Poetry Like Jazz: John Brantingham Reviews John Yamrus' Latest Book, "THE STREET"


by John Brantingham 28th January 2024

I have always loved John Yamrus’s minimalist approach to poetry, so it came as no surprise to me that I love his minimalist approach to memoir in his latest book, The Street. The Street is ostensibly about the street where Yamrus grew up and his childhood years, but it encompasses much more than that. In a postmodern and often meta approach to storytelling, Yamrus shows us what it was to live in a blue collar coal town in the Northeast, which might have been any working class town anywhere in America, while at the same time obliquely discussing the nature of memory and consciousness, what it means to perceive through the limited lens of ourselves. Also, because he is approaching his memoir through flash fiction vignettes rather than an overarching narrative, he creates a memory of a place more than of an event or series of events. In that, he is able to focus on what it was like for him to inhabit a small Pennsylvanian town in the 1950s and 1960s, what that culture and time was for the people who lived there. Because of this approach, it is a memoir of the street he lived on as much as it is a memoir of his childhood, as the title of the book suggests.

The Street as a memoir of place rather than events explores all of those people, ways of life, and traditions that have passed on. This memoir, however, is not cheap nostalgia. He remembers the place with both love and bitterness. A largely Catholic community, he remembers the aggression and unkindness of religious people and leaders. The priests in his community are interested in controlling others, and the nuns are often angry. Religion is about dividing people. When he asks about why he is supposed to hate people of other religions, a nun depicts Hindus, and by extension all non-Catholics as unfeeling to the point of evil:

they don’t value life the way we do . . . in their religion, they think that whatever happens is god’s will and there just no changing it and if they’re doing something like riding in a boat and someone falls overboard, they’ll just sit there and watch while that person drown right in front of them, even if it’s their own son or daughter or mother or father (77-78).

This is the kind of stereotyping and lies that he is given every day, and soon he learns to hate Jesus and the people who preach about him. That is not to say that this is a memoir rooted in bitterness; he simply does not remember everything as being perfect, and of course, no place is perfect. What he remembers with love are the people on his street. These were coal miners who cared for each other and died young because of the difficulties of their profession. He remembers how loving they were to each other and to him as well.

The Street, however, is more than just a discussion of his life; he also discusses the nature of consciousness and memory, and how the rememberer constructs meaning. Early on in the book, he breaks into a scene to self-consciously discuss this idea:

This memoir is going to be difficult to keep straight . . . for the reader as well as the writer . . . because memories aren’t linear (anyone who’s read Proust knows that) . . . memories are like leaves on a tree . . . and they fall at different times, at different speeds, in different ways . . . eventually, no matter how they fall, they end up covering the ground (30).

Throughout, he discusses not only what he remembers but also how he remembers it. He knows that his father was imperfect, as any person is; however, his father died at the age of 45, which was when Yamrus was young, so his memories are tinged with longing, regret, and hero worship: “he’d step out of that coal truck and it was like god coming down from heaven. the door would swing open and he’d step out, real slow, like a gunslinger . . . like Gary Cooper in High Noon” (27). This way of remembering the people and places of his past adds a level of realism to it. Rather than trying to find a kind of objective truth, he lets his truths be subjective when they need to be. The realism comes through his subjectivity because we all view the world in this way, through the lens of our own memory and consciousness. He comes back to this approach over and over until we understand that he’s talking about the nature of memory, his and ours.

I think that Yamrus’s The Street is my favorite book by Yamrus, and that’s saying a good deal because I have always loved his approach. I did not grow up in a small coal mining town in Pennsylvania, but I felt at home in his world. He remembers his world as we all remember ours with the emotions that well up when we look back. 

Following is the transcript of John Brantingham's interview with poet John Yamrus:

I have been publishing a lot of John Yamrus’s work, both his poetry and prose, in my magazine The Journal of Radical Wonder. His work fits our ethos well. Although I have never met him in person, only through a long and rich email correspondence, he seems to be someone living a life of radical wonder. He has his eyes open to the world, seeing it as objectively and as clearly anyone might through the subjective lens of self. Beyond that, he’s just a compassionate and empathetic person. His poetry always informs my point-of-view, expanding it so that I might see the world we both occupy in a new way. So it was important to me to interview him, to learn how he reaches these insights that inspire me. Over the course of a couple of weeks, we had the following conversation online:

John Brantingham: You've had a career that's spanned decades, and you're still writing as much or more than any poet I know. How has your poetry and the way you view the world changed in that time, or has it?

