Interview: John Yohe
Midwestern Gothic staffer Audrey Meyers talked with author John Yohe about music influencing writing, experimenting with storytelling, books that continue to speak to him and more.
Audrey Meyers: What’s your connection to the Midwest?
John Yohe: I lived most of my remembered childhood there, mostly in Jackson. After college, I escaped for many years and lived out west, but then came back to try teaching, which I liked, and which I felt good at, so I ended up staying for seven more years. Then I escaped again. Narrowly. With my life.
AM: How has teaching at Midwest universities influenced your writing?
JY: I taught at Eastern Michigan University while in grad school, as a GA, but most of my teaching (including now, again) has been at the community college level. I teach mostly “composition” and developmental writing, with some creative writing classes and I think teaching the comp classes has re-influenced me, or my writing, to be simple and accessible, to use accessible language somehow, because most people, those outside the MFA programs and New York and the Language poetry movement, they want stories, language, that they can understand and relate to. A lot of contemporary writing, especially poetry has sequestered itself behind these walls of incomprehensibility, wherein the writers sit smugly satisfied with themselves for being elite, then they wonder why people are reading less.
AM: How did being born in Puerto Rico and then moving to Michigan impact your life?
JY: I can’t say that it did, too much. I am a Michigander. I did feel an obligation to go back and learn Spanish, which has allowed me to travel and live in Spanish-speaking countries, and to read books in the original Spanish. I’ve only ever read Roberto Bolaño in the original Spanish. And I can re-read Jack Kerouac’s On The Road in Spanish, which works well. I think all writers should learn at least one other language to near fluency: I didn’t really ‘get’ how English worked, until I started learning another language. For example, I didn’t know, or understand what a direct object or indirect object was. Or, we know, we use language naturally, but having an awareness of the building blocks helps build a certain confidence later. But I’m kind of a language nerd, I’ve been teaching myself Latin lately, just for fun.
AM: How have your various jobs (wildland firefighter, deckhand/oiler, runner/busboy, bike messenger, wilderness ranger) impacted you as a writer?
JY: I’m not sure if they all have at the same level. At first I was going to say that being a bike messenger didn’t at all, but it did in the sense of that time period: I had just moved to New York City to earn my MFA in Poetry Writing from The New School for Social Research, knew I needed some kind of job, but after having worked as a wildland firefighter for years by then, and being outside all the time, I just couldn’t even conceive of working in an office staring at a screen all day. So I was like, what else could I do? And I saw all these cool people zipping around the streets and went, hmmm. So, I think that’s kind of been my thinking process my whole life, for good or bad. I say bad because who knows, everyone else in my program was working in the publishing industry — I may have missed out on all the networking I could have done, all the people I could be contacting now!
I think too that my job ‘choices’ have reflected my writing influences: Gary Snyder and Ed Abby for the firefighting and fire lookouts stuff, and Charles Bukowski for the runner/busboy stuff, all of the jobs that are on the fringes. Being a teacher was the first job I had were I felt serious, and an adult, which was pretty far along in my life!
AM: Your tone of voice is very distinctive and unique. How have you defined your tone as writer?
JY: I’d be curious to know what you meant specifically, some specific examples, but in general I think having a unique and distinctive tone/voice is what every writer strives for, builds towards. For example, you can take random sections of text from most ‘good’ (versus famous) writers and know who they are, in the same way you can hear a piece by Bach or Jimi Hendrix and know immediately it’s Bach or Hendrix. Like, you could give me a paragraph or two from Cormac McCarthy or Marguerite Duras and I’d know it was them. Ditto Kerouac or Ginsberg. I’m not sure people could do that with Stephen King though (and confession: I’ve read a lot of Stephen King — Salem’s Lot scared me so much when I was a teenager that I had to read the whole thing in one night. That’s some kind of powerful writing!)
But I think our tone/voice comes from emulation: We’re a conglomeration of our influences, of the writers we really liked, especially when younger somehow. So I’ve got Hemingway (and all the writers influenced by him, like Duras and Bukowski) and Frank O’Hara and Kurt Vonnegut, et cetera. But I guess I’ve always been drawn to ‘clear’, minimalist writers. And mostly men, I guess, though The Color Purple by Alice Walker is one of my favorite novels of all time.
