We’re All Here: Joy Leftow on Charles Butler’s 39 Poems

39 Poems, Charles J. Butler, No Shirt Press, 2010

Reading through the 39 Poems brought to mind Hitchcock’s movie, The 39 Steps because each poem stretches the reader and the page towards the next poem and set of steps without explaining where he is going. Also the poems on the pages of the book are laid out in emulation of climbing up and down steps so that while reading I felt like I was skipping steps. Each poem relates to life’s struggles; the various ways love affects us and how meaningful respect is. He writes about everyday things moving us up and down steps lyrically and emotionally.

Butler describes how one can be oblivious to a murder and walk across bloodstains on our big city streets without recognizing them in the book’s first poem, Crimson Stroll. Suddenly while stepping over the red brown stains, the author recognizes it for what it is, seeing a stark vivid beauty of someone’s life bled out on the streets.

Someone’s life bled out
At your feet
Think on it
Times you bled
Times you made others bleed
Look on it
Big dark path on 8th ave
Brooklyn side
in your way

look on it
the fuel that moves us all
dried out on a dirty sidewalk
who bled …

are they dead
look at it
a dark stain
it’s almost…
a bit of Canada flashes up your neck
and ears
back in the world you move around it
and move on
wishing for cold rain
to wash away the stain human sin
most of all
your own

We’re all here – all human and suffering – and this is the grist for this author to describe how we’re all the same and different at the same time, but he wants to show us that we have the capacity to be and do more that drives us and of course this is what drives this poet to create poetry. The stains our lives create must contain beauty otherwise why do we exist? Butler’s struggle is to align himself with the humanity in all of us, despite the murder the chaos, the beauty the differences between rich and poor, black and white, and he struggles with it all, climbing up and down, retreating and coming to terms with wrongs and rights and even the grays and imperfections.

The problem is that our climbing stretching and reaching is never done. You go up you descend and then you begin all over again because that’s the way life is, it’s never done until you’re done – or dead and gone – is more like it – or if you’re a quitter. Butler is no quitter and no matter how far down he’s gone – he bounces back to reexamine his roots and the course of his life, fighting to stay in touch with his spiritual side. This spiritual side is at the root of Butler’s talent, as he controls his anger hurt and humiliation when he’s experienced racism. For any of you who have never experienced racism, normal is a good place to start to understand what it’s about when you get stopped on the street because of the color of your skin:

nature of the beast
I’m not gonna say I’ve lost
count o’the many times I’ve been blackstopped
it’s more than a few
I’m 16
walkin’ on a bed-stuy street
goin’ noplace fast
blue n’ white rolls up on me
unis pile out …
nicely they ask me if I’m carryin’
a gun
nicely I say no
they ask if I would submit
to a search
mind you they don’t have
to ask me
a goddamn thing
and they know it
I know it
An’ the brother
watchin’ this
who wishes right now
he was
someplace else
I say
go ahead

I can relate to this struggle and suffering. All my life as a Jew and especially in my childhood I was called a Christ killer. The recent advent of the Mel Gibson movie and his ensuing drunk arrest and slurred comment about Jews brought it home to me again. But this is a tactic of the upper echelon. They want to keep us all at each other’s throats so we will keep our busy bee status and keep making the rich richer. It’s a means of control and humiliation and it makes us hurt. Mr. Butler knows this hurt intimately and writes about it poignantly.

39 Poems cover a range of experiences; awareness of the haves and have-nots, racism, love, hurt, abandonment and loss, and more importantly the urge to understand and come to terms with it and explain what it’s all about. After all this everyday stuff is the mesh of our lives. The ability to sublimate sets humans apart from other species, to take our hurts and pain and transcend them for the greater good – to create beauty in ugliness is the work Mr. Butler attends to.

In DMV rag, Butler speaks for all of us who have ever been to the DMV,

We’re in the dmv now
Hundreds of black
And brown faces
some whites
all of them wanna be someplace else
but here we are …
it’s all mad
gotta be
half the world is on fire an’
the other is on line waiting for their number to be called
lookin’ for a place t’ sit
an empty seat
is like
fool’s gold

Don’t we all feel like this when we visit official offices, public school registration, social security, Medicaid, even the closed down US passport passport bureaus, and welfare’s the worst. I have a poem about it called, “Welfare’s Still A Bitch!”

