Interview: John Sibley Williams
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 is the winner of numerous awards, including the Wabash Prize for Poetry, Philip Booth Award, American Literary Review Poetry Contest, Phyllis Smart-Young Prize, Nancy D. Hargrove Editors’ Prize, Confrontation Poetry Prize, and Laux/Millar Prize. He serves as editor of The Inflectionist Review and works as a literary agent. Previous publishing credits include: The Yale Review, Midwest Quarterly, Southern Review, Sycamore Review, Prairie Schooner, The Massachusetts Review, Poet Lore, Saranac Review, Atlanta Review, TriQuarterly, Columbia Poetry Review, Mid-American Review, Poetry Northwest, Third Coast, and various anthologies.
Daniel Lassell corresponded with Williams last year, near the release of Skin Memory.
Daniel Lassell for The Florida Review:
Your newest book, Skin Memory, has a lot of subjects and themes that emerge throughout the reader’s journey. I found many poems touching upon topics of family, parenting, loss, home, violence, privilege, and societal and ecological concerns—all of which seem to buoy, contrast, and converse with each other. Which was the subject/theme that compelled your poetry most when writing, versus which emerged most clearly when editing the collection for publication?
John Sibley Williams:
What an interesting question. It’s certainly true that during the editing process, while sifting through a hundred or more poems in search of common themes and structures, unexpected threads emerge that weave seemingly disparate explorations together into a single tapestry. Of course, each poem tends to incorporate more than one theme, using the overt to subtly imply a more foundational concern. For example, when discussing parenting, societal gender expectations or our destruction of natural landscapes may be seething beneath all that talk of cradles and lullabies. When I mention the freedom of youthful play, say swinging from a tire trying to toe the clouds, that same tree will likely be shown in an ugly historical context. No poem can be boiled down to a singular theme. So, in this regard, editing isn’t so much trying to force pieces together as it is recognizing the varied themes in each poem and seeing which, both overt and implied, belong together. A collection should read like a river, not a puzzle. In a way, it’s an act of witness. And, at least for me, this isn’t dissimilar to my writing process. I never set out to write a particular kind of poem or to explore a specific theme. They emerge naturally, as if the connections were already there waiting for me to see them. All we can do is write about what haunts us and to do so as authentically and with as much vulnerability as possible. Every theme you mention was equally important, was equally a driving force, behind both my writing and editing.
“A collection should read like a river, not a puzzle”—I love that. And Skin Memory certainly does read like a river too, easing readers between poems as if on a raft, encountering rapids and wet clothing along the way. Poetry acting as witness is a beautiful thought as well. It makes me think more specifically of your poem, “Death Is a Work in Progress”—a heart-wrenching portrayal of a mother, the decline of the human body. It harkens back to your earlier collection, Disinheritance, which explores this subject of mortality in great detail. Can you speak a little more to this relationship between parent and child, life and death, in your poems? It seems to be a theme in your work that you return to often.
I’m thrilled that you recognized these overarching themes across multiple books. In the end, we write about what haunts us, what keeps us up at night, what stalks our mind’s periphery, just out of sight, emerging from the darkness to remind us how fragile we really are. A bit like wolves, perhaps. And what better way to explore fragility than through discussions of the body and our intimate relationships? I’m terrified of no longer existing. Like everyone else, I’ve lost and know that the more I love, the more I have to lose. There’s this double-edged sword, this balancing act, between wanting to open my heart to the world and fearing such an act’s consequences. And I fear my own body, how it will naturally react to age and disease. But it’s exactly this impermanence that makes each breath, each embrace, each poem meaningful. So, I suppose, most of my poems to varying degrees try to walk that tightrope. Skin Memory includes poems about my children, specifically the traits I may be passing down to them, that were passed down to me. It speaks of my father, whose father was a rough man, and how all that tumbles down to my own young son. And, with “Death is a World in Progress” and many of the poems in Disinheritance, I witness the steady mental and physical deterioration of my mother. These are simply different lenses through which I consider the same central question. I just can’t tell if I’m not loving enough, or loving too much, and what the full consequences to either are.
