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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Q: Welcome to Beyond the Books, John. Can we start out by telling us whether you are published for the first time or are you multi-published?
It’s great to be here, and thank you for the invitation.
This is actually my second full-length poetry collection, and I’ve had seven chapbooks published through various small presses. Each book has its own tone, its own unique themes, so, in a way, each published book feels a lot like ‘the first time’ again.
Q: When you were published for the first time, which route did you go – mainstream, small press, vanity published or self-published and why or how did you choose this route?
Unfortunately, there are only a handful of mainstream poetry publishers, so small presses are really the best first step 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, a great press run by Loyola University students.
Q: How long did it take you to get published once you signed the contract?
I signed the contract in November 2015, and both editing and design began a few months later. Though the book could have been published earlier this year, the press and I decided on September 2016 to allow for an extensive Advanced Reader Copy phase.
Q: How did it make you feel to become published for the first time and how did you celebrate?
My first book publication back in 2011 was a huge first step and one I will always remember. Though I had previously published a few hundred poems in literary journals, knowing that a team of editors believed in my work enough to put their time, passion, and money into its publication was humbling. I honestly don’t recall how I celebrated that first book publication, but I’m sure it involved a few unabated screams of joy.
Q: What was the first thing you did as for as promotion when you were published for the first time?
With my first book, as I was still a newbie to the book publishing world, I didn’t have the solid marketing plan I use now. Also, it was a chapbook from a small press, which limited the opportunities available to me. I did use social media, of course, and I booked perhaps a half-dozen readings in my area. I was also able to acquire a few reviews from literary magazines and bloggers. If I recall, it sold a few hundred copies, which was fantastic.
Q: Since you’ve been published, how have you grown as a writer and now a published author?
We’re all maturing as writers with each new word we write, each new book we publish, and each new author we’re exposed to. And with each new personal experience we have, our eyes open a bit more to the world and new ways of expressing our feelings about the world. Growing as a writer is a lifelong process.
I’m not sure if book publication itself has helped my writing, but it has definitely helped other creative areas. For example, creating a poetry, short story, or essay collection can be a tricky thing. How to know which pieces to keep, which to cut, and how to order them? Each collection I have published has given me a bit more confidence in how to weed out the unnecessary poems and how to structure things so a consistent tone and momentum is fostered.
Q: What has surprised or amazed you about the publishing industry as a whole?
It’s amazing to think around 800 books per day are published now. Digital and self-publishing have democratized the process, so pretty much anyone can publish a book now. On the one hand, the sheer abundance of books out there makes finding your readers all the more difficult. What once was a hill is now a mountain. On the other hand, thousands of fantastic authors whose work might never have found publication are finally able to be heard.
In general, I suppose what surprises me most is finding work of incredible quality coming out of presses most people haven’t heard of. These smaller presses are often staffed by volunteers or students who are so very passionate about publishing strong stories and beautiful poems. Though it’s wholly understandable, mainstream publishers are mainly interested in sales potential. There is a bottom line, and that bottom line is money. One cannot blame them for it. But because of this money-oriented approach, I tend to find the most surprising, risk-taking, and satisfying books coming out of small and university presses these days.
Q: What is the most rewarding thing about being a published author?
Definitely reader reaction. We have all read poems or novels that truly moved us, that made us reconsider ourselves, that illuminated the beauty and power of language. It has been indescribably rewarding to know my work has touched others in that way. When a total stranger who perhaps stumbled across your book or had it recommended to her contacts you out of the blue to say how much it inspired her, that is a potent feeling. When you’re giving a reading and you can see that glow in the audience’s eyes, that is unforgettable. Even after around 50 or so readings across the country, I am touched every single time someone goes out of their way to express their thoughts on my work. That’s what it’s all about. Trying to use language that lifts up off the page and resonates with people.
Q: Any final words for writers who dream of being published one day?
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.