A fter nearly three decades of considering and
arranging the contents of bookshelves, John Willson can now finally file himself.
The renowned Bainbridge poet, Island Treasure Award recipient, and staple presence at Eagle Harbor Book Company (he manages the popular Staff Recommendation section) recently saw his long-anticipated debut full-length collection — “Call This Room A Station” — published by MoonPath Press, featuring a mixed-media cover image by Bainbridge artist Patty Rogers.
Willson had previously released a limited edition chapbook in 1999. But although he’s regularly published new poems and racked up a hefty haul of accolades — including the Pushcart Prize and awards from the Academy of American Poets, The Artist Trust of Washington, and the King County Arts Commission — “Call This Room A Station” is the first assemblage of his work to be gathered and made widely available, a kind of simultaneous debut and partial retrospective.
“I’m excited about the book,” Willson said. “Most of the poems were written on Bainbridge.”
The island has been Willson’s home for more than 30 years, though the sources and topics of his writing range much farther afield — both geographically and chronologically.
Largely biographical, their central topics include the death of Willson’s father, when he was quite young; his wife’s battle with and victory over breast cancer; and experiences from their multi-year residence in Japan, as well as other travels.
The book’s path to publication was perhaps appropriately long and considered (the manuscript was a finalist and semi-finalist in many contests, revised numerous times) not unlike Willson’s writing process itself.
“I don’t produce much; I’m a writer of space output,” he said. “I write fewer than 10 poems a year and that’s just the way that I work. I’ve always been sort of a craftsperson in that respect. And that’s something I get from my father; he was a perfectionist with his photography and his woodworking and stuff like that.”
More so than editing or compiling, Willson said the act of preparing the book for publication was ultimately more like refining.
“This has been more of a sifting over the years of poems that have endured and that I believe in, even though they are old, and are part of a cohesive unit,” he said.
“Everything tends to be a process with me. That’s my bête noire, my Achilles’ heel: that craftsmanship. People ask me if I’m still writing and yes, I’m still chipping away at it. Like hammering away at a rock to eventually make some kind of sculptural form that has some integrity.”
The final form he shaped has already been praised, including by the likes of Naomi Shihab Nye, current Poetry Foundation Young People’s Poet Laureate.
“John Willson’s poems are guides for wanderers,” she said. “Such great tenderness and delicacy live in these lines, a softness of presence/absence in the rich fabric of birds, skies, highly attuned relationships woven through time. Mysterious maps of ancestral legacy vibrate as a low hum — people who birthed us, poets who birthed our souls, and the infinite winding roads — with so many meaningful points on the compass, so many homes.”
Such attention to detail takes time, but Willson is nothing if not patient. His process, most often conducted in the small studio above his garage, is a three-step affair that always begins with handwritten lines.
“I tend to spend a lot of time on each individual poem, and sometimes I recognize that it’s not going anywhere and I lose interest in that topic and go on to something else,” Willson said. “It’s kind of a double distillation process of taking notes and impressions and ideas from my notebooks, and once I feel as though I’ve got some lines that are worth saving and transferring over to 8½x11 white sheets of paper, then I start doing that.
“On the white sheets of looseleaf paper is where, after a while, if something is going to happen the lines will start to break themselves and phrases will start to break themselves into lines, and stanzas come next.”
Only then, Willson said, does he power up the computer.
“At a certain point, where I feel as though there are stanzas that hold up and sort of an armature that is workable, I’ll roll my chair over to the computer table and open up my computer and it’s only then I start doing an electronic version.”
Which is not to say he’s overly serious about the work. Indeed, Willson said inspiration can, and has, come to him from the most casual places.
“Sometimes in conversation with people a phrase will come up and I’ll tell that person, ‘That’s a great title for a poem!’ Or, ‘That would be a great line in a poem.’ And everybody gets a good laugh out of that, but the fact is it’s true,” he explained.
“The fact of the matter is people are talking poetry all the time when they’re just living their daily lives because language is essentially musical if you just pay a little attention to it.”
Willson was unfortunately denied the chance to share the musicality of his poems with readers in person when his slated reading event at Eagle Harbor Book Company was postponed, one of many cultural casualties of the coronavirus outbreak. It has, however, been rescheduled for later this year.
And, as with his writing and the publishing of his first book — Willson is nothing if not patient.
He has found beauty and meaning in tragedy before — and this time is no different.
“A pandemic book launch — or rather, a book launch in the throes of a pandemic — is something I’d never anticipated,” he said. “Though it is starting to seem, just now, that there is some kind of weirdly positive viewpoint emerging, having to do with the possibility that reading my book might constitute usefully and enjoyably spent time at home for folks in this age of coronavirus.”
Visit www.eagleharborbooks.com for the latest schedule of events and updates about postponed/rescheduled author appearances, and www.moonpathpress.com/JohnWillson.htm to learn more about the book and its author.