John Sibley Williams is the author of As One Fire Consumes Another (Orison Poetry Prize, 2019), Skin Memory (Backwaters Prize, University of Nebraska Press, 2019),  Disinheritance, and Controlled Hallucinations. A nineteen-time Pushcart nominee, John Sibley Williams is the winner of numerous awards, including the Laux/Millar Prize, Wabash Prize, Philip Booth Award, 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. John Sibley Williams serves as editor of The Inflectionist Review and works as a teacher and literary agent. Previous publishing credits include Yale Review, Midwest Quarterly, Southern Review, Colorado Review, Sycamore Review, Prairie Schooner, Massachusetts Review, Poet Lore, and various anthologies. John Sibley Williams holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Rivier University and an MA in Book Publishing from Portland State University. Please enjoy my interview with John Sibley Williams.

How do you describe your occupation?

Well, I do a number of things, including working as a teacher and literary agent, but my initial reaction to this question is always “I write”. I tend not to say “I’m a writer”, as that noun often evokes a specific (and inaccurate) portrait to non-writers. Some seem to believe we write in ivory towers looking down upon the world or, inversely, that creativity isn’t an appropriate profession. So I simply say “I write”.  The verb is both safer and more honest. Everyone who writes is also a thousand other things: parent, lover, child, hiker, addict… It’s the act of manipulating language to find new ways of exploring the world and our place in it that defines us.

What is something about you that people might find surprising?

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.

What are you reading at the moment and what made you want to read it?

As I tend to read multiple poetry collections simultaneously, bouncing back and forth between them to keep things fresh and surprising, my nightstand is always a bit crowded. I’m about to finish Admission Requirements by Phoebe Wang, an intimate collection of memoirish poems that speak to Wang’s unique experience as a Canadian citizen with Chinese heritage. I’m also currently reading Cutting the Wire: Photographs and Poetry from the US-Mexico Border, a powerful cultural collaboration between photographer Bruce Berman and poets Ray Gonzalez and Lawrence Welsh. And breathlessly awaiting my attention is Monica Berlin’s second collection, Nostalgia for a World Where We Can Live. I love her long, fluid lines and landscape-inspired voice.

What was your favourite book as a child and why?

Although I don’t have any direct memories from toddlerhood, I’m told no one could yank The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein from my hungry little hands. Now that I’m a parent, I can understand why. I choke up each time I read it to my little ones. In middle school, I read armloads of horror novels, then moved to Franz Kafka, Albert Camus, and Milan Kundera in high school. Looking back, I think the mystical strangeness of these authors mirrored my adolescent uncertainty and restlessness. Many of their characters are lost, be it within a heartless bureaucratic system or their own conflicted hearts. How better to describe one’s teen years?

Can you remember the first poem you ever wrote?

Oh, boy do I! That first poem was perhaps the most important moment of my life, apart from the birth of my kids. It was summer in New York and I was sitting by a lake with my feet dragging through the current 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. It’s the lens through which I (slightly) better understand the world.

What was the last book you purchased, and why did you buy it?

Craig Santos Perez’s from unincorporated territory [lukao]. It’s the fourth collection in his unclassifiable, genre-bending series of poetic explorations into the tumultuous history and natural ecology of Guam. Part biography, part avant-garde eco-poetics, the series is an epic document of the devastating impacts of colonialism, militarism, and environmental injustice across the Pacific.

What two pieces of advice would you give a young aspiring poet?

There’s a reason “keep writing, keep reading” has become clichéd advice; it’s absolutely true. You need to study as many books as possible from authors of various genres and from various cultures. Listen to their voices. Watch how they manipulate and celebrate language. Delve deep into their themes and structures and take notes on the stylistic 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 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 book have you found most inspiring, what effect did it have on you?

