An Interview with Patricia Williams

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Originally from Illinois, Patricia Williams taught K-12 Art before spending 27 years teaching Design at the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point. She began writing poetry after retirement in 2013 and now has over 200 poems published in more than fifty journals and anthologies. A chapbook about her travels, ‘The Port Side of Shadows’ was published by Finishing Line Press in 2017. This was followed by ‘Midwest Medley: Places & People, Wild Things & Weather’ (Kelsay Books, 2018) which received an award for Outstanding Achievement in Poetry Published in 2018 from the Wisconsin Library Association. A second collection, ‘Rejection to Acceptance’ is forthcoming from Kelsay Books this summer. Her work has been nominated for Best of the Net and for the Pushcart Prize. She currently resides in central Wisconsin and is a member of the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets.
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Patricia, I note that much of your career was taken up with teaching Art and Design. When did you first become interested in poetry? Did you consider it to be a logical extension of your interest in the arts in general?

I always considered the arts intimately entangled and although I don’t play a musical instrument, I’m a fan of many types of music, from Opera to Bluegrass. I have been an avid reader since childhood and also spent many hours drawing and painting. I can still see my Great-uncle Fred, ready for my visit, a big sheet of butcher paper and crayons set out on the dining room table.

I did a lot of writing as a university professor, but it involved research and teaching methods, not creative writing. A project at the University was what ultimately led me to write poetry. I curated an exhibition of Chinese paintings on paper fans. Each image was accompanied by a poem inscribed in classical Chinese. Classical Chinese to a present-day Chinese speaker is like Old English is to a present-day English speaker...it’s almost another language. I fortunately found several Chinese students who could translate the inscriptions literally; I would then interpret the poems for an American audience. My student, Xixi, was impressed and said, “Professor Williams, your version is as beautiful in English as it is in Chinese.” I thought about it for a few years and the rest is history.

Many important episodes in our lives are connected, although, at the time seeming unimportant and separated by long periods of time. When I was in high school, we were tested on what career field most suited us. I had two exact matches: Art and Creative Writing. It took a long time, but the second round eventually happened.

Do you remember your first ever published work? What was your reaction when you first saw yourself in print?

My very first publication was in junior high, in a teen magazine, where I wrote about and illustrated an outfit I designed. When it was published, it was a surprise to me that I had written something publishable.

I wrote many conference and academic papers during my years at the university. My first poem, in 2013, was “Counting Cats,” which I wrote because I liked Thoreau’s statement, “It’s not worth the while to go ‘round the world to count cats in Zanzibar.” Then I wrote another poem, and another. I’m still surprised when I see my name on a publication.

Your chapbook, The Port Side of Shadows, is inspired by your travels. Which countries are mentioned and did the publication of this volume become a defining moment for you in terms of your future as a writer?

I have visited 22 countries but only mentioned eight by name in the book: Morocco, England, Spain, Tibet, Greece, France, Czech Republic and China. The fact that a traditional publisher published my chapbook prompted me to try a full collection. So yes, the chapbook was a defining moment. And when the Midwest Medley collection won the Wisconsin Library Association award for poetry, I knew there was another collection in the future, and Rejection to Acceptance was born.

By some standards, your literary output has been prolific since 2013. Do you think that this is because retirement brought you the first opportunity in terms of time and space to bring to fruition many poems that had been waiting subconsciously in the wings all the time that you had been teaching Art and Design?

I never looked at leaving teaching as an ending. It was, rather, the beginning of something. Retiring didn’t free my time. One activity was just exchanged for another, and that activity could have been something other than poetry. When I left teaching, I didn’t immediately say, “Well, I think I’ll become a poet.” I thought of starting a “Home Party” activity “where antiques were sold and history was told”, in the style of a Tupperware Party (what was I thinking!!). I had business cards printed and an email address set up before I knew what I was going to do. My new venture, content yet undecided, was called Nine Gables Studio. I thought that could describe a broad spectrum of activities. And, because of several re-modellings, my house has nine gables.

Describe for us your writing process.

In a word, “flexible”. I don’t have any real “process” or method. The most common advice given in books is that you must have a certain period of time set aside every day, for writing. I usually write daily but have no set hours. It could be in the morning at three a.m. or in the evening at seven p.m. I “go with the flow”, “fit” my activities in however they “fit”. Some days my writing takes the back seat to something else.

What comes first, the title or the poem?

Sometimes the title, sometimes, the poem. Titles are important. It’s not unusual for me to change the title many times before I settle on one. As the poem develops with rewrites, the message it carries might take a new direction. The title then needs to be changed.

What aspect of writing do you find the most challenging?

If you consider “getting published” an aspect of writing, that’s it for me. A poet or a creative writer must have a “thick skin” regarding rejection, along with persistence. That’s the general concept of my new book.

Tell us a little bit about the concept behind your forthcoming book: ‘Rejection to Acceptance’.

It is a poetry memoire, an account of my journey with poetry publication. There are notes and comments on each poem – the back story – from initial inspiration to its ultimate publication. It’s a book about 57 rejected poems that finally “made it” to publication, some were rejected six, seven or more times. Each poem is on the left-hand page with a mini-essay containing a variety of my personal comments, reader comments, publisher comments, historic details, or other related details, facing it on the right-hand page.

Have you ever tried writing something other than poetry?

Yes, a university professor is required to do research and publish the results, so my writing was restricted to academic not creative writing. If you have insomnia, read some academic papers, particularly doctoral dissertations. You’ll be informed on a variety of subjects if you don’t fall asleep first.

What are your future plans as a writer and a poet?

I am (in all fairness, my son Mark and I) are developing a website (ninegablesstudio.com). It will be a sort of blog with a feature I call “Monthly Musings,” a set of mini-memoires, commentaries and observances about many things, a few poems and whatever else might turn up. After that, I’ll probably embark on another writing project. Only time will tell what kind.

I enjoyed our visit and I hope you and your readers enjoy my poems. I write on many subjects, some serious, some humorous, some thoughtful, some about the natural world. Here’s the original version of a poem I wrote in 2015 that is embedded in the Main Street sidewalk of Waupaca, Wisconsin, a nearby small city. It was rejected seven times but ultimately published in seven other venues, most recently this year, by Highland Park Poetry. Lucky Sevens, I guess. I leave you with two words: be persistent.

Magic in Collapsing Stars

“Somewhere, something incredible
is waiting to be known.” Carl Sagan

We are made of the stuff of stars,
a taste of the wild, covered in forests
and meadows.

We are solitary nights, silent,
the quiet of space broken only by
the hoot of an owl.

We occupy a minute place, not
lofty, not specially charmed.
Stay – be here with me
– just breathing.

 


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