Indeed, Skin Memory does resonate in all of these areas. As a father myself, I am increasingly drawn to poems that hold the subject of parenthood in conversation. Having spent time with your earlier books and reading up to your most recent collection, it seems that since becoming a parent, you might have undergone a personal shift. Of course, any artist should evolve in their art; but I also recognize a palpable difference between Disinheritance and As One Fire Consumes Another, which published in Spring 2019. Not to digress too much, but was Disinheritance written before or after you became a parent? As One Fire Consumes Another seems to drive more of a political message than your earlier work does (at least more overtly). No doubt it has much to do with our political moment, but Skin Memory also seems to act as a continuation in this focus. How would you characterize your poetic growth over time?
I agree with you that, as writers, we should try to push ourselves into new, often uncomfortable themes. Growth is probably inherent to writing for a long period of time, but I still worry about stagnation, by which I mean writing about the same themes in the same tone using the same structures. It’s easy to fall into the trap of writing what about what we’re already comfortable with. As One Fire Consumes Another was an attempt to break out of my comfort zone by focusing, to a degree, on our current cultural and political climate. But, more importantly, I meant to explore my own place in that culture, which includes culpability, guilt, privilege, and family history. Skin Memory continues on those themes, though less directly, incorporating my my children and mother, with a greater degree of intimacy. I feel Skin Memory exists somewhere between Fire and Disinheritance. Structurally also, as my earlier work was predominantly free verse, Fire… was newspaper column-like prose poems, and Skin Memory incorporates both, with the addition of more standard prose poem structures. So, in terms of growth, I feel experimentation is key. Sure, plenty of poems end up on the cutting room floor. Not all structures I’ve played with ended up feeling authentic to my voice. But we have to keep pushing, testing, and rethinking our preconceptions about our own work.
As it pertains to parenting, I’m not really sure how my work has changed. I write less, sleep less, can concentrate less. Raising twin toddlers is even more exhausting than I could have imagined. But within the stress and anxiety, I have expanded my definition of love to such a degree that I can no longer say I’d experienced it before my kids. My heart is more troubled but fuller.
I think “more troubled but fuller” is a profound way of describing the interconnectedness of parenthood and love. And I hadn’t considered Skin Memory as a balance between Fire and Disinheritance until just now, but it sort of is. It’s the wave that settles after the body enters a bathtub. If we can, I’d like to explore your thoughts on the prose poem, since you mentioned form. My first poetry teacher was David Shumate, known for his prose poems, so my introduction to poetry is inextricably tied to this form—I’ve come to feel at home in it. But for others, the prose poem might represent or conjure apprehension, confusion, distain, etc. In Skin Memory, there are several poetic forms other than the prose poem, but I’m interested in why—when selecting the right vehicle to meaning—the prose poem felt like the best fit.
Well, apart from the poems in Fire and Disinheritance, which were a set structure, I don’t begin a poem knowing in advance what it will look like on the page. I often experiment with various arrangements before, for whatever intuitive reason, something clicks and the poem screams, “This is my form; this has always been my form!” So, the simplest answer to your question about knowing when a prose poem is the best vehicle for a particular piece is, well, intuition. But, to be more precise, a lot of it, for me, has to do with three things: flow, the tension created by line breaks, and the sound of the poem when real aloud. Poems that are more fragmented or dense with metaphorical imagery may require more white space to allow a reader to digest each line, place it in its larger context, then move on to the next line. Other poems, especially narrative ones rich with connected imagery that doesn’t take as many huge leaps in logic, may thrive more with longer lines. But even this simple answer isn’t really accurate. Sometimes abstractions can be squeezed together, running one into the next with no room to breathe, to create the desired flow. Sometimes a straightforward narrative can be shattered and reassembled into something visually unrecognizable. Perhaps the easiest way to describe it is that: flow. How do I want the poem to read? Should it drive, propel? Should it strike with short staccato knives? Should it slowly, steadily paint a massive portrait out of smaller components? All this leads me back to intuition. Our ears know how a poem should be read. Our eyes know what the poem wants to look like. Listening closely and equally to both seems to strike the right balance, at least for me.
You certainly do seem to have an intuition for what works on the page. This attention to flow, or cadence, seems to drive a lot of the poems of Skin Memory. Is there ever a disagreement between these two realms of the page and the tongue? In developing your intuition, does this mean finding a comfortable balance between your voice and poetic style? How does one develop their intuition?
