John Sibley Williams Guest Poet Post: “Poetry as Conversation”

Every Thursday, Ooligan Press invites a poet whose work is included in Alive at the Center, our forthcoming anthology of poetry from Pacific Northwest writers, to blog for us. This week, we are pleased to feature John Sibley Williams, a poet from Portland, OR who helped generate the idea for Alive at the Center in his time at Ooligan Press. Please enjoy his post!

Poetry as Conversation

What makes an experience or concept universally accessible? How can we use words, specifically poetry, to turn the personal into the shared?

Perhaps the most important task of all poets is reaching our audience, transcending ourselves, building a bridge between that coveted realm of personal passion and how it’s translated by readers. Simply detailing one’s own experience of the world is not enough. How we express ourselves is key, how we leap over the innate divide between people’s unique perspectives and spark resonance, all by carefully stringing words together into a meaning that simultaneously respects our own vision and speaks directly to the reader. The challenge of poetry is ensuring our words enter into a basic human conversation with those we wish to touch.

At heart, poetry is an intimate conversation between the writer and reader. Beyond that, it accepts the reader’s part in the process and encourages connections deeper than mere recognition, understanding, and response. As all poets approach what we write from our own unique, inimitable, and unpredictable vantage point—based on what we’ve witnessed and experienced and how we processed that stimuli—why not write with this in mind? The question is: how?

When we remain too focused on the internal, we may lose sight of the larger issues we wish to express. We may forget that the act of sharing our work involves placing ourselves in another’s hands. It’s a common stereotype that writers live in their own minds. Even if this is partially true, and, further, even if this aspect helps spark creation and genius, to remain focused solely on the internal without regard to possible reader interpretation may lead down an ego-based path where resonance is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. Poetry should be seen as the shared expression of the internal.

One example of this can be found in overly linear poetry. Let’s pose the question: how tightly should a poet cling to the facts of a given experience? I have always argued that truth is more important than fact. The details within a piece of literature only matter as far as they nourish the dialogue they create. Facts must be supple and ready to bend like river water around a turn. The core truths of the experience or concept we wish to express must take precedence over the common desire to remain strictly faithful to the where, when, and who of what really happened.

However, leaning too far in the opposite direction can similarly detract from creating resonance. If we write wholly focused on readers, we may end up betraying our own passion and perspective. We must walk that line between dictating the reader’s experience and leaving them lost. Why not allow readers room to breathe and encounter the work on their own terms, from their own backgrounds, through their own eyes? Why not purposefully plant metaphorical white space within the meanings of what you write?

The concept of white space as it pertains to design and layout is well known. The eye requires breaks from the constant barrage of black ink that streams across the page. Book designers utilize white space to provide a safe haven for the reader, both physically and mentally. It is like the silence we seek after a long conversation. White space provides the mind with a physical representation of silence. The strained eye has taken in a stanza of poetry, rich in metaphor and concept, and delights in the brief absence of type before approaching the next image, refreshed.

Power of Words--Unknown Photographer

Unknown Photographer

But we can include metaphorical white space in the way we write also. This perspective on white space involves far more than the physical strategy—striking a healthy balance between black and white, text and vacancy. Words themselves require room to become. Images should remain wet cement. Concepts and emotions reside in the gray area of interpretation, the interplay of meaning and translation. In other words, the substance of poetry develops from achieving a delicate balance of text and not text, of stating what we mean without stating our intent, of white space not just around, but also within the words we use.

How does one write to create white space and conversation? Perhaps by recognizing that our writing is a journey we wish others to follow us on, while realizing where they end up will inevitably be based only partially on what we’ve said. It’s also based on the joy and the baggage they carry with them. We cannot dictate meaning. Each image we create can mean as many different things as there are different readers. We can only guide others down a path that leads to a place we cannot wholly predict.

One metaphor I like to use is that of a forest, a forest of meaning. If we leave no room for ambiguity, for the reader to interact with the text, then we’ve pretty much carved only one path for them to follow. We haven’t fully appreciated their active role in the conversation. We tell them what to get out of the poem, instead of showing them. Conversely, if we provide too much ambiguity, then we’ve left them to roam the full forest alone, without guidance, and meaning and resonance become difficult to achieve. To navigate this struggle, I’ve found that the poems that leap the divides of nations and generations tend to provide a few paths toward meaning, not too many, but also not so few that they hold our hands. They respect readers by using language that can touch them, universally, regardless of where they come from and what of the world they have known to be true. They stay true to the essential elements of experience, forgoing overly elaborate, or overly personal explanations and details that keep readers from having their own experience with the text.

Forest Path

Unknown Photographer

Poetry is rhetoric, like all other writings. As poets, we are inherently trying to persuade others to see things as we see them, but funneled through their own eyes. We cannot convince by simply saying, “Believe me, this is how it is.” We must show them things that lead them to believe it: essential things, shared things. We must give readers the tools from which to construct meaning from what we’ve written. We must leave breadcrumbs along the path. We must balance what we mean with what others might think we mean.

And when a poem is successful, it ends up generating a wholly new experience based on the conversation it’s sparked in the reader. Why not write with this universality in mind? Why not invite readers into our work, into our words, and ask them to stake their own claims (call it “planting a flag”) in the personal creation we wish to share?

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John Sibley Williams is the author of six chapbooks and winner of the HEART Poetry Award. He has served as an acquisitions manager at Ooligan Press, both an agent and publicist, and holds an MFA in Creative Writing and MA in Book Publishing. A few previous publishing credits include: Inkwell, Bryant Literary Review, Cream City Review, The Chaffin Journal, The Evansville Review, RHINO, Rosebud, Ellipsis, Flint Hills Review, and various fiction and poetry anthologies.

John’s Poem “Icelandic Church” will be featured in the complete Alive at the Center anthology as well as the Portland edition. Both books will be available April 1, 2013.