So, it’s weird, we come from our influences, but we’re somehow drawn to certain styles to begin with?
AM: Your website bio also mentions you’re a bass player. Has music influenced your writing, and if so, how?
JY: It influenced me in work ethic, for sure: When younger, when music was my main thing, I played/practiced bass every day, took lessons, went to a music school, but also put the work in on my own, so when I consciously switched to writing as my main creative outlet (which might be another long story) I knew I needed to do all those things: to study formally in classes, but also to read widely, just as I’d been listening to all kinds of different music, and also to do it every day, and to work on my own. Also to emulate my heroes, and read everything. Like, if you love Hendrix, you listen everything he recorded, even the not so great stuff. Likewise, if you love Bukowski, you read everything, even the not so great stuff. But if it’s someone you love, even the not so great stuff is still somehow great, to you. To me. But it’s stuff most general readers wouldn’t read, or even like, yet it’s part of the study, the emulation. To study what really works in an artist, versus what only works for the hardcore readers.
I’d also say I’ve been influenced by songwriters, starting with the Beatles, up to Leonard Cohen and our most recent Nobel Laureate, Bob Dylan. Again, good songwriters who I think have that simple, accessible language. And, say, Cohen’s joining of sexual love and spiritual love. I’ve been experimenting with that in some of my poetry.
AM: Did you always know you wanted to be a writer? What or who inspired you to become one?
JY: I think I did pretty early on. I remember trying to write a mystery novel after reading some Hardy Boys books. I got to, like, two pages, but still. Those were the first novels I’d been reading. Also, I was reading comic books way early on, and I drew my own. I wasn’t a good artist so stopped! But, I was experimenting with storytelling in that way. And I always loved the opportunities I had in early grade school and middle school to write stories. I’m damn lucky I got those. Also, I remember seeking out the poetry in our school books, even though we never talked or read about them in class. Which, back then (and, I suspect even now) meant “The Raven” or “The Charge of The Light Brigade.” But there was something about poetry I was drawn to.
But I did also love music, still do, and playing in a rock band was much more glamorous, more chance that girls would actually like me, so I went with that. And I was immediately experimenting with (very bad) lyrics. And by college, when I was keeping a notebook, the rhyming stuff began to be joined by non-rhyming stuff, lines, images.
I think, too, that growing up in the Midwest influenced all this, or at least growing up in Jackson, which, if only a half hour from Ann Arbor, was a whole ‘nother world, versus even someplace huger like New York City. Jackson is and was a conservative town in all kinds of ways. There just were never any good book stores, the best I had growing up was a Walden Books in the mall, in which I sought out and paid for on my own the only book of poetry I think they had, which was some anthology of British Romantic poetry, or something. But I have wondered what growing up in Ann Arbor might have been like, where the original Border’s was, and where college kids were out in the streets, and poetry was happening, writers visiting, if I would have latched onto writing earlier. Or, who knows, the music scene was bigger there too, maybe I would have gone more into music.
AM: On your website, you provide the books you’ve read at least three times. What do these books represent for you? Why do you like them so much?
JY: I think when you re-read a book that there’s a certain feeling of nostalgia that gets added on, a remembering of what it meant to you back then, but in all the books I list there’s what I call a mythical level, which I got from my teacher, the poet Diane Wakoski. By that I mean, I think, that the characters embody some kind of mythical character, some kind of almost timeless character that ‘speaks’ for us, us Americans or even us humans. For example, in Cormac McCarthy’s cowboys, but also Dean Moriarty in Kerouac’s On The Road is a Legba/Kokopelli trickster type character, and he and Sal are also a nod back to Don Quixote and Sancho, mythical characters themselves. Though I think all of these mythical characters ‘work’ or resonate because they’re on the verge of a changing world, they show a lost time that’s about to pass? Maybe?
So, writers like that are ‘wrestling with the gods’, wrestling with what being human means. Which I guess all art is doing, but these books seem to resonate, or re-resonate with me after some years. I’ve grown and changed, and they somehow keep speaking to me, in a different way, at a different level, even if – just like in the case of McCarthy – I’m consciously thinking about why they appealed to my younger self. Like I can think, ‘Oh yeah, I liked The Crossing because it’s about a lost boy leaving a home, and I was and am a lost boy leaving home, continually.’ But also after living in the southwest for years, recognizing that landscape (which is the landscape of your heart).
