Please join me in welcoming John Sibley Williams to the Poetic Asides blog!
John Sibley Williams is the editor of two Northwest poetry anthologies and the author of nine collections, including Disinheritance and Controlled Hallucinations. A seven-time Pushcart nominee, John is the winner of numerous awards, including the Philip Booth Award, American Literary Review Poetry Contest, Nancy D. Hargrove Editors' Prize, Confrontation Poetry Prize, and Vallum Award for Poetry.
He serves as editor of The Inflectionist Review and works as a literary agent. Previous publishing credits include: The Yale Review, Midwest Quarterly, Sycamore Review, The Massachusetts Review, Poet Lore, Saranac Review, Arts & Letters, Columbia Poetry Review, Mid-American Review, Poetry Northwest, Third Coast, Baltimore Review, RHINO, and various anthologies. He lives in Portland, Oregon.
Here’s a poem I really enjoyed from his collection Disinheritance:
November Country, by John Sibley Williams
My grandfather digs a double plot
with his bare hands in case winter
can be shared
though he knows grandmother will outlive
her heart's thaw by a decade.
I could give him a shovel. Instead
I ball the half-frozen river's slack
numb around my fist, tighten
into ice. I will try to be less
hard next time.
Here in the gray
and two-dimensional house
we know the answer to rain.
A perforated black
arrow of birds moves
southward, array. Shrill reports
from every side and from the sky
the trajectory of abandonment.
Our surfaces are like the river.
Our circles have learned
to grow edges and crack.
Even the birds
we compare ourselves to
have left us.
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What are you currently up to?
Apart from being a new father of twins, which, along with writing, sort of defines me now, 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 explores our relationship with history, nostalgia, and cultural and personal regret.
I loved reading Disinheritance. How did you go about getting this collection published?
Thanks so much! I really appreciate that. Disinheritance was a bit more personal, more intimate, than most of my work, so there was a greater emotional risk when introducing it to the world. I’m genuinely touched when someone tells me it resonated with them.
Luckily, the publication process was quite simple. Although I experienced the usual and expected rejections from a few contests and major publishers, Apprentice House Press took it on within a few months of the manuscript’s completion. I wish I had a powerful or inspiring story to share here, but Disinheritance came together easily and found a publisher fairly quickly.
You're the author of nine poetry collections. Do they get easier or harder as you go along?
Not to sound coy, but both.
Putting together my earlier chapbooks felt like a simpler process, but that’s likely because each was a unique entity with poems written to work together toward the same goals. Those earlier poems were envisioned as short collections. Also, and perhaps more importantly, back then I hadn’t really studied how other poets structure their books.
There’s a true art to making 50, 80, 100 poems read fluidly. There are so many interesting techniques one can employ to create threads for the reader to follow throughout an entire collection. And there is so much culling, so much editing, so many lovely poems that must fall to the cutting room floor for the sake of overall consistency and flow.
So the process of organizing a book has become almost as complex as the writing itself, though it’s also become far more fun and rewarding.
For the individual poems, do you have a submission routine?
Absolutely, and a rather strict one.
It’s taken me years of research and reading hundreds of magazines to create a thorough spreadsheet for my individual poem submissions. I keep notes on their changing editorial focuses and open submission windows. I do my best to match each poem with a few magazines that I feel might enjoy them.
And I track all submissions so that every poem I truly believe in is submitted to around five magazines at a time. It’s a time-consuming process, taking up at least a third of my creative time each week, but it’s worth it.
As a follow up, do you have a writing routine you try to keep?
I became the father of twins about six months ago, so I’m now carving out new, flexible routines 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.
I’m currently able to set aside about three days each week for true composition. To balance with the babies’ schedule, I tend to write for a few hours each weekend morning, just after dawn, and I’ve tweaked my full-time work hours a bit to allow me one or two afternoons of writing time.
As to the where of writing, when the notoriously rainy Oregon weather allows it, I prefer to write outside, in open-aired cafes or a nearby park that runs along the southern banks of the Willamette River.
One poet nobody knows but should. Who is it?
I shouldn’t assume what poets readers are or are not already familiar with, but one of my favorite books from last year that didn’t seem to make any of the Best of 2016 lists is Ramshackle Ode, by Keith Leonard. Admittedly, it was published by Mariner Books, so not exactly an unknown press, but I haven’t noticed much buzz in the poetry community about this incredible collection.
Each poem paints a fragile yet stubbornly persistent world, and somehow Leonard manages to both celebrate and eulogize life with a natural grace that feels so intimate, so familiar.
If you could pass along only one piece of advice to fellow poets, what would it be?
There’s a reason “keep writing, keep reading” has become clichéd 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 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 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.