CONTRIBUTOR SPOTLIGHT: INTERVIEW WITH
JOHN SIBLEY WILLIAMS
Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: “Brat” feels driven by voice and the dynamic interplay between setting and action. Can you talk about how you developed the poem and especially its voice?
John Sibley Williams: As is often the case with my creative process, “Brat” originated with a series of specific stark images. I had a dusty road. I had a shoebox of trinkets that are somehow meant to summarize an entire life. I had a hard-as-nails military father who crumbles when no one is watching. And I knew the poem would explore betweenness: a lack of concrete identity and single place to call home. It wasn’t until the fifth or sixth stanza that I recognized what the poem wanted to be about, its context: a military “brat” forced to abandon his home, his friends, life, over and over again. What emotions would such a boy feel? How would he feel about the military, war? About his father? Each town he visited but never truly lived in? The country that imposed this rootlessness on his family? That confusion drove the voice of the poem. The narrator is all question and contradiction. To put it plainly, he has no idea who he is. He has no idea what’s expected of him. He struggles to carve clear definitions out of road dust. Although this doesn’t at all resemble my youth, it felt natural to adopt the boy’s voice. I explored my own sense of disillusionment and betweenness and filtered my own fears through him. So it’s a deeply personal voice. It hurts me, even if the narrator is a construction.
RR: The use of “you” creates a collective feeling of unrest and connects the reader directly to the unfolding details in the poem. How do you consider or approach the idea of audience through the second person?
JW: The second person includes two distinct voices: the communal ‘you’ and the speaking directly to the reader “you.” Both provide a sense of intimacy and complicity. Both beg readers to enter the poem and recognize themselves in it. But the latter can be more emotionally demanding. In no uncertain terms, readers are dragged deeply into the poem. They are active participants in whatever unfolds. The “you” in “Brat” is more the communal kind. The questions it raises and judgments it casts are cultural ones. Given the otherwise internal narrative approach to the poem, I wanted to pan the camera out every few lines to provide a larger context.
RR: Your poetry seems to be rooted in current, real-world issues. Are there particular experiences that you are drawn to explore through poetry?
JW: Part of what drives me to write about cultural and political issues that have real-world consequences to real people is because, due to my own privileged status, I have only witnessed or read about the horrific things human beings can do to each other. As opposed to writing (at least too often) from the perspective of someone experiencing an atrocity, I tend to write more from the outside in. I hope to be a witness to the best of my ability. I want to explore and expose from the vantage point of one who could hypothetically be the antagonist based on the color of my skin, my gender and sexuality, my privilege. Does reading about atrocities but doing nothing concrete to help make me guilty? Is a whole town (or state or government or country) guilty?
On a more personal level, I frequently describe direct experiences that, in hindsight, I find appalling. For example, my new collection includes a poem in which my pre-teen self is playing Cowboys and Indians. Yes, I did this, often. Everyone in the neighborhood did. We weren’t aware of the implications. But there are implications, even to a childhood game. Other poems discuss certain youthful violences and the “boys will be boys” mentality that still plagues our society. Similarly, I study my family history to see what kind of mixed legacy I’ve been handed down. How much blood is on my hands? Is there really blood on my hands at all? Can I be blamed for a great great grandfather’s actions? I don’t have an answer for that…for any of it. And that lack of certainty haunts me. That I’m not a victim, at least compared to so many others, haunts me. And that I was born with greater cultural (if not political) rights, expectations.
In part, I believe I explore such larger cultural themes in my poems so I can learn to look these ghosts squarely in the eye, without flinching.
RR: How has your work as a literary agent and editor for The Inflectionist Review impacted you as a writer?
JW: That’s a good question, and one I’m not sure I can provide a clear answer for. The impact of my editorial and other professional work has a subtle impact on my creative process. I’m constantly exposed to new ideas and linguistic explorations. I cherish those moments of awe when a poet does something I’ve never seen before or expresses a recognizable theme in emotionally raw ways. I want a poem to hurt me. I grow as a writer each time a poet hurts me. And having the honor of editing The Inflectionist Review provides the opportunity to encounter this hurt. It’s glorious. But the greatest impact editing and agenting has had on me involves manuscript creation. Working with other poets’ manuscripts allows me to learn invaluable lessons about book structure, poem ordering, tonal consistency, and extending my voice across 50 or 100 pages in a way that (hopefully) doesn’t feel redundant and doesn’t interrupt the flow.
RR: Can you hint towards any new projects of yours on the horizon?
JW: As I have two new books coming out this year (As One Fire Consumes Another, winner of the Orison Poetry Prize, and Skin Memory, which won the Backwaters Prize from the University of Nebraska Press), I’m not working on a specific project at the moment. I’m just writing and writing, trying to push my own boundaries, stretch my comfort zone, and experiment with new styles and structures with the hope something fresh and authentic will come of it. Apart from my own writing, I’ve recently been focusing on interviewing poets whose work I admire and who deserve a wider audience. It’s such a thrill to discover how other poets approach their themes and structures. So far I’ve interviewed Abigail Chabitnoy and José Angel Araguz, with more to come.
John Sibley Williams’ work in Issue 6.2: