Vlad Savich: Dear readers, today I am interviewing the writer John Yamrus. I do not know much about him.
John, please, tell us about yourself, about your creativity… whatever you want.
John Yamrus: Well, that’s an interesting question, and actually one that I’m not asked that often, even after nearly 50 years as a working writer. My “creativity”, huh? If I can substitute “curiosity” there, maybe I can give you an answer. The facts are simple. Like I said, I’ve been a “working” writer (more or less) for nearly 50 years now… my first book came out in 1970. Since that time I’ve been lucky enough to have published 25 books of poetry, two very very bad novels and my latest, newest book, Memory Lane, is a bit of a change of pace for me… a little memoir of what it was like for me growing up less than wealthy in a Pennsylvania coal town in the 1950s. The book’s interesting (to me, at least) because I didn’t want to write one of those self-important memoirs where everything I did or thought or saw was surrounded in a holy golden glow, and actually, I tried to keep myself out of the book as much as I possibly could as I wanted to concentrate on those people and things that interested me and that I wanted to tell people about and that I didn’t want to forget. I’ve said it in interviews that I’ve done about the book that growing up when I did and where I did was kinda like growing up in the middle of a Tennessee Williams play, filled with unforgettable characters… all I had to do was sit there and write it all down. it almost didn’t take any creativity at all… just a dogged determination to sit down every day at my desk and get to work. Of course, that’s what my whole career has been about… I always wanted to be the kind of a writer who took the work seriously. I’ll leave “inspiration” to the other guy… I’m interested mostly in the very real challenge of sitting down every day of my life and getting the work done.
VS: The Russian poet Yevgeny Evtushenko somehow said, “A poet in Russia is more than a poet.” Tell me, what a poet means in the U.S. and what role does he play in American society?
JY: I really don’t know how to answer that, for a whole lot of reasons… but, I’ll give it a shot. First off, I really don’t consider myself a poet… For a whole lot of reasons… and I know that you’re gonna cite the fact that I’ve published 25 books of poetry and that more than qualifies me as a poet… but, I really don’t think so. To me… let me back up a bit… when I was growing up… just a kid… poets (REAL poets) were guys like Whitman and Poe and Ginsberg and Byron and Keats… to even THINK of putting myself in the same room with people like that felt like the biggest sort of lie I could ever imagine. I still feel that way.
Sure, there’s countless numbers of people willing and anxious to call themselves poets… dying and crying to be seen as someone sensitive and artistic and everything… that whole scene just isn’t right for me. I don’t have the time for it. What I want to do is just do my job and put the work out and let people decide for themselves whether the work is any good or not. But, I’m kinda getting away from your original question maybe because I honestly don’t have a real answer for it… “what kind of a role does a poet play in American society?” …nothing. None. Poets are court jesters. Always were and always will be. Every now and then one of them gets lucky and captures lightning in a bottle and for a minute or two or three manages to make a difference, but that’s about it. As far as I’m concerned, poets are irrelevant. Even me. Especially me. If I had my choice I’d much rather have spent my time as a competent electrician or plumber… at least there’s some real money in that… and if you’re good enough at it, you don’t have to go out begging and crying for work. I’d do that any day of the week instead of coming down here day after day after day, staring at this blank screen, trying to come up with something that’d stop me from wanting to pull my hair out at the roots. I know that doesn’t really answer your question, but that’s about all I’ve got.
VS: In your career, among other things, you’ve published 25 books of poetry. This is a great accomplishment, but, tell me please… honestly… do you feel you’re writing good poetry?
JY: I hope I don’t come off as sounding too full of myself, but, yeah, I think I AM writing well. It took me a hell of a long time to reach this point… to where I feel confident and sure and right every time I sit down to work… but, yeah. I bet it wasn’t until I was maybe 50 years old, with at least a dozen books under my belt when I actually felt like I knew what I was doing. CONSISTENTLY knew what I was doing. One of the most common questions I get asked by interviewers or aspiring writers is what kind of advice I’d give to anyone wanting to do this, and there’s two things I always offer… one is to make sure you do something every day. Ya gotta treat this like the job that it is… sure, it’s an art, but like anything else in life, if you want to get good at it, you’ve got to do it every day. Even if it’s just a couple of minutes, you’ve got to do it every day. Every day. Every day… because a day wasted is gone forever. If you’re one of those jamokes who’s waiting around for “inspiration” to hit, you’re fooling yourself and you’re wasting your time. then, the second piece of advice I always offer (and this is the harder one of the two) is that a writer’s got to eventually find a voice… something that separates you from the pack. Something uniquely your own. I mean… as an example… play just a couple of notes from Miles Davis or Carlos Santana or B.B. King, and you immediately know who it is you’re listening to. The same thing works for writers… read a couple of lines of Proust and there’s no getting around the fact that it’s Proust. It’s a tough thing to do, but if you can find your own kind of voice, then, man, you’re on the right track. So, to answer your question (and I’m sorry I allowed myself to get off the track)… I don’t know. I’m not sure. I just know that it feels real good.
