An Interview with John Sibley Williams

John Sibley Williams is the author of five poetry collections including As One Fire Consumes Another (Orison Poetry Prize, 2019), and Skin Memory (Backwaters Prize, University of Nebraska Press, 2019) . He is also the recipient of many awards including the Laux/Millar Prize, Wabash Prize, Philip Booth Award, Janet B. McCabe Poetry Prize, American Literary Review Poetry Contest, Phyllis Smart-Young Prize, The 46er Prize, Nancy D. Hargrove Editors’ Prize, Confrontation Poetry Prize, and Vallum Award for Poetry. His poem “Absence Makes the Heart” was published in Volume 39 of The Worcester Review. This collection contains themes of collective grief and guilt, as well as the role of language in our society and understanding what is sacred. This interview took place in fall 2019.

DAVINA TOMLIN: What do you think makes this particular book of poetry different from your previous books in terms of theme and format?

JOHN SIBLEY WILLIAMS: Well, thematically, I think we all write about what haunts us, what keeps us up at night, what questions we just can’t find answers for. So, in that regard, many of my books explore the same larger human concerns, be they personal or cultural. The themes are interconnected, are threads that together form a single tapestry. Be it national prejudice or fears of how I’m raising my children, our bloody history or the search for self when the self just keeps vanishing into the communal. Certain poems may push one or another theme more to the forefront, often based on our current political climate or internal changes that have reprioritized my daily life, but in the end, I recognize pretty clear thematic threads running from my early chapbooks all the way to Skin Memory .

But format is a different matter. I am terrified of growing stagnate, of writing in a manner I’m already comfortable with. So my previous collection, As One Fire Consumes Another , entirely consists of short, newspaper column-like prose poems. Skin Memory is an amalgam of that format, traditional prose poems, narrative free verse, and more experimental free verse. And I am currently experimenting with mixing short, staccato lines with page-width ones to see if that format might yield a new perspective.

TOMLIN: When do you decide to create a collection of poems like this, when do you know that you have a “book”? How do you organize and edit poems to create a collection?

WILLIAMS: I wish I had some mystical answer here, but honestly I just write and write and at some point I realize I have a hundred or more poems and should probably see if I can carve a collection out of them. Sometimes I can’t, because the poems I’ve written are too disparate to come together under one banner or because they’re just not up to scratch. But when the connective tissue does emerge, it’s such a thrilling sensation.

When organizing a potential collection, I print out all the poems I’m considering for inclusion and take notes in red ink on the top of each. I briefly reference the themes and images in the poems, and I judge them on a 1-3 scale (in which a 1 means it definitely deserves inclusion and 3 means it will likely fall to the cutting room floor; 2 being a maybe). Then, based on those little notes, I categorize them in piles and try to find a workable order that will read smoothly. A collection should flow like a river, so I may follow a poem that ends in a night image with a poem that begins with light. The biggest issue I encounter is how to break up poems with different structures. Should there be one section of free verse, another with prose poetry? Should those structures be mixed and the sections be based on themes? I just play with a collection until it feels intuitively right. But even that can be elusive. Skin Memory endured seven full rewrites and restructures over the course of almost three years before it found publication.

TOMLIN: Why do you choose certain formats for certain poems (newspaper column vs. couplets etc.)? In your previous book “As One Fire Consumes Another” all the poems had the same format, what changed in this book? For you, does the structure create the poem or vice versa?

WILLIAMS: Normally, the structure tends to emerge during my writing process. Be it traditional prose poetry or white-space-heavy experimental free verse (and everything in between), I let the poem find its format instead of deciding on it beforehand. Usually, the act of reading lines aloud while I write them—where I naturally pause and inflect, how much breathing room images demand, the speed and flow of the lines leaving my mouth—is enough to dictate form. And, as you noticed in Skin Memory , those forms can be rather diverse. I have a bit of everything in there. As One Fire Consumes Another , however, was a different beast; it was a personal experiment to see if I could create a set form consistently used across multiple poems that enjoyed the best aspects of free verse and prose poetry. I wanted the narrative flow and inherent conceptual linkage associated with the latter and the frequent, tense line breaks of the former. I found that happy medium in that newspaper column form you noted in Fire . And the poems in that book feel like newspaper clippings, in a way, so the structure melded with the content. But this approach isn’t common for me. Usually the poem dictates its own structure.

TOMLIN: You often make references to other writers and historical moments (Jules Verne, “Perfect Storm, Massachusetts 1991”) in your poems. This seems to ground the reader and the poem, when do you think this is necessary, how do you use this as a tool?

WILLIAMS: Grounding is exactly right! Some poems require a bit of context to fully understand or appreciate them. For example, I referenced the Perfect Storm in one poem to create a sense of place and an intimacy; the reader recognizes this strange little story does exist in the tangible world, that it’s not wholly imagined, that the author directly experienced it. That kind of grounding allowed me to explore the idea of “storm” in a broader sense without losing a sense of reality. My hope for the Hekla poem is that the reference to Jules Verne provided a historical context for my own experiences when visiting that gorgeous place of potential death. Such references can also work as anchors for a reader to cling to when a poem makes unexpected moves into the highly metaphorical or ambiguous. As a reader, I feel I can trust a conceptual poem more if I have an anchor or two to keep me weighted to reality.