I just re-read McCarthy’s The Crossing again this summer!
AM: How has being a teacher of writing impacted you as writer?
JY: It’s a constant reminder of what I mostly like in writing: story. I place myself in the school of Composition Theory called ‘expressionist,’ which had its heyday back in the 70s and 80s, with Peter Elbow and Wendy Bishop. That kind of got crushed in the 90s by the thinking that students need to learn more practical and logical types of writing that will benefit them in future classes. So for example, the dreaded research paper, and ‘formal’ argument papers. I hate that shit. I can teach it, and when I do, I change it, try to make it fun, incorporate humor and narrative, but I’m really only curious about my students’ stories. And I find that students generally love to share stories about themselves. Not in an ego way, but that they like to think about important times in their lives, that they get into reflection, which is how we grow and learn: we reflect back on our own stories. There are more wild theories, like that we are all only stories, that our interactions with each other are only really us telling each other our stories. Which I totally agree with. So, what I’m curious about in my students’ writing is what I’m curious about in my own life.
AM: What is it like being a Midwesterner on the west coast? What’s the same and what’s different?
JY: There are many of us here! Many economic refugees! The part of Oregon I now live in, Salem, has lots of farms and low rolling hills, and is lush, so at times feels a little like Michigan. Until you get in to the woods and the huge trees. And you can drive out to the ocean in an hour, though the ocean has the same feel as the Great Lakes to me. The Lakes don’t have the salt tang, but that space, to have your bare feet in the sand and hear the waves and wind and stare out at all that space.
Rural Oregon feels like rural Michigan, the people and culture. The winters are mild, which I love. I was never a fan of Michigan winters, though they may be responsible for my reading so much.
I liked living in Portland for a while. It’s book country. Home of Powell’s Books. Living there, I never felt odd about loving to read books, read poetry. Or wearing lots of black. Portland is like a giant Ann Arbor. Unfortunately, I got a little priced out, rent-wise, and couldn’t seem to find a good job. Everyone and her sister has a masters degree in English there. But the love and support of arts is nice. I’ve been living the last two winters (in the summer I go off and be a fire lookout in the southwest) in Salem, the capitol, a smaller college town, which is more my speed.
AM: What’s next for you?
JY: The next big plateau for me as a writer is to get my books published. I have three collections of poetry (including one centered around Michigan called In the Solitary Confinement of My Mind) and a few novels, one of which is about Jackson, called RUST all of which I’ve been shopping, both to literary agents and to smaller presses. I’ve been lucky to have had many poems and short stories (and essays and book reviews) published in the last few years. In that sense Portland has been good for me. I think all any writer wants, or would like, is to make some money, make any kind of living at their art. But, I’ve read that only about 100 writers in American can do that. And I’ll never be Stephen King or J.K. Rowling.
I resist the self-publishing route. I tried it for a book of poetry once, when I was living in Ann Arbor, and though I learned a lot from the process, I didn’t sell any copies at all. I learned that while some writers are good (and/or lucky) at selling their own books, I’m not one of them. Plus, I resist the ego-ness of self-publishing: I need to know that someone, some complete stranger values my writing enough to take a chance on publishing me. Though I doubt enough to wonder if that’s even viable thinking any more.
But, I try not to worry about all that. I’ll put intentions towards it, make time to submit stuff. But I have to remember that I love to write just for itself: it makes me happy. It’s interesting. So the real questions is, how do I live my life? How do I live in voluntary simplicity (i.e. poverty) and still be able to do the things that interest me, like writing, but also traveling. So, I would teach full-time again, if offered, and I put some energy to that as well. But maybe I’ll just be a fire lookout for the rest of my life, and sit on mountains in the summer. Still, I feel there’s something else I should or could be doing. I’m trying to figure out what that is.
Born in Puerto Rico, John Yohe grew up in Michigan, and currently lives in Portland, Oregon. He has worked as a wildland firefighter, deckhand/oiler, runner/busboy, bike messenger, wilderness ranger, and fire lookout, as well as a teacher of writing. A complete list of his publications, and poetry, fiction and non-fiction writing samples, can be found at his website: www.johnyohe.com