Three poems by JL Williams

Books by JL Williams include Condition of Fire (Shearsman, 2011), Locust and Marlin (Shearsman, 2014) which was shortlisted for the 2014 Saltire Society Scottish Poetry Book of the Year Award, Our Real Red Selves (Vagabond Poets, 2015) and House of the Tragic Poet (If A Leaf Falls Press, 2016). She is especially interested in expanding dialogues through poetry across languages, perspectives and cultures and in cross-form work, visual art, dance, opera and theatre.

She has been published widely in journals, her poetry has been translated into Dutch, Spanish, Turkish, Polish, German, French and Greek and she has been featured at international poetry festivals in Scotland, Turkey, Cyprus and Canada (upcoming May 2016). She was selected to take part in the 2015 Jerwood Opera Writing Programme, was Writer-in-Residence for the British Art Show 8 in Edinburgh with the artist Catherine Street and plays in the poetry and music band Opul.

Williams gives regular poetry readings and workshops and is on the Live Literature funded list of Scottish Book Trust Authors. She is the programme manager at the Scottish Poetry Library where she curates poetry events and creates workshops and professional development activities for writers.

JL Williams on social media:



I was once asked by an acting teacher to leave the theatre to scream at a tree. I was playing a character who needed to get angry, really angry, and I wasn’t able to express the emotion properly, so she wanted me to go outside and practise. I stared at the tree, willing it into all the people who had ever done me harm, feeling the lump of pain and anger grow in my chest and begin to spin and burn, but I couldn’t let it out.

Years later, while trying to understand my own movement through and behaviours in this world, it became clear to me that I was still not very good at expressing my anger. I began to wonder how much this was down to my upbringing and peculiarities of my personality and how much it might have to do with the fact that I am a woman living in a patriarchal society. It seems obvious that the expectations of women and men to behave in particular ways, especially when it comes to emotions generally and anger in particular—and, by association, both expressed and repressed violence—have deep and painful implications for all of us.

Are men expected to be violent in ways that women are not? Are women allowed to express their anger openly? How are physically violent women judged in comparison to physically violent men? Would what we call strength in a male hero be called the same in a female hero? Is non-violence in a woman respected less, and expected more, than non-violence in a man?

These questions, and many others including ones that consider the opposite end of the spectrum of emotions for men, intrigue me, and I’ve been exploring them in my writing. The key to peace may be to seek a balance between extremes, and it is of no use for any of us to deny or be denied the full range of our emotions; our anger and our joy, our darkness and our light.

In the end I did manage to scream in that play, and what stays with me is the sense of relief I felt at finally making my loudest sound.


A recording of these poems was made into a film-poem as part of the Second Space project. Watch and listen to the poems here.



Market at Golgotha


I am interested in the sound of light

I am interested in violence, specifically

women’s violence

I am interested in the way the mouth

of a woman is like the wound in the palm

of Jesus, I am interested

in the layering of voices a cacophony of voices

a cacophony of women’s voices a cacophony

of screams a cacophony of orgasms a

cacophony of women outraged at the repression

of their instincts kicking sexuality or of the

boxing of their lust into a lit screen whose noise

is the strobe of men weeping; all those bright, rectangular,

glinting, crystal, touch screen tears


The more you touched it the more

I couldn’t feel you


When a quiet woman gives birth she learns

how joyful it is to scream


When I was a virgin

I used to hyperventilate

thinking that’s what men



In the garden the spears of flowers

are the spears of the legionnaires

who aimed between the ribs of Jesus


Women collected the tears

of the soldiers in crystal vials

Sold them to make enough money

to buy out their pimps


Except for one whore, my mother,

who preferred the truth



arroyo where last you


who in sleep dreams

and weeps for dreams

dead horses inability

move toward the desired

thirst wake both wet and dry

taste in mouth sand cactus water

hot brown legs feel

gold hair soft as muzzle of a woke horse


flail in the heat a white bird bent from sky


good enough for him

good enough for

beyond the good

bad beyond

that love


hairs and thread

thick rubbery

thin flexible

endless playing out

strands of hot glass

rope sewn

devils split cheek elastic thread



this lit theatre


broken things

cornbread and black coffee

chestnut smoke

sweat stained saddle leather


forget to wake you

duty to wake

wake you treachery gun shots

wake you panting

wake you


still sleeping

white flesh beneath my collar


boys lit the fire

ate supper coyotes

sang pine trees

the wind

how dark winter when the sun goes


slept in a circle heads

on saddles horses

learned to keep close

our language

their breaths

the long lost ocean


does not understand

the words hazy skein of dusk

in my mouth her man

has a boys hands

soft unable to shuck


vulgar gold

dont stop a man



slept not far from a creek

last night couldn’t hear a heart beat

for the water you

forgot beneath the noise

your aspirations the sapphire

of your eyes the racing water





I want to hold you under water until you stop struggling

then raise you again, watch you remember how good it is to breathe.


Wealthy children embellish their skins with cuts and burns,

starve in waxy houses to change into matchsticks.


I want to pour wine down your gullet holding your nose,

explain I come from a womb laced with wire and light.


Cars drive off bridges, buildings are downed by small planes.

Mothers in kitchens have no tools to cut the raw meat.

The meat is poisoned and greenish, it smells of a flood.


I want to cover your mouth and eyes with my hands,

release my grip when your tears lubricate tense palms.


Nostalgic technophobes cower beneath a gas globe.

Circumference of its orange cast grows more narrow.

Men and boys shove women toward its iron post.

They tell each other how good it was in the old days,

pointing out beautiful clichés like powder, mellifluence.

Armies of nano-economies dilute the city,

buoy me up as ants erecting an altar.


I want to watch you crush your scion in hopelessness,

beg you to stop, explain that you’re almost ready

to appreciate your particular, exceptional gifts.