13 Questions with John Yamrus

by HST UK on November 2, 2011

John Yamrus has been a fixture on the poetry scene since 1970. He’s published eighteen volumes of poetry, two novels and his work is widely published in magazines around the world. His poems have been taught at both the high school and the college level and selections of his work have been translated into several languages, including Spanish, Swedish, Italian, French, Japanese and Romanian. His work has been described by the great Milner Place as “… a blade made from smooth honest steel, with the sharpest of edges.”

John kindly took the time to answer our 13 Questions.

HST: As a dog owner I strongly identified with what I would call your ‘dog poems’. One in particular ‘a really bad poem about a real good dog…’ from your New And Selected Poems collection stood out for me, it reminded me of the time when my dog got attacked, and his bite wound developed an infection, I disinfected the leg, and let the dog rest, but he wasn’t right, and when I let him out for some fresh air, he went off to die. I ended up having to carry my dog into my car and run him down to the vets, luckily he survived that scare. Isn’t strange how dogs have that quiet dignity? When it’s time to go, they will attempt to leave at their own accord, no bedside vigils, they’ll go out alone. Tell me about your dogs, past and present?

We’ve had 4 over the years, three cocker spaniels and our current dog, Abby, who’s mentioned by name in the poem on page 108 of my book DOING CARTWHEELS ON DOOMSDAY AFTERNOON. She’s a Polish lowland sheepdog. Just think of a downsized sheep dog. What’s interesting is that they’re all cool. All different. And possessing (like you said) that quiet dignity. I learn more from dogs than people. Coincidentally, my next two books will have dog themes. The first one will be an illustrated children’s book about 2 dogs (a brother and sister), based on the two we had just before Abby. The book that will immediately follow that will be an illustrated collection of the best of my dog poems from all my books over the years, along with a bunch of brand new dog poems.

HST: The immediacy of your poems strikes a chord. I devoured can’t stop now! and doing cartwheels on doomsday afternoon over a few good cups of coffee. Have you noticed your writing appealing particularly to the Twitter generation, those kids with a need for speed and short attention spans?

That’s something i never considered. Over the years, as i got a little bit better at what i’m doing i’ve learned that the toughest thing for a writer to learn is what NOT to say, and because of that the poems have grown shorter and shorter and shorter. I’ve learned more and more to get the reader involved in what I’m doing. Half of the information in my poems is provided by the reader, bringing their own sensibilities and experiences to the work.

HST: Aside from numerous books of poetry, you’ve also published two novels Someone Else’s Dream and Lovely Youth. I’m curious about these novels, are they available to buy, and what are they about?

Thank god they’re long out of print. They had their moments and they helped bring me along as a writer, but they were basically derivative crap that’s best forgotten. The one thing they DID do for me is teach me that the long form is not for me. as a writer, i’m a sprinter, not a long distance runner.

HST: ‘he said he was a writer…’ opens with the lines “like everybody does / these days”. Are you concerned that a number of people are not earning their stripes so to speak, and are claiming that they are ‘poets’ and ‘writers’ before they have achieved anything of note, is this a particular bugbear of yours?

PARTICULAR?!?! It drives me nuts. It seems these days like every man, woman and child out there is a poet, or claiming themselves to be. I never liked that title. I said it before and i’ll say it again, that it’s been thrown around so much as to have become meaningless and useless. No, i’m just a writer who chooses to write poems. Besides, i always felt that if you start calling yourself a poet it’s too easy to be proved a liar.

HST: I believe it was ‘The Killer’ Jerry Lee Lewis who once said “Either be hot or cold. If you are lukewarm, the Lord will spew you forth from his mouth.” Does your own approach to writing echo these sentiments? If you realize you’ve written a below par poem, are you quick to rip it up and start again?

I don’t save anything. I’ve got about 6 pages of notes and half-baked crap that’ll most likely eventually get thrown out. Most of the editing and rewriting i do these days is done in my head, on the fly, and that’s only because i’ve been doing this for so long that i’ve been able to reach that point. Of course, i make changes. Add things. Cut things out. But it’s all done really quick. And i’m not telling anyone else to do that. That’s just what works for me.

HST: You have a knack for nailing the end of a poem, nothing trails, the end is natural. Are you an agonizer when completing the poem, do you ever spend a great deal of time thinking to yourself, now how the hell do I finish this bastard?

Rarely. More often than not the beginning and the end of the poem come to me first and it’s just a matter of figuring out how to fill in the space between those two points. I’m sure that you’ve noticed that i don’t use traditional titles for my poems. That the “title” is just the first line of the poem. For me, traditional titles are like previews to a movie. They give away some of the story and cut down the suspense or surprise. I don’t want to be a part of that. I want my reader to start right in and be involved right from the first word.

HST: George Orwell once said “When one reads any strongly individual piece of writing, one has the impression of seeing a face somewhere behind the page. It is not necessarily the actual face of the writer.” When I read a Yamrus poem I can picture the writer. As the writer, do you deliberately put yourself into some of your poems; is there a Chinaski like alter-ego hiding within the words?

