Ian Williams is the author of Personals, shortlisted for the 2013 Griffin Poetry Prize and the Robert Kroetsch Poetry Book Award; Not Anyone's Anything, winner of the 2011 Danuta Gleed Literary Award for the best first collection of short fiction in Canada; and You Know Who You Are, a finalist for the ReLit Prize for poetry. He was named one of ten Canadian writers to watch by CBC.
Did you read poetry when you were in high school? Is there a particular poem that you loved when you were a teenager that you remember well?
In high school, I used to read my mother’s university poetry anthologies. As a teenager, I was an odd combination of introverted and expressive.
Much like a producer discovers a musician, I felt like I discovered Sylvia Plath in one of my mother’s university anthologies. It wasn’t the Plath everybody else was listening to, though. It was the indie Plath—quiet, exhausted, acoustic, unplugged. My favourite poem was “Tulips.” Years later, when I was in university myself, I would walk from the subway station to my morning class along beds of tulips on St. George Street and think: “I am nobody; I have nothing to do with explosions.”
When did you first start writing poetry? And then when did you start thinking of yourself as a poet?
I started writing poetry in grade 7. I was in a gifted class with a fantastic teacher, Mr. Lucic, who read poetry to us with a mic against his lips, although the classroom was small. He had a great, deep, sonorous voice that came out of the ocean. I didn’t call myself a poet for a long time because I was always doing other things. It’s hard to say, “Hold up. I’m not your friend/student/son/minimum-wage-summer-employee. I’m a poet.” And poet seemed to me a title that required exclusivity.
What do you think a poet’s “job” is?
(But folks get paid for jobs.) Good poets push language—push in the sense of extending linguistic and imaginative possibilities and also in the sense of selling a language back to its users who use it out of necessity but not necessarily for pleasure. Poets re-sensitize us to language and to the world. They send postcards from the future and they’re already at the arrivals gate, waiting for most people to recognize them(selves).
What inspired you to write “Echolalia”?
For me, poems happen at intersections. “Echolalia” was at a four way stop. In one direction, I was trying to resolve the relationship between desire and satisfaction. In another direction, I was reducing language and action to yes and no, gas and brake. In a third direction was the obsessive repetition of language. How much satisfaction could one have along the daily commute of a few words? And finally, I remembered Shakespeare’s Will sonnet (135) that made the reader’s lips pucker excessively with w’s. “Echolalia” is a poem that you have to kiss your way through without being kissed: “Once one gets what one wants.” All four paths crashed into “Echolalia.”
If you had to choose one poem to memorize from our anthology, which one would it be?
It’s a great anthology, by the way. My shortlist would include Gerard Manley Hopkins (he’s got swag), Margaret Avison (she’s like a Canadian John Donne), or Edna St. Vincent Millay (poetry you could use with a little cologne). Ultimately, I’d memorize Robert Bringhurst’s “These Poems, She Said.” It has my kind of relaxed, conversational cadence. You could just say it without affectation and your partner wouldn’t realize you were reciting a poem. It rises up out of ordinary life.