“No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money,” said the prolific 18th Century writer Samuel Johnson, according to his contemporaneous biographer, James Boswell. Non-writers may easily miss Johnson’s primary message here, but people who have spent any serious time with the pen never will: Writing is work.
Few writers today seem to understand this as well as poet John Yamrus. With 27 books to his credit—25 volumes of poetry and 2 novels—Yamrus has doggedly chiseled out a body of work that is accessible and original—no small feat given that his poetry falls squarely in the thematic and stylistic territory staked out by famous predecessors such as Charles Bukowski and Gerald Locklin. But Yamrus has emerged from their shadows. Honing a style that has become increasingly stripped down, minimal, it’s characterized by humor, insight, self-deprecation, and a recurring message: If you want to succeed as a writer, you’ll have to be “willing to work hard and deal with constant rejection.”
Shortly after the publication of Yamrus’ latest book, I Admit Nothing, I talked with him about Bukowski’s legacy, Yamrus’ own work, and the world of poetry today.
Dougherty: John, I get the impression that a lot of readers of non-academic verse are a tad despondent, as they wait for the next Bukowski to appear. Is it time to move on?
Yamrus: Think about it. The man’s been dead more than 20 years now, and when anyone talks about modern poetry, his name is still the first to come up. That ought to say something about his influence and the void he created when he went room temperature. The really sad thing about it is that he launched a slew of talentless imitators who don’t even get the point. All they see with Bukowski is the drinking and the horses and women. They totally miss the point.
Dougherty: And what are the imitators trying to achieve, anyway? Is it even possible to gain a following today like Bukowski did in his days, which were largely pre-Internet?
Yamrus: I’m sure that’s what they’re hoping. But consider it realistically: Bukowski was a rock star. I mean, he certainly had the talent, but he also had the image and the smarts to be able to market it. He was able to wear those two hats that any successful writer has to wear. He took care of the art, and he was also smart enough to know that without readers, the art would go to waste.
Dougherty: Who’s writing today that really excites you on a consistent basis?
Yamrus: That’s a good question. I was just talking about this the other day. I spend a lot of money buying poetry books. First off, I feel it’s extremely important, for a lot of reasons, to buy books of poetry. The authors need to be supported, and these publishers—bless ‘em—they spend money they often can ill afford just to keep guys like me in print, and they don’t live on air. I make it a point to buy at least one book of poetry a week, especially books that are out of the mainstream, that aren’t readily available in the big chain bookstores.
So who do I read? Whose work consistently pleases, interests and challenges me? I recently discovered a guy named Victor Clevenger; he’s very good. Wolf Carstens, my publisher, never disappoints. And Mark Statman and Rob Plath. There are a couple of others, for sure, but the list is very, very short.
Dougherty: Why do you think the list is so short, given the number of people out there writing poetry?
Yamrus: For the most part, people are content and secure writing what’s safe and expected. As writers, they don’t have any guts; they’re scared to try anything new or challenging. They’re afraid to lose readers, and they keep giving their audience and editors and publishers what they expect rather than what they really need. Good writing—good writing—is very hard to find.
your writing’s good,
is you’re giving them
something they’ve seen before.
on your face.
Dougherty: I’m convinced, though, that the actual audience for poetry is quite small. Just look at how much space is devoted to poetry in your typical book store. If you can even find poetry there, it’s crammed into part of one shelf, typically. So my point is this: How can you lose any more readers than you’ve already lost? I would think most publishers would be looking for work that’s going to wake people up, make poetry exciting.
Yamrus: You would think that, wouldn’t you? That’s not the way it works. It’s like the movies. Most movies and TV shows are trying to duplicate a successful formula. They’re really not looking for something new. That’s too hard and too risky a proposition. It’s a lot easier to play it safe and try to capture lightning in a bottle a second or third time around. As for the disappearing shelf space given to poetry in bookstores, I don’t blame them one bit. These are tough times. They’ve got to account in dollars for every inch of shelf they have. If it’s not making money, it’s gone. I don’t have a problem with that. I don’t mind competing. I don’t mind having to go out and work to find readers for my poems and books. That’s just part of the game.
That brings me to another thing that I just don’t understand about most aspiring writers. They all want to have books out. They all want to be published. That’s understandable. But the truth is, anyone with a thick skin, who’s willing to work hard and deal with constant rejection, can get a book published. The trick and answer lies in getting people to buy those books. Do that and you’ve accomplished two big things: you’ve gotten the work read, and you’ve made the publishers happy. It’s a win/win situation. But most aspiring writers never completely understand.