I think creative intuition simply comes from writing and studying others’ writing for so long that that various elements (and organs) learn to listen to each other. Over the years and decades, you learn to step away from yourself and trust the page. The poem begins to speak to you before it’s even written. Of course, all of this is an internal process, but it begins to feel as if your poetic decisions are born of an outside force. I wonder if that’s what some people call “the muse.” But it’s really just muscle memory. It’s having failed and failed and occasionally succeeded for long enough to unconsciously recognize when a poem is working and when it’s not. It’s the ear and eye thriving in a symbiotic relationship. Less and less of our creative decisions become conscious ones. We just know. And, sure, given the subjectivity of any artistic work, we still fail plenty. But I have found most of my newer poems that don’t quite work fail because I inserted myself into them; I didn’t shut up and listen to what the poem wanted to say.
Perhaps because of this “trained intuition,” I rarely find discord between the appearance and sound of poem. They both come pretty naturally, without me having to force it much. Admittedly, in trying to push myself, I do experiment with structures I end up abandoning because they don’t look or flow right, but I usually recognize this incongruity early on and find a more fitting structure before poem’s end. For sound, part of my composition process involves reading aloud every line over and over to ensure the lines that follow match the auditory tone and rhythm. Our ears know what sounds awkward.
That makes sense. Somewhat relatedly, what are your thoughts on the accessibility of poetry?
That’s a great question, and one on which opinions vary greatly. I suppose the subjectivity of “accessible” can be cause for this divide. For example, many have argued that down-to-earth poetry that paint personal narratives with clear, everyday language is the cornerstone of “accessible” work. By that definition, I suppose I prefer more challenging literature. That’s not to cast judgment, as such work is indeed valuable and is many people’s introduction to poetry. It’s all a matter of personal resonance. But I feel this common description limits the definition of the word. There’s also emotional accessibility. Even if a poem is fairly abstract, surreal, or bursting with what Robert Bly called “leaps” in logic, that emotional core that unites the disparate elements can be accessible. That heartache, grief, turmoil, doubt, celebration. That bit of light that filters through and puts into perspective darkest night. Even without a followable narrative or commonplace language. To me, that is the kind of accessibility I enjoy reading and tend to write toward. It’s that honest, vulnerable, universal core question, around which the other poetic elements whirl, that makes all poetry, regardless of its structures and rhythms and themes, inherently accessible.
I like that way of looking at it, and indeed there are several opinions out there. For me, I tend to go back and forth. I agree that challenging literature can be fun, and doesn’t have to be the first form of poetry someone encounters. On the other hand, word choice is one of the things that separates poetry from other written art forms, and therefore, word choice is what makes and closes off meaning. In this vein, when a poet intentionally closes off meaning, it becomes a question of whom is getting closed off from that meaning and why. In this realm, I guess a discussion of accessibility can’t go without acknowledging privilege too, as we are both white males. In this modern age, how should a white, male writer compose poetry? It seems like there’s a duty to explore and dismantle our own privilege in art—and in living in this world more generally. The poems of Skin Memory do their part to confront difficult realities, privilege being one of them. For example, “On Being Told: White Is a Color Without Hue,” “We Can Make a Home of It Still,” “On Being Told: You Must Learn to Love the Violence,” and “Inviting Fire in Northern Michigan in December” all seem to interrogate privilege in some form. Even the book’s title encourages an exploration of racial and societal disparities. How and when does it make sense for a poet to rail against their own privilege in writing?
