Interview with John Sibley Williams
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.
A few weeks ago, our Editor-in-Chief Sarah Lao conducted a quick interview with Issue I contributor and Guest Writer John Sibley Williams. Check out his poem "Conquistador" in ISSUE I here, as well as his "Interview with Kelly Grace Thomas" in our blog. Read on for a glimpse of his writing process, the Inflectionism movement, a common misconception about his work, and more.
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), Summon (JuxtaProse Chapbook Prize, 2019), Disinheritance, and Controlled Hallucinations. A twenty three-time Pushcart nominee, John is the winner of numerous awards, including the Wabash Prize for Poetry, Philip Booth Award, Phyllis Smart-Young Prize, and Laux/Millar Prize. He serves as editor of The Inflectionist Review and works as a freelance poetry editor and literary agent. Previous publishing credits include: Yale Review, North American Review, Midwest Quarterly, Southern Review, Sycamore Review, Prairie Schooner, Saranac Review, Atlanta Review, TriQuarterly, and various anthologies. Visit him at https://www.johnsibleywilliams.com.
SL: You’re very prolific! What does your writing process like? How do you find inspiration? Do you believe in writer’s block or any remedies for it?
JSW: I suppose most of my writing comes intuitively, in that I don’t set out with a given theme or larger personal or cultural meaning that I need to communicate. 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 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?
As for writer’s block, absolutely, all the time. Sure, many of my poems have almost composed themselves, as if I’m simply a guide or vessel for them. But equally often I stare at that classic blank page without any idea of how to start. There are a number of ways I try to remedy this. Sometimes I simply write terrible poetry until a few lines or images create a spark. Then I drop the rest and keep only those little glimmers of light. They become the backbone of a new poem. Sometimes I revisit my many notebooks filled with ideas and phrases, finding something that may be years old but only now is fully resonating with me. I also have a few specific structures that I can fall back on.
SL: What do you wish you had known when you first started writing?
JSW: Everything! Pretty much everything I’ve learned over the years and have yet to learn. No, none of that. It’s the how of our learning that matters. Not to rely on cliché, but it’s all about this never-ending, always expanding journey. Every poem teaches me something. Even now, twenty-one years after writing my first poem, I feel like an utter novice. And that’s a good thing. I cannot imagine what kind of poetry I’d write if I felt confident in my creative abilities, if I didn’t second- and third-guess every line. But this question deserves a solid answer. It’s essential for emerging poets to know that it’s okay to fail. It’s okay to write objectively silly or clichéd poetry, maybe even for years, until your full, authentic, vulnerable voice shines through. The only thing that matters is that need to write. If that need is strong enough, you’ll write your way into discovering and honing your voice. And your work will get better.
SL: What was your reasoning behind founding The Inflectionist Review in 2013? Do you have any advice for new literary magazines just starting out?
JSW: Well, the reasoning was simply to publish work we love from emerging and established poets, and founding an online journal is pretty easy these days. We were both well-aware that our journal wouldn’t be “big” in any objective sense, and that’s okay. We just want to give something back to our community. As for advice? Well, websites and submission managers are pretty inexpensive, so the only real requirement is to want (perhaps need) to publish writing you adore. All you need is that passion, that drive, a few free hours every week, and some fairly basic computer knowledge. A print journal not associated with an organization or university is a different story. But for most of us who edit online journals, just write, love what others write, and remain motivated, through all the little struggles, to ensure good literature makes its way into the world.
SL: Has your editing work affected your creative writing style and vice-versa?
JSW: Working so frequently on critiquing poems and mentoring poets, I feel I’ve learned quite a bit. Reading with an editorial eye, versus for enjoyment, allows me to dig deeper into how certain metaphors work (or don’t quite work), how experiential narratives must balance personal and universal truths, and generally how gorgeous and surprising language can be. At the same time, the more I edit the less I tend to write myself. After hours of working on someone else’s manuscript, I find it difficult to start a new poem. But that’s hardly a cause for complaint. I learn enough to justify a little writer’s block.
SL: I saw a blurb about the movement you founded, Inflectionism, on The Inflectionist Review’s website—could you tell us a little more about that? That’s so cool!
JSW: Thanks so much! I suppose it’s a bit like the founding of any journal. A few poets get together to, well, publish the kind of work they like to read. For my co-editor, Anatoly Molotkov, and I, the intersection of our tastes involves universal yet often non-linear poetry that focuses on language and syntax to expose deeper, often uglier, human truths. Perhaps my ideal poem for the journal would be if Jericho Brown attempted Paul Celan’s style. Sharp, precise, brief moments of beauty and pain that employ fresh language and imagery to make us hurt, but hurt in the right way. In the end, Anatoly and I are really invested in how poems can be read as conversations: between the
reader and writer, between words and their meanings, between ambiguity and concept.
SL: What themes or images do you constantly find yourself returning to?
JSW: Oh my, perhaps too many. Everyone naturally writes about what haunts them, what gives them joy or unexpected contemplation, what forces them to question the world and their place in it, and it’s easy to fall into a rhythm of using the same imagery. And it’s the same with themes. I’ve tried to write love poems. I’ve tried to hide away my uncertainties and fears and write something overtly celebratory. But a bit of that familiar personal or cultural darkness always seeps in. I cannot escape my privilege. I cannot pretend I don’t live in a tumultuous world where people repeat the same mistakes, often with violent consequences. And, probably like everyone else, I have no idea who I am or what defines me. So those tinges of realistic darkness always worm their way into my work. At the same time, I’d like to consider myself a fairly hopeful person. So, I often include those shards of light tucked away within us.
SL: What misconceptions do people have about your artistic work?
JSW: What an interesting question. I suppose my spirituality, or lack thereof. Be they political or family poems, those of cultural identity or self-discovery, I often employ religious imagery and language to tap into that communal pool of handed-down, referential mythologies that significantly define most cultures, especially here in the US. A number of my poems have been published in religious journals, and my book, As One Fire Consumes Another, was published by Orison Books, a spiritual-leaning press. However, I personally have no religious affiliation and wouldn’t really call myself spiritual in its common usage. I hope my poems explore the mysteries of humanity and the world that raised us, but my use of iconography is usually to allow the poem access to that centuries-old tradition. If birds “halo” or if ruined roofing falls to a lawn like “crosses,” those simple words open up a poem to a broader, more meaningful context.
This interview has been lightly edited for concision and to fit our style guide.