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:
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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Thanks for this interview, John. Can we begin by having you tell us about yourself from a writer’s standpoint?
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.
When not writing, what do you like to do for relaxation and/or fun?
I sort of feel like I’m always writing. Even when at work, when driving, hiking, reading, listening to music. Inspiration can come from anything, so wherever I go I carry a pocket notebook and pen, just in case. But apart from writing, most of my time these days is spent raising my wife and I’s newborn twins. Fatherhood is a full time job, as is writing, so my various other passions have taken a back seat for the time being. Before that, I spent most of my non-writing time reading, watching films, exploring the gorgeous mountains and rivers and deserts of Oregon, and supporting my local literary scene by attending various readings and literary conferences.
Congratulations on your new book! Can you give us the very first page of your book so that we can get a glimpse inside?
Bone River (i)
Our child experiments with her
limbs, displacing air and
waiting for the vacancy to fill.
Such a raw gesture—
raw and enigmatic remorse.
What is it here I have done
and am waiting for?
For what it’s worth, love,
a stone asks the same
question of the river.
Have I broken you yet?
Would you say it’s been a rocky road for you in regards to getting your book written and published or pretty much smooth sailing? Can you tell us about your journey?
In terms of their composition, the poems in Disinheritance were written over a nine to twelve month period. Then it took me about a month to weed out the weaker poems, find a fluid order for the stronger ones, and edit each piece to fit the overall theme of the collection. I’m not sure if you’d call that “smooth sailing”, but it did feel organic and always worthwhile.
After I completed the manuscript and ran it by a few trusted peers whose critiques I trust, I began querying various poetry publishers whose books I admire and whose editorial visions seemed a good fit with my work. Luckily, it only took a few months before Apprentice House Press, out of Loyola University, accepted it. I adore small presses and university publishers. Often staffed by volunteers and students, they are so passionate and supportive of their authors, and I was excited to join AHP’s 2016 list. The publishing aspect could hardly have been easier.
If you had to summarize your book in one sentence, what would that be?
Oh boy, what a question! The really small elevator pitch? I guess it would be something like:
A lyrical, philosophical, and tender poetic exploration of the various raw voices of grief and human connection.
What makes your book stand out from the rest?
Well, I suppose every book is one of a kind. No two authors’ voices are the same. But in my case, Disinheritance is a bit different than my previous collections. Most of my work is not overly narrative or overly personal, so it was an exciting challenge to write from a part of my heart still raw and healing.
Disinheritance is a collection of tender, lyrical poems exploring the various voices of grief, including those of the broken, the healing, the son-become-father, and the dead. These poems acknowledge loss while celebrating the uncertainty of a world in constant revision. Though many are based on personal experiences, the poems speak to larger, universal human concerns about how to approach mortality and what role we play in each other’s’ lives.
Although I’m sure countless other poets have written on similar themes, Disinheritance is definitely unique to my own body of work.
If your book was put in the holiday section of the store, what holiday would that be and why?
Though most holidays are family-focused, so each would fit the book’s themes well, I think Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are most fitting, as Disinheritance deals quite a bit with a mother’s passing and a father’s influence on a child’s upbringing.
What’s next for you?
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.