Bill Yarrow Interview, with JP Reese
You recently took a trip to India. One of the poems in this group, "A Journey of Seven Thousand Miles" is informed by that experience. How important is it for a writer to immerse him or herself in other cultures?
Well, Thoreau traveled extensively in Concord. That is to say, he never went anywhere. Geographically, I mean, but he went everywhere observationally. It doesn’t matter where you are or where you go; it’s all about looking: looking at what’s around you, what’s behind you, and what’s inside you. Samuel Johnson said he liked to travel because it gave him new ideas. I think India was like that for me. My wife and I were fortunate to be able to be there for ten days last March. I loved being in a new culture. It opened my eyes. The importance of being in another culture? Well, it helps you better see your own.
After years of publishing pieces in the online and print world, you have a first book, Pointed Sentences, coming out shortly. Congratulations!
Thank you for mentioning Pointed Sentences. The book takes its name from a Samuel Johnson quote: “In every pointed sentence some degree of accuracy must be sacrificed to conciseness.” I like that Johnson quote because it acknowledges the sparring of artistry and truth. Many of my poems enact the sacrifice Johnson mentions. Most of the poems in the volume came out of a burst of sustained creativity that started four years ago.
What happened four years ago?
Well, as I was driving home from work one evening, a wrench flew off a ComEd truck and smashed my windshield. I had been writing steadily for many years, but that incident broke not just my windshield but something inside of me as well and, as a result, a lot of stuff came pouring out. Over time I poured that stuff into molds of my own making and it hardened into the poems that make up this book.
Wow! A metaphorical bonk on the head! I'm glad it wasn't a real one. Back to the book: tell us a little about your experiences in the world of small press publication.
Not many! It’s kind of like fishing. You put your best bait on your hooks, drop a number of lines into the pond, wait patiently, and hope for a bite. I sent out my manuscript blindly to a number of publishers and was extremely fortunate to get an acceptance. I’m very grateful to Geoffrey Gatza of BlazeVOX for publishing my manuscript.
Congratulations on being a fine fisherman then, Bill! I have noticed you've been a participant in a lot of poetry readings around the Chicago area lately. You've another coming up soon. I envy the seemingly vibrant poetry community you enjoy. Is Chicago as poet-friendly as it seems to me?
Fortunate fisherman, you mean! Yes, I’ve had some opportunities to be the featured reader at a number of venues in the Chicago area. I really enjoy doing that and participating in open mics when I can. I’ve met many talented poets here. There are a lot of poetry readings, poetry competitions, poetry workshops, and writing groups in and around Chicago. I don’t take advantage of them all, by any means. Chicago has The Poetry Center which offers many cultural programs and publishes Poetry and The Green Mill which hosts Marc Smith’s well-known Poetry Slam, just to mention two famous examples. One poetry newsletter lists the “Top 135” of the “Chicago Poetry Scene”! Yes, Chicago is a very “poet friendly” city. There’s almost always something poetry going on. AWP is going to be here at the end of February and beginning of March. I’m doing an off-site reading on March 2, 2012, with some poet friends from around the country—Kris Bigalk from Minneapolis, Gloria Mindock from Boston, and Tony Barnstone from Los Angeles. We’ll each get to read for 20 minutes—I’m really looking forward to that.
Amazing to me that Chicago is so supportive. I'd like to get back to a poem featured here, as its genesis interests me: "The Rest Nowhere" is full of literary allusion. In my finite wisdom, I caught the Pynchon nod of "a screaming comes across…" of course, but there are other allusions less obvious. Can you explain some of them and a bit about your process in writing this poem?
I’m very interested in allusion and use it a lot in my poetry, but the thing about allusion is that its success is dependent on the reader’s familiarity with the referent. In that way, it’s even worse (because it’s largely literary) than metaphor, which is similarly dependent on reader experience. I came across the Pound line “His true Penelope was Flaubert” early in college. It infuriated me! I hadn’t read Homer and I had never heard of Flaubert! So allusion may be perceived as obnoxious or worse. You never know what effect it will have on readers.
Even when we think our allusions are obvious, they may not be. I wrote what I thought was a funny poem called “Ferdinand Gets Married.” It begins “You have the right to remain angry / but anything you say can and will / be used against you.” The allusion was to Ferdinand, the young suitor of Miranda in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The joke in the poem is that Ferdinand is getting “mirandized” (i.e. read his rights) before he gets “Mirandized” (i.e. married to Miranda.) Very clever, Bill, but you forgot that not everyone in the world has read The Tempest and knows who Ferdinand and Miranda are!
So you ask me about “The Rest Nowhere” whose title is an obscure reference to a famous phrase (“Eclipse is first and the rest nowhere”) in Thomas Babington Macaulay’s review of John Croker’s 1831 edition of James Boswell’s Life of Johnson (1791). The rest of the poem has a number of specific allusions to Samuel Johnson (lines 3-8), a writer I love, a writer I’ve already mentioned twice in this interview! (Sources are Boswell’s Life of Johnson, Boswell’s Journals, and Johnson’s letters to Hester Lynch Thrale Piozzi.) At an earlier period in my life, I was a budding Johnson/Boswell scholar. In addition to references to Johnson, there’s a reference to Boethius (lines 12-13) and also The Twilight Zone (line 13). So what’s it all about? Do you need to recognize and understand all these allusions to understand or appreciate this poem? God, I hope not! Then what’s the purpose of these obscure and eclectic allusions? Writer’s prop? Maybe partly. But what do they all mean??? Let’s let someone else tackle that one. Please?
