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.

Through Tradition to Bewildering Extremes: Stephan Delbos on Bill Berkson’s New & Selected Poems

bill berkson

Portrait and Dream: New and Selected Poems, Bill Berkson, Coffee House Press

Portrait and Dream gathers more than fifty years of Bill Berkson’s poetry in all its formed formlessness into one volume. A second generation New York School poet, Berkson was a close friend of Frank O’Hara, and remains an active member of New York’s poetic and artistic community. Reading through Portrait and Dream – no small task due to its size and range – one finds Berkson’s avant-garde agenda struggling to suppress a curt sensitivity which breaks the surface of the poems in rare moments of emotional strength.

Berkson’s poetry has been linguistically inventive from the very beginning. The aesthetic of the New York School often ranked sound and energy before literal sense, and experimentation was considered an end in itself. Many of Berkson’s poems bounce off the mind like radar waves, each phrase forming its own succinct, independent expression while groping toward a nebulous subject, mood or tone. “Sunday Afternoon,” from All You Want, published in 1966, is one example.

What would the new fork bring me? and why
are porticos assuming sulfur? Leave its
cowbells charge is forces on the husks It is
no special translucence we bring to you, Dick and
Scarab, my ring of electric, morning…

The opening question catches the reader’s attention, but the ensuing lines thwart any expectations of continuity or easy comprehension. There are some delightful phrases here, such as “porticos assuming sulfur,” but a casual reader seeking sense or emotional engagement from the poem will be disappointed. Berkson’s more experimental work is as engaging as a Rubik’s cube: some readers will return to his poems again and again, hoping to “figure them out” or gain new insights into their workings. More skeptical readers, however, will be alienated by the poems and frustrated by the suspicion that there is no meaning behind the verbal magic.

Fortunately, Berkson is a consummate craftsman when he wants to be, and his skill with the traditional aspects of prosody stand in stark relief to the sometimes blinding opacity of his forays to lexical limits. Throughout Portrait and Dream one finds individual lines and phrases which delight for their sound, and less often, their sense. Such gems are enough to convince that Berkson isn’t simply slinging words. To provide only two personally pleasing examples: “She lay livid among the party favors,” from “Russian New Year,” and “History itches,” from “History.” Phrases such as these, which are innovative without being incomprehensible, sensually familiar without being traditional, stand out from the difficult poems which surround them.

Berkson’s guiding aesthetic is certainly not sentimentality or emotional lyricism. Instead he favors a cold, at times sterile approach to poetry. Nonetheless, a handful of poems in Portrait and Dream stand out for their emotional acuity. Often these are poems dedicated to friends who have died, or poems that spring out of an equally resonant emotional experience. “Rendition,” from After the Medusa, published in 2008, is one example short enough to quote in its entirety.

The song Willem de Kooning said
He wanted played at his funeralFrank
Sinatra’s “Saturday Night Is the Loneliest
Night of the Week”never happened.

What he got instead was selected
Arias from Verdi’s Aidaa scratchy rendition indeed,
As angelic choirs muttered softly among themselves
In unison: “Aidafucking Aida.”

The poem quietly displays Berkson’s mastery of form in traditional rather than novel ways. The simple narrative utterance is pulled through two quatrains and kept taut by subtle off rhymes: “said/happened/selected/indeed.” Berkson’s linguistic inventiveness, his search for the perfect phrase, is evident in phrases like “a scratchy rendition.” At the same time, Berkson, speaking for his dead friend, is bold enough to make a clear statement on death, music, kitsch, and the wishes of the dying, a statement which gathers strength for its stark succinctness. Berkson seems to have shed his experimental mantle, or at least become more comfortable and trusting of clear emotional statements. Though the final lines of “Rendition” balk at sentimentality, the poem makes clear the narrator’s feelings for his dead friend and his regret that his wishes were not respected. The unspoken fear, of course, is that Berkson’s wishes won’t be respected, either.

Those who have an interest in the New York School or avant-garde American poetics won’t need a book review to convince them to buy Portrait and Dream. It is an essential collection from one of the avant-garde’s most outstanding    and longstanding  representatives. Readers who seek poems which are grounded in emotional resonance and narrative will be disappointed by much of this collection, however. Nonetheless, the scope of the book shows that Berkson is not an innovative upstart to be scoffed at by traditionalists, but a craftsman who for fifty years has pursued his own voice relentlessly through tradition to bewildering extremes.


Stephan Delbos is a New England-born poet living in Prague, where he teaches at University and edits The Prague Revue. His poetry and essays have been featured most recently or are forthcoming in Poetry Salzburg Review, Zoland Poetry, Rain Taxi and Poetry International.