Carolyn Oliver: I’m wondering if you can walk us through your composition process for “Ministry,” a poem in Scale Model of a Country at Dawn that first appeared in The Worcester Review.
John Sibley Williams : Honestly, I never have any idea where a poem is going until it’s complete. Many, perhaps most, of my poems begin with a single image. Be it a dead horse bloated by a river, my young daughter tearing up the paper swans I made for her, or children playing in the vast ribcage of a beached whale, I usually start with a single haunting image written at the top of a page. Then I try to weave a world in which that image makes sense. I have multiple notebooks filled with individual lines, words, images without context, and I tend to flip through these while writing to see if any previous little inspirations might tie into the new world I’m creating. That said, I do sometimes start with a concept, theme, or other larger motivation, often cultural or political. But I tend to find these ideas and themes spring naturally from whatever I write, and it usually feels more organic if I begin with an image and let the context find its voice. In the end, I feel it’s important to listen to the poem and not impose my own personal meanings on it. My interpretation is just one of many. I let my mind make intuitive leaps and try to write in a way that those leaps are universal and can resonate with others.
For “Ministry” specifically, I began with that gray area of what is metaphor and what is real, and if it really matters. Ash on my child’s forehead is like a star, that star is part of a constellation defined by people by the myths we hang from it, and both the myth and the star itself disappear during a wildfire (which is pulled from reality, as the poem was composed during the historic Oregon wildfires of 2020, which almost forces us to abandon our home.) I tried to balance a few elements in the poem, weaving them together consistently throughout: intimacy/parenthood, spirituality/hope (forehead ashes, prayers, driving nails into palms), and the reality of the wildfire, the smoke, the fleeing animals.
CO: Images of fire and water abound in this collection. In “Controlled Burn,” for example, the speaker brings his children “out / into the wild unburnt green / every morning, holding their hands / like weapons”—a startling image. How has parenting affected the ecological themes running through your work?
JSW : Parenthood has in many ways radically altered my poetry, more so in new themes than my voice or style. And climate change is naturally one defining characteristic…I’m terrified of what world I’m leaving them with, what ruin they’ll need to survive, hopefully rebuild up from. I feel far more connected to the future (of the world, of humanity) than before I had children. I feel more invested. It hurts so much more. So much of it, as with much of my work, involves fear. I’m fearful that my children will not have the same opportunities and that the natural world will be beyond saving once they they’re old enough to take the reins. And I’m fearful that I’m playing a part, even if unintentional, in this handed-down devastation. And am I raising them in a way that they will learn to cherish and fight for our world? I don’t know. I hope so.
CO: You’re an incredibly prolific poet. Scale Model of a Country at Dawn is one of two collections appearing in 2022, and you publish widely in literary magazines and journals. Given this reservoir of poems, how do you know it’s time to start constructing a manuscript?
JSW : It’s really just a gut reaction. Something inside me says, “You must have a collection hidden in all these poems.” When ordering collections, I print out all potential poems and take notes on each. I’ll jot down the poem’s themes, circle certain images, make notes on where a poem begins and ends. I also write Yes, No, or Maybe in red ink on each page. Naturally, the No’s are discarded. Then, I try to group the remaining poems into three piles. I find it helpful to have three sections in each book, usually loosely based on the prevalence of a certain theme. Once I have my tentative sections, I reread each poem looking for the imagery and tone that begins and ends it, hoping to find some connectivity. If a poem ends with a water image, why not follow it with a poem that starts with water? In Scale Model, I ended one poem with “both entrance & exit” and followed it with one titled “Enter//Exit.” My hope is that such ordering allows for a fluid, organic read, as if the poems were composed as one, are telling different sides of one story.
CO: You mentioned, in an interview with TWR a few years ago, that you write poem to poem, rather than orienting your writing toward a particular project. And the section titles in Scale Model of a Country at Dawn —Ordinary Beasts, Suture, Object Permanence—suggest how widely the preoccupations of the book range. How do you view the place of your work in a contemporary poetry landscape that tends to favor project-oriented collections?
JSW : You’re absolutely right about my process, and for better or worse it hasn’t changed. I simply write and write and see where it all leads me. In the past, I have tried to create more project-oriented collections, but I never get more than a few poems in before a wholly new idea or theme stands up, waves its arms, screams from the rooftops, and demands my attention. I feel I would be disrespecting the poem that wants to be written if I placed it on the back burner and focused instead on the given project.
Honestly, I’ve never really considered my place in our beloved poetry landscape. I try not to think much about myself as a writer or where my work fits (or doesn’t fit) in a larger context. I believe each poem requires one’s full attention and should be able to breathe on its own, independent of the poet’s intent and ego. But I have noticed that many contemporary collections are very much project oriented. Perhaps one day I’ll join those ranks. I’d love to someday compose an entire book exploring my daughter’s situation (her gender identity, her discomfort with her own body, how the world pigeonholes her, and her developmental disabilities that are pretty much defining our experience of parenting). Perhaps someday.
CO: What kinds of subjects and images have you felt a pull toward, lately?
JSW : Well, I think we all write about what haunts us, what keeps us up at night, what questions we just can’t find answers for. So, in that regard, many of my poems explore the same larger human concerns, be they personal or cultural. The themes are interconnected, are threads that together form a single tapestry. Be it national prejudice or fears of how I’m raising my children, our bloody history or the search for self when the self just keeps vanishing into the communal. Certain poems may push one or another theme more to the forefront, often based on our current political climate or internal changes that have reprioritized my daily life, but in the end, I recognize pretty clear thematic threads running through all my work. Currently, I’ve been particularly exploring one of my daughters’ gender identity (she came out as transgender last year) and how their family history and lineage (my wife is Japanese and her grandmother was “raised” in multiple internment camps) reaches into the present, how it molds them in our current political climate.
CO: You run an online poetry workshop, edit a literary magazine, and offer book coaching. Have you considered writing a book on craft?
JSW : That’s a great question. Although I’ve written essays on various topics related to composition, editing, submitting, book marketing, and leading workshops, I haven’t really considered writing a book on those subjects. But you’ve sparked a new idea in me! Thank you for that. I’ll let that simmer on the back burner and see what the future holds. I do very much love craft books, especially The Art of… series from Graywolf Press.
CO: Which books are on your nightstand at the moment? Any other 2022 releases you’re looking forward to?
Currently, my nightstand is sagging under the weight of books I’ve yet to read. There’s a few dozen staring at me right now. The book I most recently completed is the incredible Migratory Sound by Sara Lupita Olivares, and the one I plan on opening next is Craig Santos Perez’s latest, Habitat Threshold . Although there is another few dozen books I’m eager to explore this year, three new or upcoming releases that I’m climbing the walls to read are Carl Phillips’ Then the War , Ocean Vuong’s Time is a Mother , and Michael Wasson’s Swallowed Light .
John Sibley Williams is the author of Scale Model of a Country at Dawn (Cider Press Review Book Award, 2021), The Drowning House (Elixir Press Poetry Award, 2021), 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 . He has also served as editor of two Northwest poetry anthologies, Alive at the Center (Ooligan Press, 2013) and Motionless from the Iron Bridge (barebones books, 2013). He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Rivier University and an MA in Book Publishing from Portland State University. He is the founder and head teacher of Caesura Poetry Workshop, a virtual workshop series, and serves as co-founder and editor of The Inflectionist Review . He also works as a poetry editor and book coach. He lives in Portland, Oregon.
Carolyn Oliver is the editor of The Worcester Review.