Dougherty: Let’s talk about your own poetry. Describe your revision process or your personal vetting process. What gets thrown out and why?
Yamrus: I’ve been writing and publishing a long, long time now. My first book came out in 1970, smack in the middle of the mimeo revolution. In a sense, I’m kind of a contemporary of guys like Bukowski and Wantling, of Locklin and Levy and Richmond. I’ve been writing a long time, and when you do anything for this length of time, you eventually get the hang of it. So, when I’m writing now, most of the editing and correcting is done in my head before it ever reaches the page.
i’ll ever be able
Now things get written out, tweaked a little bit, and completed. It also goes hand in hand with the fact that I know what I want to do and I feel much more comfortable leaving a lot of the poem in the hands of the reader. By that I mean that I don’t feel it’s necessary to spell things out for the readers. I don’t feel right hitting them over the head with any great “meaning” or idea. They’re either smart enough to figure it out for themselves or they’re not. Also, by engaging the reader, by leaving a lot of the poem open to their input and interpretation, it makes the poems, even though they’re getting shorter and shorter, that much bigger.
When we were kids, wasn’t one of the definitions of poetry that it says a lot in as few words as possible? The poems are short. The responsibility for the interpretation and much of the writing is in the hands of the reader, and everyone gets to go home happy.
Dougherty: Often your poems snake down the page, one word at a time. Could you talk about your use of extremely short lines? Your poetry did not always take this form, did it? Why the evolution?
Yamrus: My poems, over the years, have grown shorter and shorter and shorter. That’s mostly out of a growing respect for the reader, trusting her to fill in the blanks. These poems of mine don’t really exist without the input and intelligence of the reader. I also find them more challenging for everyone concerned.
People tend to forget that poetry is a hyper kind of language. It’s about saying as much as you can in as few words as possible. It’s a balancing act, a tight-rope walk. These writers who get too wordy and cute with their poems, they’re like that guy at the party who just won’t shut up, won’t leave you alone in your corner of the room, your tequila, and the wild and happy fact that in 20 more minutes you get to go home.
Dougherty: How do you distinguish between poetry and prose cut up into short lines?
Yamrus: For me, poetry is like riding in a train, looking out the window at the world passing by. All you get to see are snapshots and snippets of what you know for sure is a wider world; the rest of it you have to make up as you go along. Poetry is about what’s left unsaid, the white spaces on the page. Prose can fill in the blanks. Poems stand or fall on what’s never been said.
Dougherty: What do you find to be the greatest challenge when writing or revising?
Yamrus: I already said that I do very little revising once it hits the page. As for the writing, the greatest challenge has always been keeping myself interested and motivated and driven. I never was one who bothered with waiting around to be “inspired.” Inspiration is for amateurs. It’s like anything else: you get up, wash your face, and do the work. If it turns out to be good, that’s icing on the cake. But regardless, you get up and do the work. I can never stress that enough.
I talk to tons of aspiring writers who just can’t wait to tell me about all the things they’re going to write. The good things. The great things. They’ve got plans.
I’d much rather have them come up to me and show me something that they wrote. I don’t care if it’s good or bad; just get the writing done. The good or bad will take care of itself. Talk’s cheap. Work takes time and effort.
the only thing
than a writer
to being a writer.
5 foot 7,
Dougherty: What do you think of poetry readings? Last one I went to, everyone in the audience was either a poet or seemingly related to a poet.
Yamrus: The older I get, the less I’m inclined to want to do readings, especially readings with open mics. It’s like you said, at things like that everyone in the audience is either a poet waiting to read or somehow related to the poet who’s waiting to read, and they’re not in the least paying attention. They’re all looking down, shuffling papers, waiting for their name to be called.
It’s tough. I get it. It’s just that I don’t feel the need to compete with them anymore. The only one I’m competing with anymore is myself, and that’s a fight I’ll never win.
Dougherty: Does poetry have an audience outside of poets themselves?
Yamrus: You bet your ass it does! All it takes is for a writer to be smart enough to figure out who his audience is. If all you’re doing is writing for other writers, the work will never thrive. If you can see and reach beyond that, you’ve got it made. Whitman did it. Bukowski did it. The audience isn’t sitting at table 4 at the reading in the coffee house; the real audience is in the back, cooking the food or waiting to clear the table.
About John Yamrus
John Yamrus’s latest book, I Admit Nothing (Epic Rites Press), is available now. You can find many of his other books on Amazon.com. He’s currently working on a new volume of selected poetry, As Real As Rain, illustrated by Swedish artist Janne Karlsson.
You can reach John through his Web site, johnyamrus.com.