Interview: The Transgressions of John Yamrus
Interview conducted by Nolcha Fox
NF: You have written works other than poetry, such as autobiographies. What else have you written? What did you like and dislike about other types of writing? What is it about poetry that makes it your favorite?
JY: That’s throwing a whole lot of stuff at the wall all at once, isn’t it? Let me answer your first question and we’ll take it from there and see where we end up. Actually, that’s kinda the same way I approach my writing...I look at it like a good conversation...it starts off in one direction, but if it’s good, it takes on a life (and direction) of its own. And over the course of my 52 years as a “working” writer (THAT’S a relative term, for sure!), I’ve published a lot more than just poetry, I always hated being labeled...shoved into a box...pigeonholed...whatever name you wanted to put on it. It was too restricting. So, over the course of my 35 books, there’s been a lot more than just the poems. There have been two really shitty novels. Three memoirs (available on Amazon), if you want to call them that, but I pretty much look at them like poems with a thyroid condition...and they’re REALLY good examples of what I mean when I talk about letting the work tell you where it wants to go. There’s nothing LINEAR about those books at all. MEMORY LANE and RMA are on the surface books about what it was like for me growing up in a less than affluent coal town back in the late ‘50s, and the other one, FIVE DOGS, is about the five we’ve loved over the years. I’m happy (maybe even proud) to say that none of them exist with a conventional plot, structure, or direction. I’ve also written a children’s book, but I always keep coming back to poetry. It’s like those two shitty novels I published...the only good thing they ever did for me was to show me that I’m a sprinter, not a long-distance runner. So, the short, hit-and-run feel that poetry gives me, just fits. That’s all...it fits.
NF: When you started writing poetry, did you experiment with forms other than free verse? If so, what led you to favor free verse? How did you develop your minimalist style?
JY: When I was a kid (I’m 71 now), I went through my Walt Whitman phase and my Ginsberg phase, but whatever phase I’m in now took hold really early and settled in fast and what you describe as my minimalism was just a natural progression as I figured out what I was doing and got better at it...I mean, at the end of the day, poetry is about saying as much as you can in as few words as possible, so, almost by definition, what I do IS poetry at a very basic level. Even in the longer forms like those memoirs, I don’t have time to mess around...the writing gets right to the point and moves on.
NF: Can you share a couple of your published poems?
in dog obedience class…
my little Abby
did everything right.
bite, jump or pull.
she paid attention
just like all the other dogs.
i can’t tell you how much
makes you bulletproof,
just to be
and proved him
his favorite color.
his favorite word
you wanted to
get technical about it).
it was kinda sorta fitting
that he had already turned his
favorite color that Sunday morning
they found him
face down under the Penn Street Bridge.
NF: Many poets focus on a specific theme (depression, grief, etc.). Their poetry is a means of healing from a traumatic circumstance or event. Have you ever used poetry in this way, and if so, are you willing to share what was going on in your life?
JY: I don’t think I can give an easy and clear answer to that, or point to one particular poem as an example because everything I write is about me, even when it’s NOT about me. The only thing I have to write about is me and how I am and how I look at the world. Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do? Isn’t that what they teach you in those writing classes? Write about what you know? I don’t know very much, but I know what it feels like when I run my hand thru my hair or look in the mirror or sit out in the yard and watch my dog taking a dump. I never really understood those writers who say they have nothing to write about...I mean, it’s all around you, every day, every minute, every time you wake up and open your eyes, the writing’s all there right in front of you and all you gotta do is write it down. It’s easy and if it’s not...you’re not doing it right.
NF: Your poetry seems to celebrate, or poke fun at, whatever is in front of you. Do you write for yourself, for others, or both? Why do you write? Why not golf or play cards or hang out at bars or travel instead?
JY: How do I answer that without sounding like more of a pompous ass than I already am? I know that I write for other people to read...for publication...for sharing...when you get right down to it, writing IS a performance art, but to do it right, you have to start small...you do it for yourself. Let me give you an example...when I’m writing something, if I sit down to write with an agenda...a goal...a point I want to make...it’s always, always, always crap. Always. But if I sit down to write and try and leave myself open to the experience...allow myself to let the poem (the words) take me where THEY want to go...man, that’s when it gets good and that’s when it gets fun.
NF: I go through periods when I can't seem to write a word, when even reading poetry is too much for my brain. Does this ever happen for you, and if so, how do you deal with it?
JY: Very early on that used to bother me...drive me up a wall...but, I reached a point where I started to understand that if it’s meant to, it’ll come back...and then I just kinda relaxed into the whole process, and it just got easier and easier, and then I started to understand that everything I DO is part of the process...even when I’m just sitting down and reading Proust, who is the very opposite of what I do as a writer, but for some reason, his stuff just speaks to me...it hits me at a very basic level. For me, Proust is like...like what Joan Baez once said about Bob Dylan...that not everybody gets him, but if you get him, you get him DEEP. There are several people that I get like that...deep...Dylan and Proust and Miles Davis...some things just click with me and they’re some of the people that click the loudest.
NF: What might cause you to stop writing for good? Or do you plan to write up to the time you take your last breath?
JY: That gets back to what I was saying about my whole approach to poetry, doesn’t it? My plan isn’t to start out at A and end up at Z. The plan is to get up every day and take a look at what’s there for me. And what’s there right now is my new book...and isn’t that or wasn’t that the reason for us doing this whole conversation? Talking about that new book...and for me, that new book IS our conversation, because it’s a 542-page record of the road I’ve been on...SELECTED POEMS: THE DIRECTOR’S CUT...I like that name...and it came about because I don’t have any guts. Last year, my publisher, Heath Brougher of Concrete Mist Press, wanted to bring out a 550-page monster of a book that looked back at the best of my stuff over the course of my time as a writer (we’re back where we started, now, aren’t we?)...and I chickened out. I told him he was gonna lose his shirt...I told him he was gonna lose his money bringing out a 550-page book of poems from a guy better known for what he DOESN’T say than what he does…but I was wrong...the book sold, and it sold really well. I tell ya I didn’t expect it...but it sold, and when it sold, Heath talked me into expanding the book and doing it the way HE originally wanted to do it, and so we went back and added more poems and the book swelled up like a blowfish until it was 542 pages long. I was scared that we had already reached as many readers as we were going to reach (it IS just poetry, after all, and everyone knows that poetry doesn’t sell), but I was wrong again, and the new book, SELECTED POEMS: THE DIRECTOR’S CUT, sold well enough to hit (briefly) #1 on Amazon, shocking me, my wife, my dog, and Heath. But it’s been fun...and even doing interviews like this has been fun, because they give me time to look at myself and think about where I’ve been and where I’m going...and isn’t that really what the writing’s supposed to be about? So, thanks...this really HAS been fun. I owe you one.
End of interview
Nolcha Fox has written all her life, starting with poop and crayons on the walls. Her poems have been published in Lothlorien Poetry Journal, Alien Buddha Zine, Medusa’s Kitchen, and others. Her chapbooks, My Father’s Ghost Hates Cats and The Big Unda are available on Amazon. In addition she is also a nominee Best of the Net for 2023 and editor for Kiss My Poetry.