The searching and questioning never stop just like in the movie The 39 Steps, there is always another side to examine to analyze understand and conquer. His poems speak to maturity and growth and show how youth and mistakes although unavoidable are only part of climbing and descending those steps, a poem for each step. In word one baby, Butler explains why a writer writes,

writing since he was eleven
thru good days
and dark times
the pain of living
the come hither call
of death
and madness inbetween
even hung ‘em up for a time
didn’t last
why write?
he’s free

Is the author describing himself here or is he speaking for everyone? We all know writers write about what they know and well, … if they write about what they don’t know … everybody knows that doesn’t work. Artists from time immemorial have been known to describe angst which often spurs their creative urges. Does every writer experience angst? I can’t speak for every artist. Many writers have spoken and written about their angst yet angst alone doesn’t make a man an artist. There is some other indistinguishable indefinable something that inspires a writer to create, that makes his writings stand out among others, something that prods him to spend his time writing while others commune, have sex, watch tv or do other things while writing remains a lonely task which takes time.

Words don’t miraculously appear on the page. Writing is what gives Butler the freedom he speaks of above. His words create a freedom that exists nowhere else around in our world and he helps the reader to feel it too. Through that freedom we see what he sees; a stark world filled with fertility and barrenness that provides us not only with a place to survive but a place to grow and thrive. The growth in Butler’s poetry and words inspires me too. I recommend 39 Poems sincerely and without any reservation.


Leftow is a double alumna from Columbia U with a second Master’s from CCNY in creative writing. Her blog has over 30000 facebook followers and 175 google followers and can be relished at: http://joyleftowsblog.blogspot.com. She’s been featured on Rockland Internet Radio, Indie Feed, Jazz Poetry Café and Everything Goes. For the past two years Leftow has been working on a series of bluetry. Leftow’s honesty and openness may astonish you or embarrass you, but she promises not to bore you. Her book, A Spot of Bleach, is available at Amazon.

The Everyday: Joy Leftow Interviews and Reviews John Yamrus

New and Selected Poems, John Yamrus, Lummox Press, 2008

John Yamrus’ poetry is very humorous. Not expecting that I was caught by surprise. While reading his book, New And Selected Poems published by Lummox Press, I found myself laughing out loud and laughing so loud that people nearby turned to look at me. Yamrus laughs at himself and us, the main theme being, we’re all in this together. He uses his humor as a tool to wipe away the artificial boundaries between us. He laughs if his muse is around or not around and will sit and write even if his muse is late. The trick of it is—if you want to be a writer you have to write. There’s no way around it:

the trick of it is
to be there
at the typewriter
when it happens.

and when it does,
if you
don’t write it down
and show it to someone

shame on you.

Yamrus’ poetry is about the little, everyday things that take us through a normal day, like where the dog is sitting and what he’s thinking while taking a dump or when he’s annoyed at his hemorrhoids,

This time it’s hemorrhoids,
And they’ve been
Bleeding since Sunday

The doctor
Want me to have
But I’ve been
Putting it off

needless to say,
It’s a real
Pain in the ass.

Poetry about hemorrhoids, hmm… Reminds me of when a neighbor bought my book and later when she met me on the elevator, said, “I expected to read beautiful lines about nature and the sky and instead I read all about your personal problems.” So I guess that makes Yamrus and I poetry brethren. How can any writer not examine himself? In my book that’s one of the prerequisites of being a writer, like it is for a therapist or social worker. If you don’t know yourself how can you write about others with knowledge and insight?

On a recent youtube video, Yamrus reads a recent poem about a person who writes to him and asks him to write without discussing poetry or poets. This poem is also in the book, “Dear John.” In Yamrus’ poem he responds to his questioner:

i’m afraid i AM a writer,
and the only subject matter I have
is me. …

you can also
feel confident of finding poems
that talk about picking my nose,
going to the fridge for a beer
and watching my dog take a dump

Well yes, what else does a writer have to contend with that has meaning other than our-selves, our reflections on our interactions and the stories in our heads.