VS: Every day. Every day. No Day without a Line: From Notebooks by Russian writer Yury Olesha.
What is the main meaning of all your books?
JY: I don’t think there’s a “meaning” to my books…or even an overall theme. I think the thing that I’ve TRIED to do (with moderate success) is shine a light on the small moments we all have in our lives. Like I said earlier, it took me a good long time before I felt I really knew how to write. for years and years I tried to write the one great poem… I was banging my head against a wall trying to come up with something that would work for me… and then one day like a flash I figured it out… for me, at least… the answer for ME was to relax and not TRY to write the great big bomber poem… MY skill (however you judge it) is in writing about the things that people see every day and overlook… I’m more than happy to write about a hair on the end of my nose, or cleaning up dog poop in the yard… simple, stupid stuff… stuff that doesn’t feel like anything great or interesting, but when looked at in total adds up to something cool. That’s my niche…and then when I started to figure out that the reader’s a whole lot smarter than pretty much any writer out there… that I didn’t have to spell out or explain everything in a poem… then, man, my job got a whole lot easier and the writing got a whole lot better. Does that make sense to you? I hope to god it does.
VS: “a writer’s got to eventually find a voice… Miles Davis or Carlos Santana”
The guitar and the trumpet have a sound. Does a letter have a sound?
JY: if you’re meaning do WORDS have a sound? Of course…listen to Poe’s “The Bells”, which we all learned or at least read in school… or read some Hemingway… he’s certainly got a sound of his own. I don’t want to get repetitive on this, but good writing is OFTEN recognizable by the sound… not just poetry, but prose, too. There’s just so many factors that come into play when talking about writing… ah, let me back up a bit… read Kerouac… especially something like Big Sur… that book is all about SOUND. He even famously ended that book with a pretty shitty poem called “Sea” in which he tried (and failed, if you ask me) to conjure up the sounds of the sea as he heard it at Big Sur. But, I actually really hate talking about the process of writing… it always falls way too short. I’m much more comfortable talking about the events surrounding a piece of writing or the whys and wheres of writing… it’s just the HOW that always gives me a great big pain in the ass… which is why (I guess) I would never make a very good teacher… and every time I get the offer to run a workshop I always always always turn it down, because it’d be a waste of time for me and anyone crazy enough to want to take the class. next question!
VS: Can denunciation (public condemnation of someone or something… the action of informing against someone) be a literature genre?
JY: Of course! I mean, just to name one famous example, look at “J’accuse…!”, Zola’s public denunciation of the Dreyfus Affair. Practically ALL literature is about the act of denouncing someone or something… if you write something, it’s almost a given that you’re taking some sort of a stand. Whether it’s Kerouac in every single one of his books railing against conformity and the boredom of everyday life, or John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath condemning big government’s lack of sympathy for human dignity. Everyone who writes… anyone with any balls at all… the minute they start to write from their heart instead of their head and their wallet takes a stand for something and joins the fight. I don’t care who you are or what you write, you’re ultimately (like it or not) taking a stand.
VS: Who is your favorite literature hero?
JY: I’m not sure I totally understand the question. do you mean my favorite hero/character in literature? Or, do you mean my favorite writer? Just to cover my ass I’ll answer it both ways.
To answer the first question… I’ve got tons of favorite characters (some are heroes and some aren’t) …the first that comes to mind is Tom Joad, maybe because I was just talking about The Grapes of Wrath… but Tom was cool and tough and mean and lean… very much the character Henry Fonda played in the movie version, which for my money is one of the greatest book to movie conversions ever made. I also love Count Dracula in Stoker’s novel, for pretty much the same reason… I mean, Dracula WAS cool (he almost had to be, he was DEAD, wasn’t he?) and tough and mean and lean. Dracula is one of those books that I pull out and read again and again. Over the years I guess I’ve read it at least a dozen or more times. For a writer, it’s a great example of how to create a mood and build suspense. on top of that, the book is just plain sexy as hell. Another favorite of mine is Edmund Dantes in The Count of Monte Cristo. It’s a lousy, badly written book, but Dantes is so driven and conflicted and flawed… he just gets to me. As for favorite writers… I don’t even know where to begin. over the course of my life the list has changed and grown and shrunk and grown again and again, with countless names making the list… people like Bukowski and Whitman and Proust (I’ve read Proust more or less constantly my entire life since I was a kid and I’m 67 years old now, so that will give you some idea just how much I love Proust) and Steinbeck and of course Zola and Tolstoy and Trollope. For the names of favorite writers I really could go on all day, but I’ll let those few names stand (and sink in) for now.
VS: “Do you mean my favorite writer?” What is the book (the only one) you would you take with you to live on that uninhabited island?
