John Sibley Williams’s poem “Skyscrape” appears in Southern Humanities Review 55.1. The poem explores the physicality of human achievement in concert with the recent coming out of Williams’s daughter as transgender. In the following interview, Williams discusses the poem’s inciting image, the poetic brilliance of children, and the poet’s latest collection, Scale Model of a Country at Dawn.
Barbara Yauss: The title of your poem in issue 55.1, “Skyscrape,” makes this poem all the more powerful by, instead of focusing on the grandness of human achievement, lingering on a human invention harming the earth: an image of a plane “scraping” the sky. Was this your intention, and what does your process look like for arriving at titles such as this one?
John Sibley Williams: This is one of those rare poems, at least for me, that began with its title. One of my twin five-year-old daughters still calls a plane’s contrails “skyscrapes,” and I immediately knew I had to write a poem exploring it. I just love the curiosity and innocence and surreal, unfiltered metaphors that erupt from a child’s mouth. Children don’t know how brilliant they can be.
It’s interesting that you picked up on the idea of human achievement. That theme is definitely in the poem, especially when comparing contrails to rafters “holding the sky in its place” and bridges “with nothing to do but span & spider.” However, for me, the main theme is that of my daughter’s gender. Last year she came out as transgender, hence “whose body once believed itself a boy’s.” I hope that, despite some darkness in the poem, there’s also light and hope at the end, as “the world is readying itself for her.” When considering both themes, my intent was to show humanity’s constant expansion and building as, at least in this case, a positive thing…that finally all that “achievement” is meant to support my daughter, as “all wounds” disappear.
BY: Are there any particular challenges or opportunities that come with putting your daughters’ stories in a poem, especially when involving gender identity? There’s a negative national policy response happening in several states right now across the U.S. when it comes to transgender youth. Does that make writing poems like “Skyscrape” feel more urgent?
JSW: That’s a particularly beautiful yet challenging question. I do feel a strong sense of urgency to write about this, not that I have any misconceptions about my work having an impact on the larger cultural conversation. As always, I simply write about what I feel I need to write about, and my daughter’s gender identity plays a huge part in our household. Although she’s confident in her identity, her discomfort with her own body is so painful to witness. And my fear for her future, for how kids and adults will treat her, never leaves my mind…or heart. In trying to interpret these experiences into words, I’ve found it challenging to know how to enter the conversation, and what part my poems should play in that conversation. I cannot define her experience for her. I can only listen, then write from my own perspective. So, the challenge becomes how to honor her personal, not always verbalized experience while writing a poem that’s very much my own. I’m always terrified of failing her in my poems. At the same time, as you pointed out, it’s also a unique opportunity to share her story, to provide a few shards of light, sharp edged and tinged in fear as they may be, in an ever-darkening political landscape. If even one heart opens a little after reading these poems, I hope that’s enough. For her and for the world, I hope that’s enough.
BY: You say in an interview with The Reading Lists “pride isn’t the emotion I experience after a creative achievement. More so honor, humility, and bafflement that among so many (likely better) work mine was selected for an award.” Does this apply to the feeling you have after writing a poem too? If so, what most surprised you in the composition and editing of “Skyscrape”?
JSW: It may spring from my own issues of self-perception and inherent guilt/shame (damn that Catholic upbringing!), but I never feel pride when writing a poem. Even if it’s one of those rare poems that makes me tingle, that I know is as good as I can make it, I sort of feel that I’m more a conduit for the poem than its creator. I feel more honored that the poem chose me to help guide it into existence. I may have pride in the poem itself, as I do with “Skyscrape,” but that emotion doesn’t extend to me as its writer.
Although the theme is introduced in those first lines, I was honestly surprised to find my daughter’s gender identity take center stage in this poem. While writing it, I assumed it would be a passing reference, a secondary theme, something to add greater intimacy to an otherwise conceptual poem. But during the composition process, I just kept returning to it. It felt integral to every other element. And I allowed myself to follow that theme, to let it define and contextualize the other themes.
BY: I was intrigued not only by how this poem moves but also how your poems flow into each other in your latest collection, Scale Model of a Country at Dawn. So often, a poem in this collection starts with a theme or phrase that closes out the poem before it, such as how “Self-Portrait as My Mother as a Cliff Face” concludes with “both entrance & exit,” transitioning smoothly into the next poem “Enter//Exit.” I’m curious as to how your editing/revision process looks different for collections as opposed to individual poems? Was this kind of structural decision integral in the genesis of each poem, or did it come about naturally when you were deciding which poems to include?
JSW: I’m thrilled you noticed that. It is indeed quite intentional. 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? As you noticed, I ended one poem with “both entrance & exit” with 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.
BY: I noticed a lot of architecture imagery—especially bridges—in “Skyscrape” and throughout Scale Model of a Country at Dawn. Can you talk about bridges? What is your relationship to them/what function do they serve in your poems? Are they related to your fascination in how things connect?