John Yamrus: I think I'm much more cynical in the way I look at things. Maybe it's the world that's changed...for sure, it's changed and a lot of it's not for the better, and I don't think that's just an old guy grousing about the old days. I really don't. But my approach to my writing really hasn't changed all that much. I still try and look at it as what I do...it's my "job" if you wanna call it that. I learned early on to have a good work ethic...my whole family (the men) were coal miners...my uncles and my grandfather. They were people who just got up every morning and went to work...no big deal. No fanfare. They just did the job. And that's kinda how I look at poetry. I do the job. I was never one of those people willing to wait on "inspiration"...inspiration's for amateurs. If you're waiting, you're wasting time. Sure, every now and then (like any "artist") I get lucky and get inspired, and that's great, but what's more important to me is coming down here (in my basement, where I write) and doing the job. And when you do that...when you do the job and respect the job...things have a way of getting done.

John Brantingham: That's interesting. Do you think your message, what you are trying to say in your poetry is cynical?

John Yamrus: Maybe that's not the right word...exactly...maybe there's a little bit of snarky humor in it. The thing is, I don't want to take myself too seriously. I mean, I take the work very seriously...but I see these writers who cough and clear their throat, and "ahem...well...uh"...and you can just see the self-important wheels turning. That really bothers me for some reason. Writers talking. The job is to sit down and be quiet and type, isn't it? I'd really much rather listen to guys like Dino, the guy who works on our house...he knows how to cut molding and lay carpet and all I know how to do is type.

John Brantingham: It sounds like an almost haiku approach to poetry, just trying to capture the moments you are in, whatever they are without judgment. Do you think I'm right there?

John Yamrus: I've often described what I do as being like looking out a window of a speeding train and seeing whatever there is to see in that window, in that moment, knowing there's a whole world of stuff going on outside that split second image...all I'm doing is describing at image...that snapshot...and letting the reader fill in the blanks. I mean, for example, here's a picture of some farmhouses as the train's passing by and all I see are the houses and the lawn, but I already know there's maybe animals and maybe a fence and maybe a shed and in my mind I'm already adding to the picture...to the poem. I see my kind of writing as being very inter-active...and as far as being a haiku or anything formal like that, my writing is very informal...conversational. So much so that people see it as being off the cuff and made up in the moment...but it's not. It took me years and years to feel comfortable writing a line that to me feels natural and real. That's the same mistake people made with Bukowski...his stuff felt so informal and fast that everyone thought they could do it like that. The same with Kerouac and even further back with people like Henry Miller and Anais Nin and even Celine.

John Brantingham: So if there's a philosophy to what you're doing, it's just that you're showing us how you see you're world at this moment in time. Is that right? As you say, all of the poetry of yours I've read feels haiku inspired, but I know your inspirations go beyond haiku.

John Yamrus: That's exactly what I'm doing. You hit the nail on the head. That's all I'm doing is trying to describe things...document, maybe. Just get down on paper the little things that I don't see many people talking about or even noticing. You know that feeling you had when you were a kid, maybe playing baseball or something, and you look up at the sun and things feel absolutely perfect...or they don't...I just want to describe all those little tiny moments that happen from one day to the next. I don't want to make a big deal out of what it is, but it's important to me. I don't want to aim at writing any kind of a great book or anything...I just wanna see what's right there in front of me and get it down on paper. I know it sounds silly, but that's what I got.

John Brantingham: That sounds exactly right. That sounds exactly what would drive someone to write poetry rather than fiction. But do you write fiction, and if so, how is it different from your poetry?

John Yamrus: I can't say I really write fiction, but I've published prose, but I'm so conditioned to doing poetry that the prose is really nothing more than a poem with a thyroid condition. Like my new book, THE STREET...which is a "memoir" of sorts, looking back at what it was like for me growing up less than wealthy (WAY less) in a Pennsylvania coal mining community back in the late 1950s. I guess you can say parts of that are fiction, because even though everything in the book is true, or at least true in the way I remember things happening, but I stitched things together into a narrative that allowed me to tell the whole story straight through from beginning to end. Like I said...a poem with a thyroid condition. Just like our conversation here...if you look back on what we've been talking about, it's spontaneous and fun, but it IS a kind of heightened reality...just like the poems and just like the prose.

John Brantingham: So the difference between your poetry and prose is a little maybe jazz inspired. You're just improving as you go and you're not really sure what you're doing next until you do it?

John Yamrus: That's EXACTLY what it is...and what I am...I don't plan things out. I don't sit down and say I'm gonna write me a poem or a story or (like in the case of my book THE STREET) a memoir. I'm more intuitive...I just sit down and start and I trust the writing to tell me where it wants to go. So, in that sense it IS like jazz...and, just like jazz, to reach that point of creative freedom, you gotta know what you're doing. You have to know all the rules before you can break them. You have to know how to fly the plane before you can soar.

THE STREET is available on Amazon:

Episodes of "B Inspired" with Jane Stahl and John Yamrus can be found on your favorite podcast platform including Anchor FM, Spotify, Google, Castbox, Breaker, Overcast, Pocket Casts, and RadioPublic, and Apple.

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