TOMLIN: At times in this collection you seem to appreciate human’s constant attempt to make marks in the world and at times disparage it, when do you think this urge is destructive/productive? It seems in the final section to be humans attempts at mark-making which spark collective grief ( “After-Bruise,” “Sanctum,” and “Before, and the Birds After” )

WILLIAMS: That’s such a weighted question, but my feelings about it, complicated and guilt-ridden as they are, are quite straightforward. I don’t think we can celebrate human achievement without recognizing the human suffering behind it. We cannot discuss the creation of our railway system, which links us all and helped birth, well, half the country, without acknowledging forced labor and indigenous massacres. Europeans would not have birthed (read: conquered) this country without genocide. Consumerism provides us with nearly unlimited choice while fracturing society into haves and have-nots. Human history is a history of great advancements born on the bloody shoulders of “the other”. So, yes, I feel we have as much to celebrate as mourn. They seem to go hand-in-hand. In terms of the past, all we can do is act as honest witnesses, ensuring the complicated, contradictory truths of our nature aren’t rewritten or erased. In the final section of Skin Memory , I think you’re right, I’m trying to move beyond witness and see if there are other ways of progress without that corresponding pain.

TOMLIN: In this instance, where do you see the role of poets not from indigenous communities or immigrant communities in dealing with issues like “forced labor and indigenous massacres?” How do navigate what is and is not your story to tell?

WILLIAMS: This could not be a more crucial question. Privilege comes in so many forms, most invisible until you shine a light on them and see their hazy edges. Gender, sexuality, race, religion, socio-economic status, family status, and even these have gradations. They all combine to give us a cultural advantage or disadvantage and exploring my own advantages and how they contrast against those born or raised without them is a central theme of my work.

In terms of how to discuss it, I feel it all comes down to a mixture of self-awareness and empathy. It’s a balancing act between witness and action. All of us whose privilege allows us the space to write freely, who aren’t judged by superficial qualities, who needn’t fear police or politicians or bosses who could withhold that one paycheck that makes our children go hungry, we need to investigate how we got where we are and what we can do to expose such inequities.

The question is how. How does one explore privilege from the inside out? Often met by controversy, some privileged poets have chosen to adopt another’s voice, to attempt the persona poem. I feel confident that these attempts are well-intentioned. However, I don’t feel that’s my place. If I have not suffered as so many others have, who am I to speak in their voice? Instead, I write about privilege in two ways, by discussing my own safe white lineage and by writing about others (instead of writing from another’s point of view). And when writing about others, I don’t hide the fact that my perspective is inherently tinged by privilege. That’s what I mean by combining self-awareness and empathy.

TOMLIN: I was particularly interested in “Before, and the Birds After” which, as do some of your other poems in this collection, references violence in schools, I saw it an effective way of processing national tragedy without verging on the preachy, where do you see the line between political statements and poetry, how do you advise aspiring poets to find a balance?

WILLIAMS: I never set out with a given theme or larger political meaning and maybe that helps lean me away from didacticism. I usually begin a poem with a series of images. Then I try to create a world for these images to inhabit. How are they connected? What mood do they convey? And as I fashion that world, the themes (often cultural and political ones) organically emerge. From an empty silo: hunger, class issues, and a family falling apart. From a tire swing: the horrors that once hung from that same tree. From a gut-shot doe dragging itself into a tree’s calm shade: a son trying so damn hard not to be like his father. I try not to overthink it, lest the themes feel forced. Instead, the images themselves seem to birth their own grander meanings. While editing a poem, however, I do insist more heavily on connecting any loose threads. Now that the themes have surfaced, I revisit each image to ensure it’s the most evocative way of expressing those themes. Would a sycamore be more haunting than an alder? Should I vanish the bridge I’d placed over that overflowing river; does the bridge imply a degree of safety that doesn’t fit the poem’s vulnerability?

If I were to give advice on avoiding preachiness, I suppose it would be this: is your intent to scream your opinion into an echo chamber or do you want the reader to experience emotions that lead them toward your opinion? As in politics, poetry, to me, should never hammer people over the heads with their “point”. Should poetry even have a “point”? Isn’t the world too nuanced and contradictory for that? All we can do is witness and explore. So let your poem speak for itself. Find subtler ways of weaving in politics. Hurt us; don’t tell us to hurt.

TOMLIN: Another theme in this collection (especially the first section) is the way in which language creates human understanding, and its limits (an example of this is the line “no center. No past tense. No word that means the same translated back to its native silence,” from “Hekla, Revised” ). Why do you think you were interested in this theme for this work, and where do you see the “play” of poetry fitting into this idea?

WILLIAMS: Celebrating language while recognizing its limitations (and in some instances its disenfranchisement of individuals and cultures) is the main focus of my first collection, Controlled Hallucinations , and it does seem to carry through in all my work. I guess I’m enthralled by the simplest of dilemmas: using language to explore, question, and doubt language. Its power is evident. Rhetoric defines civilizations, molds philosophies, and has been used to empower and deprive, equally. We define ourselves by words, which both place us in arbitrary little boxes and, ironically, separate us from other animals. Yet, in the end, words are simply constructs, symbols that mean whatever we want them to mean. And we interpret them based on our own backgrounds, experiences, and prejudices. There’s a sense that language is limitless (in application and political power). There’s a sense that it’s actually rather absurd, that gesture is the only true language. In a way, that’s what I mean by “No word that means the same translated back to its native silence.” I also mean it to grieve how conquering countries erase native languages. And what remains of older languages becomes irrevocably changed, their meanings permanently altered.

TOMLIN: What’s next for you?

WILLIAMS: I rarely work on a specific project. I tend to simply write and see what happens. So, I’m writing new poems, yes, but not with a given aim. I am also a professional poetry editor and run various literary workshops, which keeps me both busy and inspired, and I am about to begin my teaching residency with Writers in the Schools (a nonprofit program through Literary Arts here in Portland that places professional writers in local high schools). In addition to this, I’m a father of twin toddlers and am touring to support my two new books, so personal writing time has taken a temporary backseat to other (creative and personal) responsibilities.