An Interview with JL Williams


To wake, to describe music, she thinks
“This is so moving it feels as if
something is coming loose in me.”

To wake from the ship she drags
from canal to canal over wet cement,
fag in her mouth, her husband and lover dead.

To wake from her stood at the late cart,
a dark man selling candy or a pill with syrup inside.
Some woman of the night leans by and says,
“Darling, if you knew what happened
when I took that last,” as she swallows the sweet, sweet…

To wake in the glass canal light of an empty street,
worn grain of the wood of the deck on my cheek;
the doors of an empty city float by
as if in a dream, her life caught
between my mind’s eye and the careless lip of reality.

This poem was first published in Issue 11, which can be read in our archive.

Books by JL Williams include Condition of Fire, Locust and Marlin, House of the Tragic Poet, and After Economy. She is interested in expanding dialogues through writing across languages, perspectives and cultures and in multimodal and cross-form work, visual art, dance, opera and theatre.

Published widely in journals, her poetry has been translated into numerous languages. She has read at international literature festivals and venues in the UK, Sweden, Germany, Denmark, Turkey, Cyprus, Canada, Hungary, Romania, Montenegro and the US. She wrote the libretto for a new opera, Snow, was Writer-in-Residence for the British Art Show 8 in Edinburgh and plays in the poetry and music band Hail of Bright Stones. In 2019, she was awarded a bursary to develop a new opera with composer Samantha Fernando at the Royal Opera House. Williams curates writing events and creates workshops and professional development activities for poets.

FGTS: JL, in a Q&A back in issue 23 of FGTS you said that the book you wished you’d written was The Metamorphoses by Ovid. In your collection Condition of Fire, you responded to those stories. What draws you to myths and old tales, and how do they interact with our contemporary world?

JL: Life is so fleeting. Beginnings and endings rush past. Human beings are natural storytellers. We have language, we have narrative, we have drawings on cave walls, we have time, we have fire. I had a baby seven months ago, and I can feel the story in her already even before the words take hold. Listening to the tales of the ancients… it is an honour to be able to hear some echo from their minds and beating hearts. It reminds me that we are all connected, that this experience of being human is a shared one. Even when it feels as if life is flashing by, or especially when it is, I draw comfort from the depth of experience of humanity. We repeat ourselves. It is nature, it is what we are. As a species on the verge of collapse, there is much we could learn from the myths and legends of our ancestors.  

You often work with other writers, musicians, theatre-makers, sound and visual artists. Why is collaboration important to you, and how do other disciplines and artforms influence your writing?

Collaboration is an exercise in communication, which is what all art (I include writing in that box) is aching toward. When I was younger, I often felt isolated from other people – I wanted to be able to read minds. At some point I realised that reading is a kind of clairvoyance, as is listening to music or looking at a painting. We are not so alone and making with others not only opens doors between locked rooms, but it also allows me to do so much more than I could on my own. Art forms such as theatre and opera demand collaboration. You cannot do it on your own. Working in those areas has been very joyful and educational for me. Our culture puts so much, perhaps too much, importance on the value and power of the individual. It is good to write on my own, to feel the privacy and independence of that, and then to expand into collectivity and conversation.  

I am also very interested in mutation and shape shifting, poetry becoming a painting or vice versa. Something beyond ekphrasis, a kind of tapping into and translation of the maker’s energy. If you listen hard enough you can pull it from one form into another. I like the idea of writing a libretto, sculpting a figure, editing a film and knowing that if I am doing it, I am still writing a poem. It can go the other way as well — the energy of film, sculpture, music into poem. 

What have you been reading recently, and what excites you in new writing these days?

I have been reading baby books! Especially enjoying Phillipa Perry’s The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read (and Your Children Will Be Glad That You Did) – everyone should read that one, and Safe Infant Sleep: Expert Answers to Your Cosleeping Questions by James McKenna. 

Two new poetry favourites are Morgan Parker and Yona Harvey

A dear friend introduced me to the work of Ariana Reines and I am keenly awaiting my copy of A Sand Book. Another dear friend just advised me to read Lote by Shola von Reinhold.

Tess Taylor’s Rift Zone and Last West: Roadsongs for Dorothea Lange arrived from the US last week, and Shara McCallum has a new book due soon that I’m eagerly awaiting. 

I am a big fan of too many local poets to name but I write with a group called 12 and they are super amazing. I had the privilege of mentoring four poets for the Clydebuilt programme last year and they are each very special – David Linklater, Frank McHugh, Roy Patience and Hannah Summers.

I get excited when I hear words that seem to be coming from the origin, a place deep inside the writer.

FGTS published your poem ‘Image’ in issue 11, do you remember what led into the making of this poem?

Gosh it was a long, long time ago… I do not remember exactly but I am sure the ship dragging came from a documentary I watched about Vikings in Russia pulling boats overland between rivers. It is a dream poem and I suspect it did come at least in part from a dream. I sometimes use dreams as a starting point, then try to make them into something else. 

Finally, is there something from your time at the University of Glasgow that you hold onto and continues to inform your writing practice today?

Michael Schmidt encouraged us to get the ‘I’ out of our poetry. I avoided that ‘I’ for ages but I have been letting it back in, which feels like a reclamation. It is good to be aware of the ‘I’ though… 

Most importantly I think it’s the people I met there, the wonderful writers and the sense of community, those folks and others I have met since who buoy me and inspire me to write from the origin and sing with the collective. 

‘As a species on the verge of collapse, there is much we could learn from the myths and legends of our ancestors.’ – JL Williams