John Sibley Williams discusses his poem “American Bounty” published in issue 6 of Arkana.
Interview conducted by Mel Ruth (Poetry and Blog Editor).
Mel: The title of your poem, American Bounty, elicits a very warm, almost nostalgic, feeling, but the content presses against that feeling. What were you hoping to achieve through that confliction?
JSW: These conflicting emotions were all I really meant to achieve in this poem. All people, though Americans in particular, tend to either praise or condemn, be it parts of the country, ways of life, cultural perspectives. The “heartland” evokes familial labor, golden fields, silos, a nostalgic simplicity that grows less common by the year, yet it equally evokes conservativism, religiosity, and a kind of rural life that sparks boredom or desperation in youth. The “we” in this poem exist in that crux. Yes, they are stripping copper wires from a home, but they also seem to recognize the hurt they cause. There’s a futility and despair in their rather practical actions. There’s a hunger for something they cannot quite pin down. And I hope the poem exposes this hunger as universal, their actions as just one form of struggling against a common, unfillable dearth.
Mel: The form of this poem is very disjointed. What effect were you hoping to achieve with this form that you felt the content alone could not?
JSW: I wish I had a concrete answer, but this structure simply felt like the best way to explore the situation. The longer, almost prose-like lines contrasted against an ocean of white space spoke to me about the experience the poem presents. I feel the “we” have lost themselves in yet are still an integral part of a certain segment of our population: trapped between practicality and hopelessness, nostalgia and the need to survive, somehow, in a country that can’t hear them. I’m not sure why, but this disjointed structure seemed to fit those warring emotions.
Mel: You have two collections of poetry coming out this year. The first one, As One Fire Consumes Another, launched at AWP 2019 and is the winner of Orison Poetry Prize. The second, Skin Memory, was selected by Kwame Dawes as winner of the Backwaters Poetry Prize. Is American Bounty part of a larger project? How does American Bounty fit into either of these collections, if it does?
JSW: It has indeed been quite a year! I’m honored and, to be honest, a bit shocked to have received such love and support from these two incredible presses. “American Bounty” would fit perfectly in either book, with its overall theme of conflicted American nostalgia and its focus on real people who have potentially slipped through the cultural cracks and are trying to find their way in this beautifully strange world. Structurally, it more closely resembles the poems in Skin Memory; if I had written “American Bounty” earlier, it would likely be included in that manuscript.
Mel: Aside from Arkana, and your upcoming/ recent book publications, are there any other publications, projects or opportunities you are excited about?
JSW: Apart from writing and touring for both books, I’m excited to start my Writer in Residence with Literary Arts, a Portland-based nonprofit. Through their Writers in the Schools program, I will be teaching poetry to high schoolers this fall.
I am also thrilled to say my chapbook, Summon, just won the 2019 JuxtaProse Chapbook Contest and will be out this winter.
John Sibley Williams is the author of As One Fire Consumes Another (Orison Poetry Prize, 2019), Skin Memory (Backwaters Prize, University of Nebraska Press, 2019), Disinheritance, and Controlled Hallucinations. A nineteen-time Pushcart nominee, John is the winner of numerous awards, including the Wabash Prize, Philip Booth Award, Phyllis Smart-Young Prize, Nancy D. Hargrove Editors’ Prize, Confrontation Poetry Prize, and Laux/Millar Prize. He lives in Portland, Oregon and serves as editor of The Inflectionist Review. Visit him at https://www.johnsibleywilliams.com/.