JY: That one’s easy. Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. While I only know the work in English and am really partial to an earlier (less precise) translation of the title, which I always think of by that earlier translation: Remembrance of Things Past… I just love Proust… and, like I said before, I’ve been reading him more or less constantly since I was a kid. With that having been said, every time I pick up that great and massive and wonderful book I get lost in it and find new and interesting things in it. it never fails to entertain me and frustrate me (it IS Proust, after all!) and amazes me. It’s the one great book that I don’t think everyone can get through, but I think that everyone should read.
VS: The Harry Potter books have sold millions of copies. JK Rowling is one of the richest writers in the world.
Tell me, please, are the Harry Potter series good books?
JY: What do you want me to say? That it’s not? Well, hell, yes…it’s a VERY good book, for all sorts of reasons… the main one is that it’s good old fashioned storytelling that moves along like that lightning bolt on Harry’s head!
VS: I think that in the future, the written language will change. Are you trying to come up with new letters, punctuation, etc., etc.?
JY: You’re giving me a whole lot more credit than I could ever hope to deserve or want or need. trust me… it’s hard enough for me to come down here every day where I’m sitting right now, answering your questions. I think, if anything, the only thing I can take any small kind of credit for is reigning in poetry a bit… making it smaller… more concise… a bit truer to what poetry (by definition) is… which is language condensed to the utmost degree. I find that the older I get… hopefully the better I get as a writer, the smaller and tighter my poems get. I’ve learned that it’s really not necessary for the writer to be responsible for doing all the work in a poem or even a longer piece of prose. the reader’s MIND can be a powerful, powerful tool, and a smart writer knows how to use every tool in the box. I can actually pinpoint back to a time about 20 years ago when I had my Aha! moment. When things started to make sense to me and click in my head. It was in this tiny little poem:
“write a poem about THAT,”
on the edge
It’s only 15 words long, but the minute I wrote it I knew I was onto to something interesting and good. I mean, on the surface, the conventional wisdom would have the writer… any writer, myself included…. explaining just what “that” is… but, when I wrote it, I realized that I could write pages and pages and pages without scratching the surface of everything the reader could instantly make up in their mind to describe just what “that” is! Bingo! In that moment right there my work immediately got a whole lot easier and whole lot more fun. And the poems started getting shorter and shorter as I began to go on this mutually interesting and satisfying trip with the reader. I was having a blast, and hopefully so were they… and, like I said, the poems got so short that it reached a point where I published a poem that was just one word long… and you would have thought all hell broke loose… there was this great big back and forth argument as to whether or not ONE WORD could actually make up a poem (I argue that it can)… and the fight got so loud and heated on both sides that my publisher actually brought out an art print (a poster) of my ugly mug splashed with that one word poem:
and now there’s even tee shirts with that one word on it. So, does one word make up a poem? You decide.
VS: John, please, can you tell me… what is the secret of simple melodies?
JY: Once again, you’re giving me a whole lot more credit than I deserve… but, if you mean why are we attracted at some deep, basic level to simple things… simple songs, simple poems, simple everything… I think it’s because it’s a very difficult thing to do and do well. It’s a whole lot easier to create something and distract people with flash and boom and bang… think about it… you’ve got certain pop singers who take the stage and they’ve got lights and smoke and dancers and synth and fire and flame and why? You tell me. and then look at people like Muddy Waters or Howlin’ Wolf and all they had was maybe a guitar and a set of drums. No fire. no smoke. No dancers. no nuthin’. And people are still listening to their stuff because it was good and basic and real. It’ll always be like that. smoke blows away. Real doesn’t.
Shoot… I’m starting to feel like I’ve talked enough. I don’t want to bore people. If they want anything else from me, I just don’t have it to give. Besides, while I was just writing this my dog took a great big dump in the yard… I’d better get out there and clean it up. Thanks. This was fun.
VS: Dear John, thank you for your answers. I want to tell you that I have met a kindred spirit. It pleases me. It does not happen often. What do you want to tell our readers at the end?
JY: I guess I got time for one more before I have to go outside… and you’re giving me the perfect opportunity to make some points with my publisher and say that my newest book is Memory Lane, that little memoir I was telling you about… and my newest book of poems is… ah, you don’t need to know… if you’re interested enough you can find my work on Amazon or if anyone reads this and feels like calling me out and saying I’m full of hot fresh crap, then you can go to my website (johnyamrus.com) and hit the “contact” button and tell me what you think. So, speaking of crap, I don’t think I can put it off any longer… I really DO have to get out in the yard and clean that stuff up.
The work of John Yamrus 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.
Vlad* Savich was born in the USSR, where he was educated, married and fathered his daughter. As soon as the chance appeared to leave, he did. At present he lives in Montreal, where he writes, directs for the theatre and breathes the air of freedom. He can be found online at savich.lit.com.ua.
*He prefers not to be called Vladimir, so as not to be associated with the disreputable activity of a certain barnardine Russian leader.