An interview with Bill Yarrow

MHR: The title The Vig of Love is taken from the title of a poem within the collection. Can you explain the title as you understand it and as it suggests the other poems?

 

BY: Vig, from “vigorish,” is the interest on a loanshark’s loan. Love is a debt, a loan you’ll never repay. The poems in this volume are about the different kinds of interest we owe on the impossible loan that is love. P.S. The Muse is also a loanshark.

 

MHR: In the title poem, the idea of risk is linked with love. Can you illuminate this idea as it pertains to many of the other poems that also delve into the nature of love in this light?

 

BY: The poem suggests love is a roulette bet. Sometimes we win. Sometimes we lose. But if we really love someone, we need to invest everything we have. We need to “put down all we’re worth.” The debt idea is made explicit in the poem “A Debt No Honest Man Can Pay” which begins the volume. The betting idea is made explicit in the poem “Wanna Bet?” which opens the last section of the book.

 

MHR: Do you see yourself as a contemporary absurdist? Do you see yourself as a truth seeker with a capital T? Does truth exist? If not, what responsibilities must a 21st century poet fulfill?

 

BY: I see myself as someone who writes poems. Nothing more.

 

Yes, specific truth exists, and general truths exist. Does Capital T Truth exist? No. Not for me.

 

The responsibility of a poet? To write well.

 

MHR: You have a couple of poems, that use bullet points to present statements of “truth” that are slant and wry.  What principles link these poems? What are their thematic unifiers?

 

BY: These “poems” (I’m not sure what they really are) consist of aphorisms or admonitions about love, pleasure, desire, passion, addiction, obsession. Read them with Samuel Johnson’s caveat: “In all pointed sentences, some degree of accuracy must be sacrificed to conciseness.” The title “Asbestos Candlestick” references the poem “The Exit Towards Fire.” The title “Sticky, Indifferent” comes from a phrase in “Liz@Phil,” a poem in Blasphemer

 

before ten years had passed
their loneliness had hardened

into indifferent sticky rapture
and permanent part-time jobs

 

MHR: As a poet rooted in the human condition, does man have a chance? And if so, does poetry?

 

BY: If we are human, we are “rooted in the human condition.” Poets are no different from anyone else. Everything has a chance—man, woman, humanity, poetry, goodness, beauty, ugliness, evil…. How much of a chance? That depends on the individual. And on the individual depends the world. As Emerson said, “An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man.” The future is the collective us.

 

MHR: Do you think your poems speak intimately to the reader or does the speaker hold the reader at a distance to instruct? Do you see yourself as a storyteller or a visionary/oracle?

 

BY: Every one of my poems intuits a speaker. Every speaker is different. None is me. That is, none is wholly me. My poems all tell stories. I don’t think any sane person ever sees himself or herself as an oracle.

 

MHR: There is an exacting sharpness in the language, and throughout we are treated to unexpected word collisions. Do you, as a poet, strive to make the unfamiliar familiar in your language?

 

BY: Thank you, Clare. I love that phrase “word collisions.” That’s an excellent phrase to describe a lot of what I do in my poems. In Pointed Sentences, my first book, there’s a poem called “Whiplash Marriage.” That title describes my approach and a lot of my work. I’m still smashing sound atoms, still officiating at whiplash marriages of non-consenting words.

 

I don’t strive to make the unfamiliar familiar exactly. I do solicit the unfamiliar and invite it into my poems. I strive to make the unfamiliar immediate and necessary, accessible and inevitable.

 

MHR: In the heart of the collection there seems to be a silent hope, which counters the difficulties of answerless questions in many of the poems. I think the balance is finely struck.  Do you sense a light in the darkness?

 

BY: I appreciate your comment about balance. Darkness is only darkness because there is light. Light is only light by virtue of there being darkness. As Blake said, “Opposition is true friendship.” No, there is no light in the darkness, but there is always the potential for light in the darkness. And vice versa.

 

MHR: I am immediately taken by the economy of words and clever turns of phrases, even though these poems embody so much more in their cumulative effect. Can you share with us some of your process in facing a blank page?

 

BY: Thank you, Clare, for that characterization of the poems in this book.

I seldom write on a literal blank page. Mostly, I write on a computer screen. I mention this because the size of a piece of paper sometimes affects or even dictates the length of a poem’s lines. If you are writing in a pocket notebook, you are likely writing in shorter lines than if you are writing in an oversized folio notebook. The reason is because, as you stare at the tiny notebook page, you are thinking in shorter lines, or thinking in longer lines if you are looking at a menu-sized blank journal.

The computer screen for me is neutral. It allows me to experiment with short lines, medium-sized lines, long lines, boxy poems, shaped poems, sprawling poems, prose poems, etc. I can immediately see what something looks like without having to rewrite it in a different form or shape. I can also save all the approaches to or versions of a poem.

 

My process? I play around. I play around with what things sound like, what things look like, how meaning changes with words in juxtaposition with each other, how meaning changes in a line ending or a line beginning. I’m a sculptor playing with the clay of words, sometimes piling bits on bits, sometimes scraping away dross to get at the essential form.

 

Sometimes, I begin with an event (“The Secret of Belief”) or a place (“Ajloun Castle”) or a person (John Dillinger / “Noir vs Noir”) or a memory (“The Ogontz Branch”). Sometimes, I begin with a word (“Babble”) or a phrase (“A Debt No Honest Man Can Pay”) or a text (“The Red Wheelbarrow” in “Carlos!”). Sometimes, I begin with a feeling (“Tierra del Fuego”) or a concept (“The Man Whose Wife Lived in His Neck”) or a pun (“Libby, Lottie, and Carlotta”).

 

Sometimes, the poem just emerges.

 

For me though, a beginning is just a beginning. I almost never end where I start.

 

 

Bill Yarrow

 

Bill Yarrow, Professor of English at Joliet Junior College and an editor at the online journal Blue Fifth Review, is the author of The Vig of Love, Blasphemer, Pointed Sentences, and four chapbooks. His work also appears in the anthologies Aeolian Harp, Volume One; This is Poetry: Volume Two: The Midwest Poets; and Beginnings: How 14 Poets Got Their Start. He has been nominated eight times for a Pushcart Prize. More information about Bill can be found on his website: https://billyarrow.wordpress.com/

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