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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

BOOK REVIEW- John Yamrus- doing cartwheels on doomsday afternoon

BOOK REVIEW- John Yamrus- doing cartwheels on doomsday afternoon. Epic Rites Press. Sherwood Park, Alberta, 2010.

This is Yamrus’ seventeenth book of poetry he has published since 1970. The poetry is extremely lean free verse and characteristically hugs the left margin of the page, with each line usually two to four words. There is no pretension in Yamrus' work- just clean, simple lines easy to snort into your consciousness. The poems are often observational from the poet’s point of view about everyday events- his dog taking a shit, almost getting run over in a liquor store car park, his hatred of academic verse, the zapping pain associated with growing old & the like. The main purpose of this review is to highlight some of the central motifs Yamrus explores in this book: his thoughts on writing poetry, Bukowski, life, death & dogs.

On Writing

Dozens of the poems in this collection are about writing which reflects Yamrus' day to day concerns as an established American poet. Some poems are a response to comments made by casual but ignorant readers of his poetry. Such criticisms are often hurled at free verse underground writers and Yamrus allows them to speak for themselves to ironically reveal their short comings for the benefit of his more knowledgeable readers. In ‘Dear John Yamrus’ the speaker of the  letter poem  accuses Yamrus of not writing poetry but rather vivisected 'flash fiction.' In ‘they tell me’ he is criticised for writing ‘too much about writing’ and is called a fraud because he doesn’t write poems ‘just diary entries.’ 

In some poems Yamrus compiles answers to typical questions his readers have asked him over the years. In ‘the next question’ he is asked who has had the most influence on his poetry. His answer is irreverent and anti-establishment as he points to some of his popular culture idols: 'Hank Williams, / Groucho Marx/ And Willie Mays.'

In ‘a word to the wise’ he strongly argues for writers to maintain their sense of independence and to be prepared to take risks out of their comfort zones. He offers the blunt advice, ‘never/ be afraid/ to/ piss off/ your readers. In the companion poem ‘giving’ he suggests that giving readers what they want diminishes the poetic soul.

In ‘if’ he warns poets that if they ask for his opinion of their work he will be honest and direct. He will not try to mislead them as to the quality of their poetry but he simply asks they 'don't/ get pissed with his assessment.

Yamrus also uses his work to foster his own criticism of the language, subject matter, techniques and forms of other poets. In ‘she cursed like a’ he expresses a dislike for a female poet who uses profanity as a ‘crutch/ that colored/ everything/ she/ did.’ In ‘the failed poet’ he is contemptuous of an unreflective idealistic poet who chooses only to write about positive things to uplift people. He expresses his preference for poems of 'grit and guts' and mockingly concludes, ‘calling yourself/ a /poet/ won’t/ necessarily/ make you one.’ 

Yamrus has done the hard yards as a poet over many grueling decades and his poetry reflects his ongoing struggle in his development as an original artist. His poetry depicts flawed people trying to understand the complexities and ambiguities of daily existence. They discover some possible answers of what it is all about through their experiences, but ultimately, they don't quite get it in the end. Yamrus resents inflexible and narrowly focused writers who think they have something important to say. This bitter tone is reflected in ‘contrary’ where he lashes out at imitative internet poets who have 'ruined poetry' by pursuing the publication of inferior poetry on a mass scale.

Yamrus also expresses a special hatred for the falseness and pretension of academic poetry. In ‘they’re winning, you know...’ he concedes that academic poetry is winning out over gritty anecdotal poetry like his own, 'not because it's better' but 'because/ it's safe.'

More interesting is Yamrus' assessment of his own poetry. He is a self assured, but paradoxically, a self effacive critic of his own poetry. In 'dunno' the speaker claims not to have the answers to anything, that all i got is me.' In 'please' he furthers his confession: 'don't/ ask/ me/ to// explain. He claims he knows nothing. Has no answers. He just writes the stuff without expecting to change the world. Or to accept any responsibility.

In ‘Bukowski started his novel’ Yamrus acknowledges there are limitations in his poetry, 'that 'most of it's/ not very good'  but the important thing is to continue writing, ‘to hold onto the fire’, to continue the slog like Buk did:

In the end, Yamrus writes poetry essentially because he has fun composing it and because people enjoy reading it. As a poet he writes what he wants to and then returns to his other daily routines, including his day job which pays the bills.

On Charles Bukowski

Bukowski is one of Yamrus' heroes, and even above Locklin, his main literary influence. He appears obsessed by the spirit of  Bukowski and although he died sixteen years ago, he makes a number of explicit references to the Buk in the collection. In ‘we’ he claims that we are 'the literary fallout/ from/ Charles/ Bukowski's ass.' In 'why i'm not buk' he reckons Buk 'had it figured out and expresses his admiration for his writing despite his ugly appearance:

he managed to
write like
a slumming angel,


Similar to Bukowski, Yamrus writes in highly accessible free verse style and like Buk, he writes a lot about writing poetry. Yamrus' voice and subject matter is not distinctly working class but more from the point of view of a professional poet.

In many ways, and self admitedly, Yamrus' poetry is a thin imitation of Bukowski's. As Yamrus points out in ‘why i’m not buk’ his poetry is like Buk’s but without the talent, without the whores, without the brawling, without his pock-marked face and without his love for classical music. In comparison to Bukowski's coarse, rebellious verse, Yamrus's poetry is swear-free which readers of all ages can enjoy and not feel too threatened by.

On Life

Apart from a few incidental references to the outside world, Yamrus' world is self contained and primarily focussed on his role as a public poet. Yamrus is a self assured poet with a secure handle on what he is intending to achieve through his writing. Sometimes he expresses his sense of doubt of ever knowing anything, but many of his poems are simple tales which work towards revealing an universal truth, expressed in a street wise aphorism. He often uses the metaphor that life is a card game- that you need to stoically 'play the hand/ you're dealt' as a necessary acceptance of the randomness of fate as he expresses in the poem ‘he’s in his 60s’ in which a wife has to care for her wheelchair bound husband.

In 'New York, just' after the poet visits the city he recalls 'the soft grays and warm brows' of the New York in his childhood. He poignantly remarks that life is transient, the only constant in 'that old girl,/ sorrow.'
In the short poem 'if' he suggests that we make our own luck because ultimately we are responsible for the pulse and direction of our lives.

As he ages, Yamrus is increasingly concerned with documenting his various ailments,and through juxtaposition, he recalls the vigour of his youth, 'the one who/ climbed ladders/and/ jumped fences.../ who could/ get out of bed/ without a sigh'. In "i never thought i'd" he expresses surprise that 'he'd'end/ this way/ chronic pain/ 24/7' but he is accepting of his situation, partially because he believes that has achieved what he has set out to do, that:

i still am
i wanted to become.

In 'they sent me for' he visits a  clinic to determine the cause of his back pain. He concludes that life is full of little ironies in that 'by the time/ you figure it out' nurses are attending to your physical decline.

On Death

To Yamrus, death is seen as random and inevitable. In ‘Tommy was a duker...’ the speaker of the poem hears that an old acquaintance has died of cancer. He recalls Tommy bashing up three guys in high school and says tersely, ‘you just/ can’t/ win ‘em/all.’ Yamrus is suggesting that life is a game which we will all eventually lose. In the third person narrated poem 'it was taking' while playing cards, Lawson shoots and kills an unnamed assailant who was taking too long to die. He turns to Moore and tells him to quit grinning, 'your time/ will come too.'

In the short poem ‘this morning’ death is seen as a matter of running out of luck. Yamrus expresses a black sense of humour in imagining 'how perfectly fitting' his own death would have been had he been killed by a speeding car in a parking lot outside the liquor store.

In ‘my car battery died and’ the speaker waits for his car to be repaired and uses the opportunity to comment on how death will unexpectedly, but inevitably strike us: 'you do your/ thing,// then/ sit around/
waiting/ for the truck/ to take you/ away. This theme is furthered in the short poem ‘the’ where the honking of the geese symbolises the heralding of the poet’s uncertain sense of his impending death.

On Dogs

Dogs provide Yamrus with another means in which to make allegorical comments about humanity in general. The first poem in the collection ‘Eddie’ is about a man’s relationship to his battered dog Bastard. The third person narrative poem expresses a stoical attitude towards fate and the need to appreciate the moment, including our relationships. ‘in dog obedience class...’ Yamrus hated how his little Abby now paid attention and ‘did everything right’ ‘just like/ all the other dogs.’ He identifies with the dog and is annoyed that in the process of conforming her she has lost her playful, improvisational spirit.

In ‘i just now’ Yamrus makes explicit his love of dogs and why he has included them in many of his poems:

they teach me


He concludes tersely that dogs teach him the truth that ‘there isn’t any.’

What Yamrus likes best about his dog is that she has no cares or responsibilities. In ‘my dog doesn’t care much’ unlike the poet she doesn’t care about literature or whether books are sold, all she wants is to 'have her bowl filled' and 'her head scratched' or to let out 'when it's time to shit.'

Similarly, in 'it's raining now...' he admires how his dog is able 'to shake off/ what's/ bothering/ her' unlike us humans who often clutter our minds with petty anxieties and psychological baggage.


This is highly accessible poetry from a mature, self aware writer. The poems are deliberately anti-intellectual and in some respects anti-rational which should please many readers sick of overly formal verse. Yamrus' poetry gets simpler the older he gets, but still packs a punch. Like the resilient nose hair in ‘i’ve got’ which keeps rejuvenating, Yamrus surprisingly keeps extending his shelf life in books.

Buy Yamrus' book at Epic Rites press here:


Poetry Circle: An Interview with John Yamrus,2535.0.html

Suite interview with Wolfgang Carstens

Update- 3 January 2012

John Yamrus was interviewed by Ron Schira for the BCTV program New Arts Alive on 7 December 2011. In a wide ranging and revealing discussion, Yamrus comments on his intentions, his writing process and use of style.

Yamrus started out writing making ‘grand statements’ but now he finds pleasure in writing about simple things. ‘You’ve got to write a lot of crap before you get to the good stuff,’ he quips. He doesn’t take many notes and his poetry usually is written without much redrafting, ‘I find if I tinker with something, I tinker the life out of it.’ On his pared down style, he says, ‘The hardest part is working out what not to write.’ Rather than to include every detail, he allows the readers to fill in their own gaps: ‘I don’t feel like hitting the reader over the head.’

Yamrus reads twenty poems from his three most recent books of poetry New and Selected Poems (Lummox Press, 2008), doing cartwheels on doomsday afternoon (Epic Rites Press, 2010) and can’t stop now (Epic Rites Press, 2011). A highlight of the program is when Yamrus reads his poetry as it scrolls down the screen.  The program moderator, Ron Schira appears disorganized at times, and often struggles to find words, but Yamrus remains unruffled and expresses a shining passion for his craft. He is also very encouraging of young writers who he says should ‘apply their butts to the seat of their computers’ and not fear rejection. ‘If I can succeed in writing poetry, anyone can,’ he explains without a hint of irony.