Interview with John Sibley Williams, author of 'Disinheritance'

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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  • Disinheritance is available at Amazon.
  • Discuss this book at PUYB Virtual Book Club at Goodreads.

Q: Welcome to The Writer's Life!  Now that your book has been published, we’d love to find out more about the process.  Can we begin by having you take us at the beginning?  Where did you come up with the idea to write your book?

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.

Q: How hard was it to write a book like this and do you have any tips that you could pass on which would make the journey easier for other writers?

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. 

For other writers attempting this journey who are faced with this question, I supposed I’d say two things: 1) trust your gut while writing, and then 2) have a trusted group of writers review it before sending anything out to a magazine, publisher, or agent. If a number of readers don’t understand a certain image, then maybe that image is too personal to you and should be revised to be clearer. In the end, the balance you strike between personal and universal will be right as long as you remain true to yourself while also heeding the advice of readers.

Q: Who is your publisher and how did you find them or did you self-publish?

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 Press, a great publisher run by Loyola University.

Q: What other books (if any) are you working on and when will they be published?

I have just completed a new book, Skin Memory, which I’m currently pitching to publishers and submitting to book awards. Skin Memory is a collection of free verse and prose poems that tackle some of the same themes in Disinheritance, including family, grief, and American culture, while adding a slightly harder edge, risking a bit more personally and creatively, and exploring in a deeper way those fears and joys that haunt me.

Q: What’s one fact about your book that would surprise people?

What an interesting question. I think what surprises most readers of narrative poetry is that the I is not always the actual poet’s voice. I cannot tell you how many times a reader or someone at an event has asked me personal questions or passed on their condolences purely based on a situation in one of my poems. But the narrator is not always the poet, and in Disinheritance I adopt a number of unique voices. In some cases, I am writing from my ailing mother’s perspective or I am trying to place myself in a dead child’s mind. The I voice that echoes across these poems belongs to them. In a way, they are characters, as in a novel. I’m trying to inhabit their space, to invent a reality for them, and to give them a voice.

Pablo Picasso has an amazing quote that I feel beautifully summarizes my rather long-winded explanation: Art is not the truth; art is a lie that makes us realize truth.

Q: Finally, what message (if any) are you trying to get across with your book?

I wouldn’t say I have a particular message, but, above all else, I hope readers are moved both emotionally and perceptually in a way that helps them reexamine their own mortality, their own relationships, their own fears and joys and wounds. Though we all have different backgrounds and experiences, still we share the same basic needs, and we fear many of the same things. My goal was to write a collection of particularly intimate poems that speaks to these universally shared emotions. And perhaps these poems will help those readers who are grieving or who haven’t yet discovered the language of grief. I hope Disinheritance helps them find that language.

Q: Thank you again for this interview!  Do you have any final words?

I’d hate to waste my final words talking about myself, so, if I may, I’d like to give a little advice to new authors.

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.

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