Lean Talk with an Outlaw: 20 Questions with Poet John Yamrus

by Pamme Boutselis

Poet John Yamrus

Since 1970 John Yamrus has published two novels and 19 volumes of poetry. He has also had more than 1,400 poems published in print 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. His latest book is a volume of poetry called “They Never Told Me This Would Happen.” Read more about John Yamrus’ books here.

Why poetry? What ignited your passion for poetry?
I don’t know. I do know that the first poems I actually remember reading were by Poe. “The Bells” and “The Raven” particularly stuck in my head. Why did I start writing? Girls, I guess.

How long have you been writing in general and poetry in particular?
I first wanted to be a novelist. Reading Kerouac gave me the desire to be a novelist. I’ll never forgive him for that. I’ve been writing poetry a long time. My first book came out in 1970.

How has your writing changed over the years?
It’s gotten leaner. It took me a long time to learn how to say more by saying less. Learning what NOT to write is one of the things I’m proudest of.

Which of your own poems are you especially fond or proud of and why?
Here it is, and I’ll explain why:

“Write a poem about THAT,”






on the edge

of the bed,



That poem supports what I said in the previous question. That’s the poem where things finally started to fall into place for me. The lights went on and I finally figured out that what you DON’T say is as important as what you DO say. By not falling prey to the obvious and explaining what THAT is, you accomplish several things. You expand the poem by opening up an unlimited number of possibilities as to what THAT is. And by getting the reader’s input of their own ideas as to what it is, you now have the readers emotionally involved with the poem and it his them a lot harder, making it more difficult to forget or overlook.

Who do you turn to when you want to read poetry?
As far as people the casual reader probably has never heard of, I’d have to list people like Gerald Locklin, Rob Plath, Milner Place, Mark Statman and every now and then Lyn Lifshin. You may have to do some digging to find their books, but you’ll find your efforts rewarded. For more familiar names, I still enjoy Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso and I do like me some John Donne.

Which poets influence(d) you, or perhaps made you feel that you should never write another word and why?
Gerald Locklin has been a huge influence on me…for several reasons, starting out with one that doesn’t have a thing to do with his writings. Back in the early ’70s I used to publish a literary quarterly…a little rag of a magazine, which, oddly enough, is now in the collections of several universities. Anyway, there I was, a young nobody and there was Gerald Locklin, who by then was already something of a small press legend, and there he was submitting stuff to me. Not only that, but he would send along the longest, kindest letters, filled with all sorts of gossip, stories and advice. He made me feel like I was part of something…something that HE belonged to. That was a great feeling. I never forgot that kindness. On top of that, his poems taught me how to relax and not take my work too seriously. I mean, you take the writing serious, of course, but by making a conscious effort NOT to write the big bad poem, it just made things click. I don’t think I can properly answer the second part of that question, as no one has ever made me feel that way.

With regard to other genres, who are some of your favorite writers?
Steinbeck, Bram Stoker and Stephen King

What do you do when the words just won’t come?
Nothing. It used to bother me when I’d have days and weeks like that, but I’m old enough to know that they always come back. I just gotta be patient, that’s all.

What are some of the biggest misconceptions about poetry?
That anyone can do it. That kills me when you get on the internet or facebook or anything like that and there’s a countless number of self-proclaimed poets out there. Just writing a poem does NOT make someone a poet. Hell, I’ve been publishing for 42 years now and I’m still afraid to apply that term to myself. I feel like it’s too easy to be proved wrong.

Why are poems important?
Who said they were?

How long does it take for you to put a collection together for publication?
That’s a tricky question. With the exception of my latest book, the four or five that came immediately before that were put together with certain goals in mind and the books made a conscious effort at a beginning, middle and an end. Like loose novels if you would. With the newest book, I strayed from that process a bit and went only with poems that were a single page…often only a few lines. In the book, I alternated poems about writers and the writing life with short character sketches that hopefully made sense when contrasted with the others.

What do poets/writers need to know about the publishing business?
Everything. Most standard contracts today spell out in no uncertain terms what is expected of the writer in terms of publicity and promotion. In these days of dwindling book sales, if a writer doesn’t approach a publisher with some semblance of a business plan, marketing strategy and target audience, then you’re dead in the water.

You write so often about the little things; the little moments, the everyday people and experiences that often seem mundane, yet you never make it so. How do you find the magic in those moments — what makes them worth writing about?
First off, it’s easer, and it’s also a bit of a challenge. Anyone can find something universal in the big subjects. It much more difficult to take something mundane and shine a light on it and without hitting anyone over the head with your point, leading the reader to a universal conclusion. The people who don’t get my stuff only see it on one level. They either don’t care to, or can’t see how it also works on a second, deeper level.

Your words seem to embody a kind of tough guy image at times – the way you talk about the neighborhood characters and such, yet you show a real soft side in writing about your wife and your dogs as well. How much is ‘your’ voice and how much is perhaps a character that you play?
That’s a REALLY good question. I guess we all have several sides to us and I’m just showing the world whichever one happens to be up front at the time.

What led to your poems being translated into other languages?
My books haven’t yet been translated into several languages, while much of my individual poems have. To date, I’m aware of translations in French, Spanish, Swedish, Italian, Japanese and Romanian. There’s even a guy right now taking a crack at Chinese.

Do you have a particular process you follow when you write or does it vary?
These days I do most of the writing in my head. By time it gets to the paper, a poem is pretty much complete, except for a touch here or there. That doesn’t mean I’m not EDITING. I’m just not doing it on the page.

What do new writers need to know, and poets in particular?
The alphabet.

What’s the best advice you’ve been given with regard to poetry, writing itself or publishing?
Do something every day. Whether you’re actually writing…editing something or sending something off…do SOMETHING every day. I think that’s the single accomplishment of mine that I’m proudest of. People will exclaim at the fact that I’ve had over 1,400 poems published in print magazines…and that’s a very cool thing…but, the thing they overlook is that was accomplished over the course of 42 years, doing something every day. THAT’S what I’m proudest of. The fact that I’ve managed to bring it day in and day out for 42 years.

How important is it for one to self-market?
I already answered that, but it’s worth answering twice. Publishers won’t give a second thought to a writer who does nothing to promote or market their work. I do it every day. Sure, it takes time, but the effort pays off, and believe me, the publishers take notice and appreciate it. It all goes toward adding additional value to yourself and your work.

You get to keep 3 books for the rest of your life with no access to anything else going forward. Which would you pick and why?
“Dracula,” “Grapes Of Wrath” and “Leaves Of Grass.” “Dracula,” because in that book at least, Stoker was able to create and sustain a mood of danger, dread and horror from start to finish. There are reasons that book has never been out of print in a hundred years. “Grapes Of Wrath”…Steinbeck at the top of his game. I’ve read that book every 2 or 3 years for my entire adult life. I had an uncle who used to keep a copy on his night stand, like the bible. And I’d finally include “Leaves Of Grass” because it’s the greatest single book of poetry ever written. It’s the big bang theory of poetry. That’s where modern poetry got its start. With those three books I’d be set (and happy) for quite a while.￿