I interviewed John Yamrus. His published works include 24 volumes of poetry (with three more due out this year) as well as two novels. John has had nearly 1,800 poems published in magazines around the world and has played an important role in promoting modern poetry through appearances on TV. His poems have been taught at both high school and college level in the USA
In answering my questions John, who is a free spirit, wrote: ‘I’m approaching it like I’m doing it live. In trying to keep myself open to the questions, I’m not reading ahead… trying to keep myself surprised. Except for spelling and things like that, I’m not going back and making corrections. I’m trying my best to keep it fresh for you’.
Leslie: Your first book came out in 1970. Can you describe the phases your writing has been through – how and why you (and it) have changed? Do you recall any standout moments/key anecdotes that set you back or moved you on?
John: I think over the years my writing has gone through three distinct stages… 1. Uninformed… 2. Informed… 3. Uninformed. Seriously, though, when I started out, I really had no clue what I was doing. Like everyone else, at the beginning, I was very imitative in my work. I wanted to be the next Jack Kerouac. I even went so far as to get my hands on a roll of paper like Kerouac did. In my case it wasn’t teletype paper… just a great big roll of shelf paper that I stuck into my typewriter and wailed away. What set me back? Trying to jam that thing into the machine and keep it from rolling all over the floor.
Leslie: How has the world of writing & audiences changed during the 40+ years you’ve been published?
John: Good question. Writing… and the audiences for the writing… have become VERY segmented. In poetry, my “field”, there are so many different groups… Formalists… New Formalists… Modernists… Outlaw Poets… and on and on. And each group has its heroes… its theorists and champions. You can be REALLY well known and popular in one group and totally unknown to the followers of another. I’ve been doing this for 46 years now, and every day I encounter people who have never heard of me and never read a single poem of mine. It used to kind of bother me, but now it’s just a simple fact of life. I do the writing, and if people are drawn to it, fine… if they’re not, that’s outside my control.
Leslie: I think you admire Walt Whitman. On the face of it, his massively extended line is very different from yours. What attracts you to him? What do you draw from his example?
John: Whitman WAS a big influence… I think he still is, although for drastically different reasons. Like everyone else who loves Whitman, he got into my head and freed me. He was fearless in a way that had never been seen before. Looking at him IN CONTEXT… as a product of his time, the work is just amazing. It still is.
Leslie: Who else has significantly influenced you, and how?
John: I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again… beyond the obvious LITERARY influences, my writing has been greatly influenced by people like Miles Davis… just listening to his KIND OF BLUE will teach you all you need to know about writing. Miles Davis understood the very real power of silence. He saw that what you didn’t say was just as important as what you did. Translating that thought to writing, listening to Miles Davis taught me to look at not only the words and their power, but also to look at the entire page… the white spaces… the blankness… the silence… they’re all very powerful tools. Once I began to understand and appreciate that, things started to open up for me.
Leslie: How do you involve your audience? What games/teases/conundrums do you use? How do you plant suggestions in their heads?
John: That was a big moment for me. I mean, once I figured out that the audience is part of the poem… once I made that connection, the whole world opened up to me and my writing got really really easy. Let me give you an example. Poetry (at least in theory) is all about condensing things… leaving things out… that goes back to Miles Davis…. and, as I tried to say more and more with fewer words, I reached a point where I was at an impasse. I was stuck. I was looking for help. I actually quit writing for nearly ten years while I tried to figure it out. And then, one day, as clear as anything, I saw the answer right there in front of me. It was the reader… the READER was the factor that was missing in my work. I had spent years and years trying to explain everything… to lay everything out… to give it to the reader whole and complete… and it suddenly dawned on me that the reader was the missing factor in all my work. Once I figured that out, everything got really easy for me. Let me give you an example. Here’s a poem that’s a perfect example of what I’m trying to say:
“write a poem about THAT,”
Fifteen words is all it took for me to see that getting inside the reader’s head was the answer to everything. Once I figured that out… once I saw that everything that goes on in that poem takes place OFF THE PAGE… my work got a whole lot easier.
Leslie: Can you define the emotional territory your poems inhabit? Do you have favourite subjects/situations that work well for you?
John: I don’t know. I think the minute you try to define something, you place limits on it. I don’t want to have limits on my poems. I don’t want people to come to my work EXPECTING something. I did a reading a couple of months ago and after the reading this woman comes up to me and she had this look on her face… she looked disappointed. I thought she was going to buy a book, but she didn’t. She walked up to me and said “You don’t write like you used to. This new book’s different.” I guess she meant it maybe as a cut, but I took it as a compliment… if I kept giving the reader the same thing over and over it’d get old really fast. They’d get bored and I’d get bored. I’d rather fail trying something new, than get really good at doing the same thing over and over.
Leslie: Before you publish you put your poems into a sequence, so that they can be read as a narrative. Why do you do that? Does it spark new poems or changes in what you’ve written or signpost where you’re going next?
John: In the books, when things are working right, there’s a natural progression… a very distinct beginning, middle and end. I think it adds something to the enjoyment of the work.
Leslie: ‘Brevity is the soul of wit’ – how do you choose the exact words and their order + layout + orthography that go into a finished poem?
John: That process has really changed a lot for me over the years. It used to be done all in front of me, on the page… and now I kind of see it already formed, in my head. I know that’s a really poor explanation, but the process has evolved for me… it’s changed with practice. It’s just like anything else… the more you do it (hopefully) the better you get at it.
Leslie: How do you try to achieve authenticity and avoid gimmickry in poetry?
