Author Interview with John Sibley Williams
Me: How does it feel to be a five-time Pushcart nominee? What were your thoughts?
I am honored to know so many magazines and presses believe in my work. It’s always a bit of a shock, but the joy never diminishes.
Me: After reading Disinheritance, a collection your poetry in one brilliant book, what inspired each piece? Or inspired you to write the poems?
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.
Me: I noticed that you have written several other anthologies. Can you share with us, readers, what the titles are of those anthologies?
Sure. My other full length collection is Controlled Hallucinations. It was published in 2013 by FutureCycle Press. Before that, I had a number of chapbooks published through various presses.
Me: Is it difficult to put an anthology of poems together?
Absolutely. I have always struggled with organizing my poetry collections. Which poems should be included? Which cut? How to organize them to create a feeling of cohesiveness? Are there poems you love, perhaps that have even won awards, that simply don’t match the themes of the collection as a whole? Most collections go through a series of revisions before reaching a point where the poet feels comfortable submitting them to publishers. And if enough publishers reject it, the question becomes: what have I done wrong? What can I revise to strengthen it?
Me: Using three words, how would you describe your most recent anthology of poetry, Disinheritance?
Lyrical. Heart-breaking. Honest.
Me: Would you highly recommend writers to submit their works to places to win awards?
That’s a good question. I’ve read numerous articles about the pros and cons of submitting to awards, and both arguments make valid points. For example, it’s true that awards can be costly (often between $10 and $30 per submission), and these costs can add up quickly. It’s also true that any poem or book is up against hundreds (or thousands) of others, so competition is fierce. However, if you win or are nominated for an award, that does carry significant weight; award-winning authors tend to be taken more seriously by publishers and readers, and, of course, most awards carry substantial cash prizes. So it’s a mixed bag.
My recommendation for emerging poets and writers is to hone your craft before spending money on contests. Submit first to magazines and acquire a number of notable publications. Once enough editors have shown interest in your work, then perhaps it is contest-worthy. That is not to say new authors without publication experience aren’t amazingly talented. But, as writers, we tend to have a skewed opinion of our own work. I’ve been submitting to contests for most of my writing life, winning one or two a year at most. Those years, I spent far more on submissions than I made back on prize money. Only recently have I consistently won enough awards to financially warrant the expense. However, it’s not about finances. The bottom line is not money so much as exposure. If you love your work and have spent decades honing it, in the end, I would argue it’s worth the time, effort, and expense to submit to contests.
Me: You have won several awards and credits. How does this affect your job as an editor?
I’m not sure if my own accolades, or those of my co-editor, per se affect our editorial work. Hopefully it gives authors who submit to our magazine some confidence in our ability to select powerful poetry, but many of our published authors have similar awards and credentials.
Me: Out of all of your poems, which three are your top favorite?
I honestly can’t say which of all my poems resonate the strongest with me, but in Disinheritance the three poems that still make me tremble when I read them are “I Go to the Ruined Place,” “Teething,” and “A Dead Boy Speaks to His Parents.”
Me: When did you first begin to write poetry?
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.
Me: What was the first award you won for your outstanding writing skills?
Gosh, it was so long ago that I must apologize if I get the details incorrect. But I believe the first time my work was honored with an award was about twenty years ago, when I was eighteen-years-old. One of my prose pieces won Best Short Story in the undergraduate magazine Voices. I still remember the shock and honor of discovering something I created actually resonated with strangers. I hope I never forget that feeling.
Me: Do you have any works in progress at the moment, if so, can you share it with us, readers?
I have two upcoming collections, both quite different in styles and purpose. I recently completed a chapbook titled Skin Memory, which combines free verse and prose poetry to explore human connects and disconnects as they relate to culture and family. The other project, which I’m currently working on, is titled Road to the Sky.
Me: What tips would you share with other poets?
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 characters 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 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 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.
Me: Where can readers find you and your work online?
Thanks so much for asking. All my books are available via the usual online shops and in plenty of independent bookstores, though I have far more information, including newly published poems, on my website: https://johnsibleywilliams.wordpress.com.