Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Tuesday Author Talks: Interview with Poet John Sibley Williams

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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About the Book:

Author: John Sibley Williams
Publisher: Apprentice House Press
Pages: 98
Genre: Poetry

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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  • Disinheritance is available at Amazon.
  • Discuss this book at PUYB Virtual Book Club at Goodreads.

At what age did you know you wanted to be a writer?

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.

Do you take notes when reading or watching a movie?

Oh my, yes. I take notes when driving too (not recommended), and at concerts, weddings, funerals, restaurants, and pretty much wherever else I find myself. There is no way of predicting when an idea, image, line, or phrase will appear, and if I am suddenly inspired to take a brief note or write a few lines and I do not have paper, what then? The lines vanish.

Do you have a day job?  What do you do?

Though paid presentations, workshops, and conferences help, I fear poetry isn’t quite mainstream enough to be one’s day job. Alas. So, apart from writing daily, I work full time as Marketing Director of Inkwater Press, and I work part time as a literary agent. I’m lucky that both of my professions allow me to work with emerging authors, helping guide them through the complex world of publishing.

Can you name three writing tips to pass on to aspiring authors?

There’s a reason “keep writing, keep reading” has become clich├ęd 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.

What hours do you write best?

Although I take notes all day long, I tend to write best anywhere from the late morning to evening, when my head is clearest and there are fewer distractions. There’s something about twilight that particularly inspires me.

How often do you write?

I feel like I’m always writing in some form. I take notes many times each day, and I am constantly working on weaving these ideas and images together into lines and stanzas. But I sit down in front of my computer surrounded by my notes and really ‘write’ around every other day.

Are you an avid reader?

I’m not sure if any writer isn’t also an avid reader. At least I hope all writers read enthusiastically and daily. Personally, I tend to read two poetry books at a time, bouncing between them every few poems to keep things fresh. I complete about two books every week. Though my focus is on poetry, I always have a novel or nonfiction book on my nightstand too. I think it’s critical to read in various genres, even those you won’t personally write in, to see how other authors use language to certain effects.

What are you reading now?

I tend to read around two poetry books per week, and I learn something from each. But a few of the poets whose work has truly astounded and inspired me this year are Ocean Vuong (Night Sky with Exit Wounds), Carl Phillips (Reconnaissance), Keith Leonard (Ramshackle Ode), Camille Rankine (Incorrect Merciful Impulses), Sjohnna McCray (Rapture), Jamaal May (Hum), Roger Reeves (King Me), and Sara Eliza Johnson (Bone Map).

What are you currently working on?

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.

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