In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors–John Sibley Williams
1. Tell us about your poem in Volume 20. How did it come to be?
Believe it or not, the inspiration for “All Saints” came from those sensationalized stories from my youth warning about the dangers of Halloween candy. Though such crimes only happened a few times that decade, we were all taught to fear our neighbors, our friends, strangers, family. We were trained to believe real world horrors exist behind the season’s joyously scary ephemera.
I used that mass panic as a backdrop for youth (and adulthood) in general: how we make our own monsters and pass them down generations as truths and lessons.
2. What was an early experience that led to you becoming a writer?
I’m not sure where the need to write originated. It seems like it’s always been there. Though I didn’t discover poetry until my twenties, I began writing short stories in middle school. One defining moment came when, unbeknownst to me, my eighth grade English teacher submitted a story I’d written for class to a young writer’s literary magazine. The next year, that teacher found me in the hall and handed me a copy of a print journal showcasing my story. That he believed in my work enough to do that was a shock that stays with me with each publication.
3. How has writing shaped your life?
It’s really stunning how the two infuse and inform each other. It’s almost like being a child again, though with all the darkness and light and in-betweens that come with seeing the world for what it is. Perhaps writing is a way to hold the what-is up against the what-could-be, knowing both are equally fragile, fleeting, indescribable. But in trying to describe it, everything changes. The world becomes one great metaphor. Shivering winter trees are anything but naked. Songbirds become so much more. And how we treat each other, not always virtuous, but still something writing allows us to learn from.
4. What books, writers, art, or artists inspire you and your work?
I’m enamored by the brutal emotional honesty and sonorous quality of many South American, Spanish, and Middle Eastern poets, as I am with the linguistic precision and experimentation of poets like Paul Celan and Octavio Paz. I’d say a few of the contemporary poets who most consistently inspire me are Carl Phillips, Eric Pankey, Ada Limón, Jamaal May, and Ocean Vuong.
5. What projects or pieces are you working on right now?
I currently have two completed manuscripts, Skin Memory and Say Uncle, that I’m shopping around. My contribution to Water~Stone Review is included in the former. [Update: Skin Memory has been named the winner of the Backwaters Prize, judged by Kwame Dawes, and will be published by Backwaters Press in September 2019.]