Yamrus watches himself watching the world and reports his view, a view made see-able and more agreeable by the threads of humor running through. By the same token, many academics may not like Yamrus’ style poetry because his deviation from what we’ve been taught “real poetry” is and I really relate to that.

When I decided to take some non-matriculated poetry classes in the graduate department at CCNY, the professor in charge (now deceased and then a certifiable alcoholic), never responded to my application. I was planning a sabbatical and needed to know. I left several messages for me to call him. He didn’t so I kept calling him. Finally after several weeks I got him on the phone.

“I have my concerns,” he said authoritatively but never clarified what they were. What he did say was that I couldn’t take classes there. Usually non-matriculated students are accepted unless something’s very wrong. I got the name of the Creative Writing Chairman and spoke to him. He asked me to send a folder containing fiction, poetry, academic writings, articles, literature reviews, brochures, and more. I did. The folder had about a hundred pages all together. When I called to see if the overnight delivery had been received I was told no. I ended sending three more of these overnight folders and they were all “lost” and I hand delivered one with no response at all. Finally I made an entirely new application for matriculation listing fiction and sent ten pages of a story under my married name, Lambert. I was accepted within a week. I think prejudice may have been at work on several levels since my last name is clearly Jewish and when I used an Anglo name with the same writing samples I was accepted quickly. I must have been rejected without reading because otherwise someone would’ve recognized the story. I did get my 2nd masters degree there only because my options were limited in what I could pay and CCNY is still the cheapest deal in town. I admit I did leave out the poetry and I also admit some people hate my poetry. I guess that’s why Yamrus’ poem stories about what people say about his poetry really hit home after my experiences.

Yamrus also confronts his inner conflicts with humor. In dear anita;

The most recent poem
you sent
Is one of the best things
you’ve ever written

it’s got hear and soul,
warmth and wit

it’s got
my poetry seems to lack

don’t write to me again

you’ve done it so
much better than me

I don’t need
The competition
If you write to me again
i’ll refuse to open your letter

From here on in
i’m only going to read
Writer who have been dead
40 years or more

at least with them
i’ll have a
fighting chance.

The poems may appear very simple but that’s the trick. Many may say, “Oh I can write like that,” but they don’t. Someone who is an expert at doing something always makes it look easy to do but that doesn’t mean it is easy. His early influences are Bukowski, who wrote narrative poetry also and Gerald Locklin who also used self-effacement effectively. Yamrus may have been influenced but he isn’t trying to be anyone else in his poetry. He takes risks, exposing himself and the reader and that’s what it’s all about.


Phone interview with John Yamrus by Joy Leftow done after reading Yamrus’s New and Selected Poems

JL: How long have you been writing?
JY: This is actually my 40th year doing this. It’s hard to imagine that I’m now into my 18th published book, with nearly 1,100 poems published in magazines.

JL: How old were you when you were first published?
JY: I was 19 when my first chapbook came out. Young and stupid. Now, I guess I’m just stupid.

JL: Oh really? Are there any left?
JY: Don’t even think about it! The copies I have left are boxed up somewhere and they’re gonna stay there. I can’t say that I’m ashamed of my early work. I mean, it must have been considered good enough for someone to want to publish it, but I’m in such a different place these days. A completely different writer from what I was back then. I’m ashamed of my early writing. It was so pretentious. I’d guess it wasn’t until I was in my late 40s that I actually started to hit my stride and know what I was doing with the poems. I guess it’s true, what they say…you know…walking on water wasn’t built in a day.

JL: How did you come to use humor as a device in your poetry?
JY: It didn’t start out like that. At first I was writing the same straight-faced somber quiet poetry that most poets write. I wasn’t happy with it and felt unsatisfied with my work, like something was missing. The humor part of it comes naturally to me, and it’s an honest open way for me to communicate. It’s also more interesting. I mean, god, there’s just way too many so-called writers out there who take themselves and their poems way too seriously.

