Manipulating and Celebrating Language: A Microinterview with John Sibley Williams

[This summer, PHR begins a series of microinterviews with our talented, globe-trotting, book-publishing, language-obsessive past contributors. These short but meaningful conversations will include, like PHR itself, both established and emerging voices, and seek to explore craft, taste, and the writing life.]

In this inaugural microinterview conducted by Ali Riegel, author John Sibley Williams discusses his life of poetry and teaching, the use of certain craft elements in his work, and what books (poetic or not) he holds most dear.

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, and many others. His work has previously appeared in The Yale Review, Midwest Quarterly, Southern Review, Sycamore Review, Prairie Schooner, and many other journals, as well as in various anthologies. He serves as editor of The Inflectionist Review and works as a literary agent. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

Riegel:  What led you to pursue poetry as a vocation? Did you consider other lives—careers, artistic endeavors, etc.—before returning to poetry as the way forward?

Williams: Well, I don’t know if anyone makes enough money on poetry alone to call it a vocation, but I’ve been privileged to steadily, over the course of a decade or so, move toward the literary arts as my career’s foundation. In addition to writing, I teach, edit, design, market, and work as a literary agent, all of which are at least tangentially related to my poetry.

Although I’ve worked countless non-literary jobs over the years, I’d say I’ve seriously pursued writing since childhood. For example, when I’d complete a silly little story in middle school, I would try to find a venue for it. I’d read it before family, peers, even strangers. And I began submitting work to magazines in high school. But I was 21 before I wrote my first poem. In the 20 years since that first experience, I haven’t considered any other line of “work.” Apart from my children, manipulating and celebrating language is my only true passion.

Riegel:  Both “Separations” and “Pantomime” are written in the collective “we.” What attracts you to that voice, and how do you think you make use of it in your work?

Williams: Although I don’t use the collective “we” too often, certain poems instinctively seem to demand it. Often, that demand comes from a desire to create a shared experience from an otherwise personal poem. Or, as is the case with “Separations,” the “we” is meant to explore our complicity in a larger cultural tragedy. The “we” in “Pantomime” tries to touch on both of the above: a statement on complicity and an invitation for the reader to directly experience what appears to be a private scene.

Riegel:  You’re a nineteen-time Pushcart nominee, with poems in Prairie Schooner and TriQuarterly, among many other credits. When do you know a poem is ready to be sent out into the world? Do you submit poems in batches, with time in between to compose, or do you submit as you go?

Williams: I suppose a poem being “ready” is a matter of instinct. One could always revise and revise until the heart of the poem stops beating, until the themes get muddied. I stop revising and begin submitting when a poem makes me smile, when something inside me leaps and kicks. And I definitely submit in batches, always the maximum number of poems the magazine allows for. So sometimes I do need to compose new poems in order to prepare a complete submission, though usually I have enough unpublished poems sitting around that I can submit immediately upon that new poem eliciting that smile, that leap.

Riegel:  Final question—let’s say your house is on fire, and you can only grab one collection of poetry. What do you save?

Williams: Although not a poetry collection, it would have to be Man’s Search for Meaning by psychologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor E. Frankl. This seminal work frames much of my understanding of human nature, and I don’t think a day goes by in which its insights aren’t validated in my daily life. As opposed to abstractions like truth or beauty, that purpose, motivational drive, is the “meaning of life” that sustains us feels groundbreaking and true to life. Reading Frankl’s work, it’s as if the earth shifts beneath me. Every time. I don’t know who or what I would be without having read it.