John: That’s a REALLY good question. Like anything else, poetry CAN become just trickery… smoke and mirrors. It’s easy to get lazy and become a caricature of yourself. That’s why the minute I hear someone talking about a “John Yamrus poem”, it’s time for a change. There’s a really delicate balance between having a recognizable voice and always being fresh and new. That’s where not being afraid to fail comes in.
Leslie: Are the illustrations in your books reflections or extensions of the text? How do you work creatively with your illustrator?
John: I’ve done two books now with the amazing Swedish artist Janne Karlsson… he and I first worked together in my book ALCHEMY. He did eight illustrations for that book and I immediately saw the possibilities for something new and fresh that extended beyond the limits of pure poetry. His drawings expanded the poems and added a new twist. I liked that. He and I then collaborated on my book BURN, which was fully illustrated. It made for a really interesting dance between the poems and the drawings. I liked it so much that he and I then worked on illustrating a large selection of previously published poems of mine. The book will be out later this year. It’s called REAL AS RAIN and he and I pushed the limit about as far as we could. He makes me think. The book I’m working on now won’t have any illustrations. The poems will once again have to stand on their own. How exciting is that!
Leslie: If there are factors such as the space around the words, the ‘unseen background concerns’ etc etc that resonate through your writing (without being obviously present) – could you describe what they are and how you see them working?
John: I think that surprise is a part of the element. And humor. Irony… and, hopefully, a little shot of not taking myself too seriously. Don’t get me wrong… I mean, I take the work VERY seriously, but too many writers fail to see the humor in the dirt under their fingernails, and the wrinkles in their pants. I don’t see any real difference between the work of a really good poet and (for example) a carpenter… they both give you something new and fresh and interesting to look at and think about.
Leslie: What are your views on arbitrariness and random effects across the arts? Have you experienced serendipity as a writer?
John: I think that chance and surprise plays a huge part… you do the work… you practise… you get comfortable with the basics and do it over and over and over again and then one day something unexpected happens… a mistake… whatever… and it gives you a fresh look at something and it takes you in an entirely unexpected direction. I love that. I think that’s why people like musician Captain Beefheart 40 years after the fact are still interesting to us.
Leslie: Given your experience of being edited into small segments for TV, what do you think about people’s so-called ‘limited attention span’ in relation to reading/listening? If there is a problem, is it the fault of modernist & ‘difficult’ poetry or an impatient and reductionist media? Where do your readers stand in all this, and are there cultural differences across the world?
John: Doing tv is what it is… you’re kind of tied into the format of whatever show you’re on. I’ve had it both ways… I’ve been on shows where I’ve been the only guest for the entire program and I got to talk at length and that’s worked (and NOT), and I’ve been on shows where they pre-recorded my appearance and then cut it into segments that fit THEIR format and their program ideas. It’s a necessary evil. It gets the word out. I guess anything that will bring people to poetry is at the end of the day a very good thing.
Leslie: Would you call part of what you do ‘performance poetry’? What’s the difference between delivering live poetry and poetry on the page?
John: Am I a performance poet? Not in the least! And, yes, there’s a HUGE difference between delivering live poetry and poems done just on the page. Performance is SO much more forgiving. Someone who feels comfortable on a stage… who has a certain presence… who looks right and smiles… that person can get away with delivering lousy poems and fooling an audience into thinking they’ve had an experience… because, I guess, they HAVE… they’ve been entertained. The performance poet has done his or her job and helped the audience forget about the world for whatever time it takes. I guess that makes it a success. Me? I’ll do it when I have to, but I’m mostly content sticking to the page.
Leslie: Why do you write?
John: To keep the ghosts from the door.
somebody take my picture, quick!
Kathy’s upstairs baking something.
i don’t know what it is, but
the recipe calls for whiskey.she asked me to get it for her,
so i dug a bottle
of Jack Daniels
out of the liquor cabinet.it’s right now sitting on top of
the desk in front of me,
along with my reading glasses
and some poems i just finished.
it’d make a great picture…
the hard-drinking and harder-living
knocking off the poems
and the JD
with equal skill.
a great picture.
take it now.
take it now and
i’ll sign it for you.
take it now and
i’ll give you twenty bucks
to go away.
take it now before you go upstairs
and take that other picture…
you know the one…
in an apron,
taking cookies from the oven.
—from One Step At A Time
John’s new book I ADMIT NOTHING can be pre-ordered here.
ABOUT LESLIE TATE’S BOOKS:
- Love’s Register tells the story of romantic love and climate change over four UK generations. Beginning with ‘climate children’ Joe, Mia and Cass and ending with Hereiti’s night sea journey across Oceania, the book’s voices take us through family conflicts in the 1920s, the pressures of the ‘free-love 60s’, open relationships in the feminist 80s/90s and a contemporary late-life love affair. Love’s Register is a family saga and a modern psychological novel that explores the way we live now.
- Heaven’s Rage is a memoir that explores addiction, cross-dressing, bullying and the hidden sides of families, discovering at their core the transformative power of words to rewire the brain and reconnect with life. “A Robin Red breast in a Cage / Puts all Heaven in a Rage” – William Blake. You can read more about/buy Heaven’s Rage here.
- The Dream Speaks Back, written by Sue Hampton, Cy Henty and Leslie Tate, is a joint autobiography exploring imagination and the adult search for the inner child. The book looks at gender difference, growing up in unusual families and mental health issues. It’s also a very funny portrait of working in the arts, full of crazy characters, their ups and downs, and their stories. You can buy a signed copy of The Dream Speaks Back here
Wonderful interview. The only thing better than reading John talk about his poetry is reading the poems themselves!