JL: What’s the one thing you want people to know about your book?
JY: My poetry is real. There’s no unicorns in it. No dappled daisies…nothing but blood and guts and bone. And with the humor added to it, I can make the same points as I could in the serious stuff, but it was different. Easier to take. I think the real breakthrough for me was when I figured out how to crass that gap that exists between the writer and the reader…once I figured out how to make THEM feel they were part of the poem, it was pretty easy after that.

JL: Do you have a regimen you follow?
JY: I do. It’s not brain surgery. People ask me all the time how do you get into this…publishing poetry…being in the magazines. I tell them it’s not a big deal and it’s not a mystery. The only secret to the whole thing is you’ve got to do it every day. Do SOMETHING. Write a poem. Write a letter. Submit something somewhere. Just DO something. That’s the whole secret to the thing. There! You now owe me a million dollars.

JL: I say the same thing on my blog—I love to write when the muse strikes and if she doesn’t strike, I write anyway and then, invariably, my muse joins me.
JY: The important thing is writing. A writer writes. But, I’m not a writer. And I’m certainly not a poet. I think if I were to put a label on myself I’d have to call myself a song and dance man. Or a tight-rope walked.

JL: Is your writing political?
JY: It depends on what you mean by political.

JL: For me political means social commentary.
JY: That’s all my poetry is, is social commentary, beginning with myself as a subject.

JL: Yes like you say in your poem—the only subject matter you have is you, because everything you see is filtered through who you are.
JY: Absolutely, and this is also where I made the breakthrough – once I figured out that I’m the only subject I have…and once I figured out a way to make that subject relatable, then I was home free. And hell, if I could make someone laugh along the way? It doesn’t get any better than that.

JL: Would you choose one poem from your book NEW AND SELECTED POEMS and riff about it?
JR: Normally I hate doing this and hate especially going into an explanation and introduction that will be longer than the poem. I’ve always felt that if you’ve got to explain it, or set it up, then the poem’s a failure. But in this case, since I’m having such a good time with this interview, I’ll make an exception and make my explanation longer than the poem itself. Here’s the poem:
after work

i come home,
walk into the kitchen
and throw my wallet
on the counter.

then my pens,
my cards
and finally
my keys,
slide along the counter,
do a little dance
and finally
come to a stop.

some day

so will
The poem (for me) kinda illustrates what I was talking about…making a connection with the reader. Crossing over to their side of the street. This is an example of one of those poems that clicked for me. I started out, like everyone else, trying to write the great poem. The one, memorable poem. And it took me years and years to learn that the great, big, memorable poem doesn’t exist anymore. Once I figured that out, that’s when I switched gears and decided that I was going to take my entire body of work and transform it into that great, big, memorable poem. Kinda like how one drop of water doesn’t really mean much, but an ocean’s a powerful thing.
Well, this poem just happened just the way it was written, but the kicker…the part that takes it (in my mind, at least) from prose to poetry, is the illumination at the end, where the speaker has that aha! moment where he puts it all together. Out of a pretty mundane moment, a bit of a universal truth emerges, something that we all sooner or later figure out. That’s when I feel I’m doing my job with my poems…when I’m keeping it small. Keeping it real. You’ll never find any dappled daisies or unicorns or babbling brooks in my poems. You’ll find everyday events that we can all relate to. Crossing the street onto the reader’s side. It was such a simple concept…but it took me 20 years to figure it out.

JL: Wow—I’m so impressed but what I’m most impressed with and this is what I want readers to know—what I’m most impressed with is how much time I spent laughing out loud when I read the book. I laughed reading on the train, in doctor’s offices and at home. Laughing is good for the soul and healing. This book did it for me. Thanks much John. I had a great time being doing this interview. Any other words for?
JY: Only a thanks for making it enjoyable, no pun intended. Oh, and I think we forgot to mention the name of my new book. It’s NEW AND SELECTED POEMS. It’s available on amazon. Christmas is coming.I’m kinda prejudiced, but I really do think it’d make a great gift for any of the readers in your life. There! That’s my shameless plug and I’m sticking to it! I’ve always made it a point to push for sales on my books. I’ve always felt that I owed it to those publishers who are crazy enough to shell out their hard-earned money to put my stupid poems in print. So, we’re back to stupid again. I guess that’s where I started and it’s as good a place as any to end.