This could not be a more crucial question. Privilege comes in so many forms, most invisible until you shine a light on them and see their hazy edges. Gender, sexuality, race, religion, socio-economic status, family status, and even these have gradations. They all combine to give us a cultural advantage or disadvantage, and exploring my own advantages and how they contrast against those born or raised without them is a central theme of my work. Even when it’s not overtly discussed, as it is in the poems you referenced, that recognition of privilege and what it means as an individual and a member of a larger community hums beneath all my poems. In the end, it all comes down to a mixture of self-awareness and empathy. It’s a balancing act between witness and action. All of us whose privilege allows us the space to write freely, who aren’t judged by superficial qualities, who needn’t fear police or politicians or bosses who could withhold that one paycheck that makes our children go hungry, we need to investigate how we got where we are and what we can do to expose such inequities. The question is how. How does one explore privilege from the inside out? Often met by controversy, some privileged poets have chosen to adopt another’s voice, to attempt the persona poem. I feel confident that these attempts are well-intentioned. However, I don’t feel that’s my place. If I have not suffered as so many others have, who am I to speak in their voice? Instead, I write about privilege in two ways, by discussing my own safe white lineage and by writing about others (instead of writing from another’s point of view). And when writing about others, I don’t hide the fact that my perspective is inherently tinged by privilege. That’s what I mean by combining self-awareness and empathy. So, in short, I passionately agree with you about the necessity for poets to consider their own privileged status in their work. However, all this said, I don’t believe in shoulds. Who am I to demand every poet write about these themes? If a privileged poet writes exlusively about gardens and alders or the grief of a loved one’s passing, that is their choice. We write what we need to write. And not all of us need to write about our privilege. But I do. It’s one of the ghosts that haunts me. The only way I’ve found to deal with it is by looking it square in the eye and admitting my role in its creation.
Thank you for your thoughts in this area. “A balancing between self-awareness and empathy” describes well, I think, what poets of privilege can do in their work. And I know the topic of privilege can be a difficult one to broach, since it’s one that touches every aspect of people’s lives (and indeed, we as white males do bear a shitload of culpability for the wrongs of this world). For this reason, I do think it’s a conversation worth having. As more underrepresented voices continue to enter the literary firmament, how best could writers of privilege welcome them? What new voices have you read recently that you’re super excited about?
The literary establishment has been making great strides but still has much more to do before underrepresented voices become as mainstream as those voices that have dominated our landscape. I don’t work within that establishment so cannot speak to the steps they are taking. I have read articles critical of how major journals and organizations still approach underrepresented poets, and I continue to hear such stories from peers who have attended national poetry conferences and felt tokenized. Luckily, it seems many presses and organizations are opening their doors wider than ever before in terms of offering awards, open reading periods, specific book series and issues, and other avenues open exclusively to underrepresented poets. In terms of what you and I can do, I have spent the past few years reading almost exclusively books by contemporary poets who do not fit the traditional white, male, CIS, able-bodied model. And these are the authors I teach in workshops and classes in hopes of opening students’ eyes and hearts to new perspectives on culture, identity, and politics.
I don’t even know where to begin a list of my favorites, but here are a few I feel everyone should become intimately familiar with: Ada Limon, Tracy K. Smith, Jericho Brown, Fatimah Asghar, Tarfia Faizullah, Jenny Xie, Ocean Vuong, Craig Santos Perez, Safia Elhillo, Joan Kane, Abby Chabitnoy, and Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, whose book Cenzontle (BOA Editions, 2018) is one of my all-time favorite collections.
I agree that expanding one’s knowledge of the world through reading is a great place for anyone to start—and for those in teaching roles, assigning a wide array of literature that both includes diverse populations and challenges traditional norms is an equally important approach. And what an amazing list of poets you’ve shared, too. We truly are living in a golden age of poetry right now, Skin Memory included. Before we close, are there a few lines from Skin Memory that you’d like to share for readers new to your work?
Well, in keeping with the themes of our conversation, I’d like to choose two selections that deal with privilege, history, and my responses to them.
The first is from the collection’s titular poem, “Skin Memory,” in which I address the incredible Inupiaq poet Joan Kane and wonder about the effects of my race’s privilege as compared to how her culture has been treated.
Because you are what song breaks open your throat and because
the same century burns a different mark into me. For now I can just
listen. To how choreographed our forgetting. To the dark little
narratives of this is mine / yours, in that order. Can you sing this
country its name?
The second is from “There is Still,” in which I investigate Mark Strand’s celebrated closing lines from “Keeping Things Whole”:
We all have reasons
to keep things whole.
In response, my poem explores time and privilege in recognizing how, while swaying in a tire swing, the speaker realizes that same tree may have been used for different kinds of…rope. And it changes the way he approaches the tree…and himself. The final lines of “There is Still” read:
We / all have reasons, Mark. I hope I am / swinging to remember.