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John Sibley Williams wins 2019 Backwaters Prize in poetry for his collection 'Skin Memory'

Milwaukie resident John Sibley Williams has won the 2019 Backwaters Prize in poetry for his collection, "Skin Memory."

John Sibley WilliamsWilliams, who serves as editor of the Inflectionist Review and works as a literary agent, will receive a $2,500 cash prize and publication of his book by the University of Nebraska Press under its Backwaters Press imprint.

Williams' receipt of the Backwaters Prize, an international competition initiated in 1998, follows a series of other honors. He is the author of four poetry collections, including "As One Fire Consumes Another," which won a $1,500 publication honorarium through the 2018 Orison Poetry Prize.

When Williams read at Ledding Library in 2013 as part of the Milwaukie Poetry Series, he already had won the HEART Poetry Award, and was a finalist for the Pushcart, Rumi and Pinch poetry prizes.

Kwame Dawes, a University of Nebraska professor of English who judged the Backwaters Prize, picked Williams' manuscript out of a pool of applicants who submitted their work blindly, meaning the judge did not know anything about the authors.

Dawes identified Williams' work as "splendid" for "never seeking to pander," while expressing complex ideas in "plainspoken" ways.

"These poems move with unhurried purposefulness so that you trust the seething urgency and deliberateness of lines like 'memory is a language that's survived its skin' or the painfully earned benediction and expression of resigned hope in 'whatever finally breaks me, I cannot refuse it,'" Dawes wrote.

Melissa Kwasny, author of "Where Outside the Body is the Soul Today," said she rarely encounters poems like Williams' that are "deep enough to settle into that are, at the same time, this deeply unsettling."

She wrote, "In 'Skin Memory,' a child inherits an earth haunted by the violence of the past landscape of his own skin. What then, identity? Skin memory, as opposed to blood memory, is porous. In these poems Williams feels himself across its divide, experiencing 'the shrapnel seeing leaves behind in things,' and does so in language mesmerizing as 'the slow pulse oaks bring to the forest.'"

"Skin Memory" will be published in November and can be pre-ordered for $15.95 at

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