Losses & Choices: Joy Leftow on Sandra Novack’s Precious


Precious, Sandra Novack, Random House

On Facebook, seeing Ms. Novack advertising her full-length debut novel Precious, from Random House aroused my interest. Curious, I promptly wrote her a letter explaining I wanted to review her novel. Thus began my journey through her smooth agile verse. Precise and accurate elegiac, like the movements they describe, Ms. Novack opens her tale with the premise of what could possibly go wrong in a pleasant nuclear middle class family in a burb of Pennsylvania not far from New Jersey.

Novack jumps in and out of each of her characters magically, like Sissy jumps in and out of the pool in the back yard and Eva jumps into wayward trouble without her mother around to set her straight. As easily as an able person can enter and leave a shower, she follows their watery moody depths from one situation to the next. Like the stick of a pinprick, punctiliously moving from one character to the next, she reveals the most hidden thoughts of each character.

Natalia wants more than what she has with her introverted reserved husband, Frank, who spends all has spare time beneath his car. Nostalgic for her gypsy roots, and romance, Natalia decides to leave. When her teenage daughter, Eva, tries to convince Natalia to stay, her mom replies, “A person’s heart doesn’t shed itself like a tree in winter, it doesn’t bare itself just because you want it to.” Natalia, bored with her life, her husband, and her children, idealizing her freedom and seeking new experiences, leaves on a trip to Europe with the doctor she works for. Natalia’s fantasies don’t play out how she imagined. Once in Europe and alone with the doctor, Natalia discovers she’s more bored with him than she ever was with her husband. Since her early childhood, Natalia had yearned to return to her gypsy family, a desire nourished by faint distant memories mixed with tales she heard from her adopted family.

Surprised, Natalia finds herself desperately pining away for her children and Frank, reminiscing longingly. This, combined with her sadness about her feelings of loss is what drives Natalia back home. Novack is inside her character’s heads, she knows them intimately. (page 47) “Didn’t he suddenly want to give Eva what a girl like her so desperately wants – to see herself through another’s eyes and to find that she is precisely as she wishes but never quite believes – beautiful and full of possibility.” Seeing ourselves through the eyes of others is what we all think we want – until we do it and are often caught off guard in what we see. We often wish to see the world through the other’s eyes. Novack has hit the nail on the head.

Eva is filled with anger and wanting more, yet stuck with her kid sister, Sissy and her Dad when Mom abandons them. Eva searches for love and finds separation and sorrow in the middle of nowhere as do all teenage girls in trouble. Eva keeps herself alive and vibrant through her interactions with Sissy, her pivot. Eva is guilty for being a young girl who goes out to meet boys and have fun while she is responsible for taking care of her younger sibling. Eva sustains herself by feeding stories to Sissy. Eva’s stories are fed on exasperation mixed with myth and her anguished insights into adult behavior. Disillusioned by love, her family, her mom’s return home instead of righting things in the family, sends Eva over the edge into a place she cannot come back from.

The title of the book, Precious, and the placing of the title in the story raised a childhood memory for me. As a youngster from a poverty stricken Jewish family in New York City, filled with illness and sorrow, I watched my sister pamper her dolls. I was not permitted to touch my sister’s dolls and although she was twelve and I was six, she held on to her dolls for dear life. I respected her belongings because I feared my sister’s temper. I only got my first new doll the Christmas after the ensuing event. One day after we’d (myself and my 2 sisters) returned home from school at about 3:10, almost simultaneously, my sister discovered her beloved porcelain doll with its head broken off. Because my sister could see no other possible culprit, she accused me of breaking the doll and proceeded to beat living daylights out of me with no interference from anyone in my family. Later, I was surprised to learn my mother had kept silent and let me take a beating for something she knew I hadn’t done. That made no sense. Several days later, mom divulged she’d had a guest that day who had brought her small child with her when she visited and mom had not paid attention to the child. I surmise my mom was afraid of my sister’s temper too and that was why she let me take that beating. I had no clue back then. I was six years old.