JSW: What an excellent observation! That is absolutely it. I’m fascinated by how things connect and disconnect: to others, self-perception, culture and politics, landscape, language, hurt and healing. Be it an intimate body metaphor such as a parent’s hand guiding a child’s hand or a more concrete image like a collapsed bridge or dried out, walkable riverbed, there’s just something about the moment things connect or disconnect from each other that drives much of my work. Though physical bridges do show up fairly often in my poems, I feel a lot of my varied imagery is intended to explore the concept of bridging, whatever form it ends up taking.
BY: You mention in an interview with Split Rock Review that “The poems that resonate strongest with [you] are those with multiple potential interpretations that open the poem up to the reader.” How does this play into your poems? Do you allow them to be open to multiple readings, or do you aim for one?
JSW: 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.
Given my perhaps strange process, I feel it’s essential for readers to get involved in poems. As a reader, I don’t want a story to unfold before me; I want to play an active role in it. I want to bring my own perspective and baggage and anxieties and joys to every poem I read. I love poets who employ conceptual white space, let’s call it ambiguity, and allow their words to open up new worlds in us. I just find that so much more engaging and meaningful and reflective than a poem that narrows its scope to only one, author-defined interpretation.
BY: “Skyscrape” ends on the lines “As the planes keep crossing over/our brows, briefly, lovingly, like ash.” Can you talk a little about what your intention for this ending was? When I read these lines, I feel like all the anxieties of loss culminate in that final word, the final image of ash. What, to you, is the significance of ash being the last image?
JSW: Great question! My poems tend to take a lot of leaps, and this final image is the perfect example. The poem does lean both into anxiety and hope, and I felt the image of an ashen cross on a child’s forehead would both weave those tones together and hopefully add a new layer to them. Though I’m not religious, I was raised Catholic during my childhood, and I appreciate the timeless imagery embedded in various belief systems. I appreciate what they stand for on a grounded, human level. Something about death, repentance, and rebirth (all themes of Ash Wednesday in the Catholic tradition) felt an organic tonal shift to end the poem on. I also wanted to return to that initial contrails image, which is the poem’s main metaphor for my daughter’s gender identity.
BY: What’s your advice for emerging poets who want to write environmental, political, or cultural poems? For example, do you think poets should steer away from fatalism?
JSW: In terms of advice for writing poetry in general, there’s a reason “keep writing, keep reading” has become clichéd advice; it’s absolutely true. You need to study as many books as possible from authors of various genres and from various cultures. Listen to their voices. Watch how they manipulate and celebrate language. Delve deep into their themes and structures and take notes on the stylistic 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.
More specifically, when writing about a cultural, political, or ecological issue, I feel fatalism is as detrimental as poems of pure hope. Yes, we need hope. And yes, we need to learn to accept certain things. However, it’s the communication between these two opposing views that really sparks a fresh poetic conversation. There is light at the end of the tunnel, but it’s a rather sharp-edged light. There’s a balance, a world of gray. Really, who wants to read a timely poem that tells the reader what to think? A didactic presentation of one’s themes isn’t so much an exploration as a sermon. Personally, I consider it essential to be true to myself and the world, which means exploring the grays. There are so many incredible poets writing these days that explore ecological disaster far better than I do, and those I find myself returning to over and over again tend to convey their themes as questions or curious, open-minded studies, more so than a direct criticism that speaks at instead of converses with the reader.
BY: Are you working on any other projects at the moment?
JSW: As I just released two new books the past few months (The Drowning House, winner of the Elixir Press Poetry Award, and Scale Model of a Country at Dawn, which won the Cider Press Review Book Award), 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. I am also working with a Portuguese press on my New & Selected Works, which they recently solicited. I’m utterly thrilled at the opportunity to enter into such a poetic conversation in another language.
BY: Might we find “Skyscrape” in a collection soon/eventually?
JSW: Although it’s difficult to say at this point, as I just had two collections come out this year so am not working on a specific new project at the moment, I feel quite deeply about this poem so assume it will end up in the next book, whenever it’s completed.
JOHN SIBLEY WILLIAMS is the author of nine poetry collections, including Scale Model of a Country at Dawn (Cider Press Review Poetry Award), The Drowning House (Elixir Press Poetry Award), As One Fire Consumes Another (Orison Poetry Prize), Skin Memory (Backwaters Prize, University of Nebraska Press), and Summon (JuxtaProse Chapbook Prize). His book Sky Burial: New & Selected Poems is forthcoming in translated form by the Portuguese press do lado esquerdo. A twenty-seven-time Pushcart nominee, John is the winner of numerous awards, including the Wabash Prize for Poetry, Philip Booth Award, Phyllis Smart-Young Prize, and Laux/Millar Prize. He serves as editor of the Inflectionist Review and founder of the Caesura Poetry Workshop series. Previous publishing credits include Best American Poetry, Yale Review, Verse Daily, North American Review, Prairie Schooner, and TriQuarterly.