But I’m happy to talk about my process which is that I try not to think too much when I’m writing. Things come to me (can’t help it—it’s the nature of my education, my reading, my experiences…) and I let them, in consort with my feelings, lead me; I try not to lead with my head.
I was having stabbing headaches. The line echoing Pynchon occurred to me. I started thinking about the astounding mind of Johnson and then about Boswell (both given to crippling melancholy and depression). The “great chains of being” line comes from the concept of The Great Chain of Being (see famous book by A. O. Lovejoy) but also the chains that Johnson asked Mrs. Piozzi to bind him with during his moments of severe depression (see Johnson’s “French” letter and W. Jackson Bate’s reading of the episode). I started thinking about the great chains of my being and of everyone’s being, about diagnosis and consequence, about Johnson (I always seem to return to Johnson!), the Twilight Zone weirdness of any change, and the great loss Johnson’s death was to his friend and biographer Boswell. “The rest nowhere”—Macaulay meant that Boswell’s biography was so great it eclipsed all the competition. The competitors didn’t even come close. I wanted also to suggest that perhaps there is no rest, not anywhere, from the screaming brain.
I understand that impetus most writers are driven by to create and also the brain that won't turn off, even sometimes in the middle of the night when you have to turn on the light, grab a pad of paper, and write it all down before it’s lost to slumber and the static stress morning ushers in. Thanks for the interesting conversation, Bill. I enjoyed it much, and I look forward to having your book in my hands soon.
The Rest Nowhere
A screaming comes across the brain
interrupted by a webbed memory:
a man in brown with a rolling gait,
stubbornly strong, a dull ghost
(until spoken to), dusty and disgusting,
squinting towards wisdom. He holds his
candles upside down and ambulates
toward the great chains of his being.
Stethoscope, please! (silence.) No pulse
on the body’s horizon. I know too much
ever to be deceived. Love’s funny that way.
When all else fails, look to the consolations
of misanthropy. Up ahead, there’s a signpost;
down below, the rich ricochet of loss.
For the Unshriven
“The good years shall devour them"
—King Lear 5.3.24
The body receives its embrace but
only by the anti-body. Effete angels, stoic
guardians of suffering, circled by the birds
of perpetration, look on in translucent hopelessness.
Spurred on by anesthetists, I fall on the mercy of the corpse.
The world enforces the larceny of living. A widow vacations
in the Alps, falls in love with her concierge. Across
a desert, an Indian widower walks a crooked
mile. Bring spices, an incensed container,
one sacrifice, a decorated carving knife.
The Hotel Where Esenin Hanged Himself
“to set forth, in place of the easy beauty of death, another kind of beauty"
I walk by the hotel where Esenin hanged himself.
They remodeled it so foreigners wouldn’t have access
to his despair. He first tried slashing his wrists.
That didn’t work. Blood flew everywhere: counters,
chairs, sheets. He sopped it up with his hands,
wrote eight red lines on the walls. Then he smashed
the mirrors. This was in 1925. He was thirty years old.
Dawn in St. Petersburg looks a lot like midnight.
It’s four years later. Mayakovsky has been writing
poems to counter Esenin’s, “to make Esenin’s end
uninteresting.” Of course, he fails. Then he looks
square at the world and decides it’s not for him;
leaves a note: “Against the everyday has crashed
of love my boat,” pulls a pistol and shoots himself.
The bullet ricochets off the ceiling and breaks his heart.
When writers look in mirrors, they stare at ghosts.
I don’t usually take bets,
but I took this one. Fatso
bet me a melamite ring I
wouldn’t eat a rattlesnake
pancake. Normally, I am
cautious but I needed a
gift for Emily Beth and her
father, being a miner, she
had a thing for melamite.
The thing on my plate was,
pardon me, the color of a dry
scab and it tasted as vile as it
looked, but I got one swallow
down and then twenty followed
in slow succession. I felt queasy
but Fatso never guessed. When
five hours later I was still alive,
he handed over the ring. I ran
to Emily Beth’s mom’s place on
Arapahoe. I found her sitting
on a two-person glider on the
wrap-around porch. “Emily Beth,
I got a ring for you.” Oh, Blister,
how ever did you afford a ring
of melamite? That just heats
my heart. “Maybe so, Emily Beth,
but are you tepid enough to wed?”
A gift is not a liberty, Blister.
I’ll not marry you until Father
Life has sucked the selfish
out your soul. “Selfish? Selfish!
I ate snake poison for you!”
Yeah, but you didn’t die, did
you, so what’s the good of that?
A Journey of Seven Thousand Miles
We had been warned not to eat any raw
fruit, but when I saw the bowl of red freckled
apples that morning at breakfast, something
reckless came over me. Greedily, I grabbed
an apple and cut it into fourths. The taste of
what is denied us is always sweet, and so are
the careless acts that spell our doom. Love
must have seemed so as it steamed out of
the primitive soul. In the land of amorous
gods who balance on bubbles of swift bliss,
it is the elephant who most knows restraint.