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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Would you call yourself a born 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.
What was your inspiration for Disinheritance?
Disinheritance was inspired by a few pivotal moments that occurred within a few months of each other, namely the illness and passing of my mother, a terrible miscarriage, and my wife and I’s struggles to move forward and redefine the landscape of “family”. To explore grief more fully in this collection, I adopted various unique voices, like those of our miscarried child, the hypothetical boy he might have grown up to be, my mother in her last moments, and my wife as she struggled to cope.
So Disinheritance shows a far more personal side than most of my poetry, though I hope the poems speak to larger, universal human concerns about how we approach mortality and what roles we play in each other’s’ lives.
What themes do you like to explore in your writing?
Though each poem and story possesses its own unique demands, my work is always heavily rooted in human attachments and disconnects: to others, to self-perception, to nature, to language, to the past and future, to grief and self-reclamation. All the more as I age and recognize losses and gains as part of a reciprocal, organic system, my creative mission is to examine human experiences and how we deconstruct and cope with them in order to foster honest conversation about what it means to interact with the world.
The topics through which I explore these themes are greatly varied and derive from a broad range of passions: family, tradition, art, culture, history, politics, landscapes, and seasons. The structures I employ are similarly varied, from narrative to experimental to ekphrastic, according to which structure best conveys the work’s specific goals. However, regardless of topic, I always try to express a sharable, universal experience by balancing concept with emotion and by focusing on layered metaphors and the innate musicality of language. My writing dually emphasizes form and sound, as rhythm carries a resonance beyond literal and figurative meanings.
How long did it take you to complete the collection?
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.
Are you disciplined? Describe a typical writing day.
Although I don’t have a specific place or set times to write, I do write daily and am quite disciplined as it comes to carving out enough time. Of course, some sessions bear less fruit than others, and some poems take a few hours while others take months. But every time I sit down to write, however fruitful that session ends up, is a wonderful and necessary experience.
Ideas, phrases, and images emerge at the oddest times, so I’ve taken to carrying a pocket notebook everywhere I go. During my daily work commute. In the hospital visiting an ailing friend. While walking my dog. Even in the middle of a live concert or film. Though I tend to write best when outside, inspiration can come from anything. At its core, I think creativity is all about curiosity and how one chooses to communicate with the world. As adults, we’re programmed to think linearly, reactively, and, dare I say it, boringly. But if we retain a bit of that childhood innocence, that unabated curiosity, then we can find metaphors in everything. Why look at the night sky and think “sky, moon, stars”? Why can’t the sky be a river? Why can’t the stars be that part of our hearts we leave open to love?
My process is a bit different with every poem. Some pour forth as if on their own, leaving me the easier task of revising for sound and clarity. Other poems take serious effort, time, and struggle. But generally my approach is to have one or two notebooks filled with phrases and images splayed out before me. Whenever I feel stuck, I reread my old notes and see if any fit the poem I’m working on. Interestingly, that approach tends to yield results that even surprise me.
What did you find most challenging about writing this book?
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. While writing these poems, I often struggled with how much real life information I should include vs. how much I should leave unsaid, how many details vs. how much ambiguity. As every reader has her own experiences to contend with and approaches the world from her own unique vantage point, there’s always that nagging challenge of finding the right balance between being true to my own experiences and being true to the experiences of total strangers. How can a poem be both personal and universal? I suppose that is always a significant (and fun) challenge, though all the more so with this collection.
What do you love most about being an author?
Definitely reader reaction. We have all read poems or novels that truly moved us, that made us reconsider ourselves, that illuminated the beauty and power of language. It has been indescribably rewarding to know my work has touched others in that way. When a total stranger who perhaps stumbled across your book or had it recommended to her contacts you out of the blue to say how much it inspired her, that is a potent feeling. When you’re giving a reading and you can see that glow in the audience’s eyes, that is unforgettable. Even after around 50 or so readings across the country, I am touched every single time someone goes out of their way to express their thoughts on my work. That’s what it’s all about. Trying to use language that lifts up off the page and resonates with people.
Did you go with a traditional publisher, small press, or did you self publish? What was the process like and are you happy with your decision?
Unfortunately, there are only a handful of big poetry publishers, so mid-size and small presses are really the best fit for poets who are not seeking self-publishing. My previous chapbooks and my debut full length collection were all published by small presses staffed by passionate editors. I feel very lucky to have worked with them. For this new collection, Disinheritance, I sought a slightly more prominent press, and I was honored to be accepted by Apprentice House, a great press run by Loyola University students.
I signed the contract back in November 2015, and both editing and design began a few months later. I was quite impressed by their openness to my input, which isn’t overly common with traditional publishing. They really listened to my thoughts on interior formatting and cover design, and they accepted my decisions on their editing suggestions. Though the book could have been published earlier this year, the press and I decided on a pub date of September 2016 to allow for an extensive Advanced Reader Copy phase. Apprentice House was kind enough to send out many ARCs to literary magazines for pre-review purposes. Working with them has been a wonderful experience.
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