I don’t know how many times I’ve read Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl, the psychologist and Holocaust survivor. A dozen? This seminal work frames much of my understanding of human nature, and I don’t think a day goes by in which its insights aren’t validated in my daily life. As opposed to abstractions like truth or beauty, that purpose, motivational drive, is the “meaning of life” that sustains us feels ground-breaking and true to life. Reading Frankl’s work, it’s as if the earth shifts beneath me. Every time.

What’s the best book you’ve read in the last 6 months?

Although new to our poetry world, the debut Cenzontle by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo is one of the most remarkable collections of intimate, broken, beautiful poetry I’ve ever read. Comparable to another of my contemporary favorites, Ocean Vuong, Castillo carries the world on his young shoulders and somehow, perhaps magically, the world remains there, lifted and less heavy. He’s able to explore culture, sexuality, and gender roles in a way that simultaneously surprises and feels universal. His images are compelling and utterly unique to how he perceives the world. And I see his world in every line. And he helps me see my world in his.

What is your proudest achievement?

This may sound strange but pride isn’t the emotion I experience after a creative achievement. More so honor, humility, and bafflement that among so many (likely better) work mine was selected for an award. But I am proud of my children. I’m proud that (I think) we’re raising them well. As the twins near age three, I’m overwhelmed by each new sentence they string together, each kind gesture they show to others. So often lacking in our polarized society, the simple kindnesses of an unheavied heart and open mind make we swell with (something akin to) pride.

If someone who has never got into poetry asks you for a tip on a good poetry book to start with, what would you recommend?

It depends upon that person’s passions and personality. In the end, it’s all about resonance, and there’s no single book that will resonate with all readers. If the reader enjoys the natural world, a good accessible start to her poetry explorations might be almost anything by Pablo Neruda (apart from his more political books) or Mary Oliver. If she enjoys personal narratives, Kevin Young describes parenthood beautifully and both Donald Hall and Franz Wright invite readers into their lives with open arms.

If you were trying to impress a visitor, which book that you own would you leave on the coffee table?

Hmm, if I wanted to make myself seem far more intelligent than I am, I’d probably display Carlo Rovelli’s three books on scientific theory: Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, The Order of Time and Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity. Maybe some Neil deGrasse Tyson too. That way my utter ignorance about the universe might sound like profundity.

If an alien landed in your garden; which three books would you gift them to showcase humanity in the best possible way?

I don’t often read books that unequivocally explore the bright side of human nature. True empathy and optimism tend to spring from suffering. To impress our otherworldly friends with just how courageous and strong people can be, I would present to them authors who can translate grief and cultural anguish into a light source. The Night Trilogy by Elie Wiesel, perhaps. And, again, Viktor Frankl. For poetry, likely Maya Angelou, Audre Lorde, or Walt Whitman.

Who would you say are the three poets that continue to inspire you?

Paul Celan makes language pop and sizzle like bacon deep frying in a skillet, all while remaining imagistic and surreal. I never know where I stand with him, nor him with me, and that adds to his strange linguistic power. Octavio Paz remarkably speaks both to fundamental human truths and a specific cultural zeitgeist through structural experimentation and heartbreaking prosody. Carl Phillips may be my favorite contemporary poet. Each new book peels back another layer of soul, and he consistently inspires me.

Are there any books you haven’t mentioned that you feel would make your reading list?

Although there are hundreds of books I can’t imagine my creative life without, six that immediately spring to mind are One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez, All the Names by Jose Saramago, Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong, City of Rivers by Zubair Ahmed, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey, and Carl Phillips’ fantastic book on writing The Art of Daring: Risk, Restlessness, Imagination.

Which book sitting on your shelf are you most excited about reading next and why?

Although it’s on my pre-order “shelf” awaiting its release, I’m anxiously waiting to read Brute by Emily Skaja. I adore and am challenged by the poems of hers I’ve read in magazines, and Brute, her debut collection, has been called “a fiery, hypnotic book that confronts the dark questions and menacing silences around gender, sexuality, and violence.” I’ll tear into it as soon as it arrives on my doorstep.

If you’d like to learn more about John Sibley Williams, please find him on his website and on Twitter.

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