloud each line I’ve written over and over until the next line comes. I hear the poem differently. I can better listen to what it wants to say. The sound of language is as essential as its meaning. Certain phrases just roll off the tongue, collide, spark little fires in the mouth. I find it utterly fascinating and quite revealing of the human experience that every reader will speak a poem differently. As a teacher, I relish having multiple students read the same poem aloud. The effect is always unique to that reader. The whole poem changes depending on the voice.
Poetry is inherently a conversation between text and reader, but when read aloud it also becomes a conversation between reader and listener.
JH: Who are your favorite poets and or influences today?
JSW: We are fortunate to live in an age when poets from diverse countries, backgrounds and beliefs are fairly accessible and, beyond that, celebrated by the larger literary community. It wasn’t long ago that only those with the privileged status of white, male, cisgender, and English-speaking could gain the audience they deserve.
I wish there were space enough to list every contemporary poet whose work inspires and influences me. But a few whose work resonates deepest with me are Carl Phillips, Ocean Vuong, Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, Craig Santos Perez, Jenny Xie, Zubair Ahmed, Monica Berlin … and maybe a thousand others.
JH: Your poetry is honest and brutal, raw and nearly religious in its lyrical beauty and yet tackling and grappling with issues such as violence and social and cultural beliefs. And in your most recent book, "As One Fire Consumes Another," each poem is built like a tower or a tall, rectangular block of words, formidable and jutting up from the bottom of the page. The poems have been described as "newspaper-like columns." Where do your poems come from, what well do you draw from when you write, create?
JSW: Thank you so very much for saying so. Dark, honest intensity was certainly a thematic goal.
Though each poem possesses its own unique demands, themes, and structures, my work is always heavily rooted in human attachments and disconnects: to others, selfperception, culture and politics, landscape, language, hurt and healing. Given the divisiveness that significantly defines our times, much of my current work, especially the poems in “As One Fire Consumes Another,” seeks to position poetry as a means to create dialogue about cultural silences, marginalized communities, societal gender expectations, and my own inherent privilege.
The themes in these poems were emotionally demanding for me to write. I found myself questioning not just my country, culture and history but nearly everything that defines me. I struggled to faithfully explore the extent of my personal privilege as a white, CIS, able-bodied male whose labors and strains are so trifling compared to others. I struggled when writing about my family, especially when interrogating my lineage. I wanted to stare guilt and complicity square in the eye.
In terms of the unique box-like structure of these poems, I wanted to push my own boundaries and find a tight, unyielding structure that resembled prose poetry in its fixed-line breaks but deviated from it in providing ample white space so the page wasn’t crowded with ink. This structure also resonated with the themes of this collection. The poems speak of death and cultural roles, privilege and otherness, the little boxes we place each other in and our often-violent attempts to escape them. They examine the claustrophobia of history and how little things change.
On a personal level, I feel my part in our country and world is equally prefabricated, constricted, and difficult to explore without scraping my knuckles against the walls I’ve built around myself. So, in the end, the structure I enjoyed on a creative level ended up being a perfect fit for the ideas that were haunting me.
JH: So now what — what is on your horizon?
JSW: As I have two new books coming out this year (besides "As One Fire Consumes Another, also "Skin Memory," which won the Backwaters Prize), I’m not working on a specific project at the moment. I’m just writing and writing, trying to push my own boundaries, stretch my comfort zone, and experiment with new styles and structures with the hope something fresh and authentic will come of it. I am also busy working as an educator and poetry editor.
The most ambitious project I have on the horizon is designing a new online platform that provides affordable poetry workshops for emerging and established writers. Currently called Caesura Poetry Workshop, it will include monthly classes led by talented faculty from diverse backgrounds and with diverse skillsets to share.
JH: What about down time, what do you like to do for fun?
JSW: Well, as a parent of twin toddlers my non-writing life pretty much revolves around activities with the kids. I do still adore film, especially in the many independent cinemas here in Portland, and my partner and I frequent our local vegetarian restaurants. But these days I enjoy most introducing my kids to new books, taking them to parks, and pretty much experiencing every facet of fatherhood.
JH: What would even people who know you well, be surprised to find out about you?
JSW: Perhaps due to the stereotypes surrounding poets, people seem to assume all aspects of our lives must be elevated. If we spend decades working on our art and take what we do seriously, we must exclusively be admirers of high art. And perhaps that’s the case for some. But personally I’m a huge fan of horror cinema. There, I said it.
Fear is one of our most primal emotions. It dismantles the walls we build around ourselves and tugs loose the masks we wear … socially and when looking in the mirror.
Fear is authentic and universal. I’m absolutely terrified of dying and even more so of the knowledge my children won’t live forever. Being able to experience fear vicariously from the safety of my home provides a kind of catharsis. It helps me understand my own anxieties better, and it allows me to face them.