I like the questions you’re asking. I always tell people that if you want to get good at what you’re doing…to stand out from the crowd…you’ve got to do exactly what you said. You’ve got to put your face…your stamp…your personality into the poem. You’ve got to give the reader a reason to care and even get involved (emotionally). Because of that…because of my own personal desire to keep my poems and my points simple and subtle, and because of that some people have a tough time getting into my poems. They don’t get what i’m trying to do. It looks too simple to them and they miss the subtext. But, when they figure it out. When they “get” it. They get it deep.

HST: In a previous interview with you, you said that the last ‘great’ poem written was Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’. Can I trouble you to elaborate a little more on this point? Personally speaking, I think Ginsberg was undoubtedly a talented poet, though what put him apart from his peers was that he was able to create hype around that poem. I would say that no poet since Ginsberg has been able to sell a single poem, and make it seem vital.

Over the years i’ve kinda reassessed my thinking on Ginsberg. He was a good salesman at the right place and the right time and he took advantage of every opportunity that came his way. That obscenity trial didn’t hurt much, either. Of all the Beats, i think his work has held up the least. Time’s not been kind to Ginsberg. Not at all.

HST: Your writing ‘career’ (‘career’ is probably the wrong word since your writing is more important than being summarized like that) stretches back to the seventies, have there been any period since you first started, when life, or work, has prevented you from writing. In short, has there been any dry spells?

Absolutely! There was almost exactly a ten year period in which i wrote practically nothing at all. The magazines were drying up. Creatively, i was drying up and i had less and less contact with the publishers. Besides, the stuff i was writing was crap. I had a bunch of published books, but they didn’t feel like home to me. I hadn’t yet figured it out. So, i did the right thing and walked away. I went to the woodshed and re-thought my whole approach to poetry. Ten years. and when i came back, i was tougher, stronger and older. I finally knew what i was doing.

HST: Talk to me about the Poetry Readings you’ve given. Do you think that your poems are written to be read aloud? Are there any poems you’ve written that you’d think twice about ‘performing’?

Sure. Most of my poems work well when read out loud, but there’s some that just need to be allowed to work on the page. Then i’ve got a few (which i won’t mention here) that i absolutely thought were gonna be killers in performance, and after doing them a couple of times in public, i knew they were a big mistake and needed to be left alone.

HST: Wolfgang Carstens champions his poets like no other publisher I’ve came across. What has it been like working with Epic Rites Press?

I’ve had two books so far published by Epic Rites Press, with 3 more on the way. Nobody works harder at this than Wolf. Nobody has more passion for this than Wolf. I like to think that i bring some of that same passion to the table. Together, we’re a great combination. I seriously hate those writers who think they’re “artistes”…who think this is fun and games. Who fail to see that what we’re doing is bloodsport. If they don’t bring their passion…their blood, their guts, their bone to it…then i have no use for them at all. None, whatsoever.

HST: You reference Miles Davis a few times, has Davis, and his own attitude to his early years as a Jazz musician taught you to respect your poems written in the distant past, but leave them there where they represented a time and a place, and the person you were back when they were written?

I’ve always said that if you can bring yourself to listen to Miles Davis’ KIND OF BLUE, it’ll teach you all you need to know about writing well. Davis got more out of what he DIDN”T say than any musician ever. And it killed him to think of going back and doing old stuff over and over. He wanted change. He wanted to keep moving forward and he didn’t mind making mistakes…taking false steps…as long as it was new, it worked for him. That’s a great attitude to have. Keep moving forward. Don’t continue giving your audience what they want to hear from you, because they’ll eventually get bored and you’re dead. Look at Bob Dylan! He’s had countless changes. In fact, his entire career is one of continual forward movement and change. That’s why he’s lasted so long.

HST: You’re a self-confessed Proust obsessive. I’ve never read any of his work. Where should I, and anyone else who’s not encountered the Frenchman start?

I’ve read Proust more or less continuously for the last 40 years or so and i wouldn’t want to wish that hell on anyone. I’m still trying to figure him out. His work is really elusive and hard to pin down. To me, it’s kind of like a good conversation…or good jazz. It starts out and you have certain expectations about where that piece or that conversation is going to go and then someone hits a note or says something different and that music or that conversation goes off in a completely different direction. Is it the one you expected? No, but it’s still good. I think with Proust, the thing to do is just surrender yourself to the conversation and allow him to take you along on the journey. and the place to start? obviously volume 1 of the 6 volume IN SEARCH OF LOST TIME is the only place you CAN start. His description of the time just before falling asleep in his bedroom as a boy, is fascinating and will either hook you or it won’t. It’s kinda like this conversation here. I hope i’ve managed to bring something interesting to the table for you. I didn’t want to spend my time here by quoting poems of mine. I’ve always tried to see myself as a lunch pail kinda guy. I do my job. Get out of the way and go home. This interview was a lot of fun for me. You’ve asked different and interesting questions. I hope my answers lived up to the task. And if it’s stirred up some interest in my poetry…you can find my books on Amazon. the two newest ones (CAN’T STOP NOW! and DOING CARTWHEELS ON DOOMSDAY AFTERNOON) are the ones you should buy. They were published by Wolf. Send the love his way. Thanks a million!


John Yamrus reading at Crave Cafe


If you want to answer HST’s 13 Questions then email: aprilmaymarch777@yahoo.co.uk

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