The doll in Novack’s tale is also ruined when Sissy and her best friend Vicki fight about who can play with the doll at a sleepover. During their struggle when the doll is literally ripped in two, Vicki becomes Sissy’s ex best friend. I wondered why a half page description about a doll named Precious becomes the title. Maybe because relationships and people mean more than we imagine and when we give them up we discover their preciosity and maybe because of the evocative tone of Novack’s descriptions. After all, Novack’s words brought my memory back to me from my six-year old self.

It is Vicki, Sissy’s ex best friend, who broke Sissy’s favorite doll Precious, who goes missing, never to be seen alive again. Vicki’s disappearance drives the story forth, revolving around every character’s angles. The townspeople come together to try to help Ginny deal with the loss of her child. Natalia is conflicted with survivor guilt and grateful her children are safe even if she had nothing to do with keeping them safe. She cannot confront Eva’s behavior and accusations. Eva and Frank are unforgiving and relentless in their judgements. Natalia rehearses speeches she cannot say while struggling to regain her footing in a lost life.

After reading Precious, I ask, what possibly couldn’t and won’t go wrong? Isn’t that the way of the world, after all? The law of thermodynamics rules everything when the world goes amiss, changes occur in a finger snap. Novack’s lyrical and haunting prose maintains a rhythm; she doesn’t skip a beat. She reminds us of all of our losses and choices. She makes us wonder if anything new will ever take the place of what we lose or if there’s even a chance to begin to fill all the empty spaces. Some losses last a lifetime. Trust me, I’ve had a few.

Visceral Stimulation: Joy Leftow on Daniel Borzutsky’s One Size Fits All


one size fits all, Daniel Borzutsky, Scantily Clad Press 2009

Borzutzky’s poetry is a strange exotic and eclectic mix; a conglomerate of words that while I read I wonder who is this dude who strings these words together like this. Sometimes I know what he is saying from one sentence to the next. Sometimes one sentence follows the thoughts and sequence of the one before and sometimes it doesn’t. I don’t exactly know what to do so I follow along because he’s strange enough to make me want to. Although I read the lines in bewilderment I laugh and feelings are aroused.

‘one size fits all’ published by Scantily Clad Press opens with the prick of misgiving glides on references to Milton and Blake that seep out in dry sardonic humor,
closing with Suddenly I was old, and had no one to fucking talk to., the classic death of the poet. Borzutzky outright admits that poetry becomes the property of the reader once published …woohoo :), I like that! “I do not own this poem; it is the responsibility of the poetic community.” And, “If you can’t feel the tickle on your genitals that this poem provides,” please masturbate safely within the confines of rubber walls and maybe then size won’t matter.

I visualize the scenario from his poems with his unique illustrations and I treasure his concepts; i.e., you don’t have to be a winner to win. Sometimes you may as well scratch your ass instead of your head for all the good anything will do you in society’s grip.

Borzutzky has trapped me and remade me in his image. This collection is written for the poet exorcizing familiar demons in spurts of more traditional views and references. The general notion being if you haven’t lived it how could you possibly write about it and if you did live it would you be crazy enough to write it and if you did write it would anybody understand or read it … right? I laugh and go back to what I read before. I think that could be me, that is me he’s talking about not only himself. I relate to the artist’s lament about how the industry prostitutes ethics.

The problem, said the critic, remains one of imagination and its insistence on the distinction between thought and action. We all have to live with criticism, poets especially, since strong and different works always raise suspicions and hard penises. “Poetry lives here,” she replied, “but he will chop you up and kill you, and then he’ll cook you and eat you,” along with attachable and detachable prosthetics to demonstrate how we either give or shed an artificial piece of ourselves – very unique imagery and this is what makes Borzutzky more cool. A daring risk-taker appeals to me. “I vomit a poem onto a stack of bloody cows and win a Pushcart prize.” I do understand – I think I do…

What I like the most is that Daniel Borzutzky does not fit the mold. I like his differences, the folly and play in his voice, his humor and sarcasm; I feel his triumph and growth develop. The voice of Marguerite Duras mixes with Milton and the colored girls go. I can ask for no more; I’m getting all the visceral stimulation I need.