I met Tom Yuill for all of two minutes last summer in the Grolier Poetry Bookstore in Cambridge, Mass. In our brief chat before he hurried off to catch a plane, I learned that he was a poet, so I quickly asked if he would participate in a Southern Bookman interview. He heartily agreed before rushing off into the bright morning. I repaired to nearby Harvard Square with Tom's collection "Medicine Show" (University of Chicago Press) and his e-mail address. I spent an hour or so seated on a bench as students and teachers ambled by, finding myself entranced and excited by Tom's poems, which combined formal elements with daring flights of expression. Elizabethan and modernist echoes blended with sounds of the blues, Texas honky tonks and cowboy songs. Themes of rebellion, family loyalty, allegiance to the past and tradition, and the desire for escape and freedom meshed in artistic counterpoint. Since then, we have developed a warm friendship via e-mail. Now in mid-autumn, here are Tom's responses to my questions. Tom teaches at Boston University, where he studied with one of the first subjects of the Southern Bookman interviews, Rosanna Warren.
Your fine book “Medicine Show” contains a multitude of characters, moods, voices and settings. A key is the poem “Several Histories” (freely after Hikmet) in which you say “into being came three worlds/ Where I still live.” The collection explores these several histories, and perhaps more than three worlds. How do these histories and worlds correspond and interact?
I guess the whole thing together is a strange panegyric. The arc of the book, its plot, is one way the different “worlds” interact. The tongue in cheek swagger, artifice and naivete of, say, “Ode to the Wind” give this sass-laden paean to free will the right tenor for the first section, in which the poet is not yet cognizant of the depth of his confusion. The adaptations of Villon in particular but also of Corbiere and Catullus appear like consoling blues tunes, Hank Williams songs or — to me at least — hymns. They echo present pain and thereby give solace and bring needed empathetic companionship. By the time we get to “Several Histories” the poet character of the book is more attuned to his devastations and to his joys. Hikmet’s wonderful poem is often translated as “Two Loves,” so mine is really an occasion in a little lyric spell to receive the gift of Hikmet’s kind genius and to hear it as I do hear it, through the noise and sweetness of my own disordered memories — “worlds” you might call them — some fairly real, most of them largely imagined.
I loved the references to the Rolling Stones. How does their music influence you as a poet?
The Rolling Stones are, for me, stunning artists. I was never the kind of person who wanted to rush down to their hotel after the show to try to hang out or the deluded sort who thought he should try heroin because Keith did it. I don’t care what they look like or who else likes their records, whether the new record gets good reviews. It would be my pleasure to meet them I suppose, particularly Charlie, but their music and performances have always been more than enough of a gift, a staggering gift of creative work for anyone who is interested. Keith, Mick and Charlie do something with rhythm that is transformative. Transformative of received influences, transformative to the central nervous systems of people listening, transformative in the highest traditions of art and on a basic physical level. Listen to Chuck Berry’s “Havana Moon,” then listen to “Beast of Burden,” for instance. I have no idea if the Stones were trying to do anything in particular there, but the relatively disciplined, infectious cadences of “Havana Moon” seem to me transformed into the peculiarly rollicking, infectious cadences of “Beast of Burden.” Dad taught me what iambic pentameter is so long ago I literally cannot remember learning it. I only remember, at a very young age, knowing what it is.
Where both deliberate the love is slight.
I just knew whenever some teacher asked me about it, what was in blank verse and what was not. So when I write something like,
The air is hot, it whispers, it has lips.
It whispers like good news…the beer is cold…
I know, having internalized blank verse a long time ago, I have internalized something else as well. perhaps listening to the Stones for 15 years prior to that helped me find my own peculiarities within that pentameter. Not quite iambic, but, for me, for that poem, it’s on the money.
You had three different poems titled “Medicine Show.” The way you paced them through the book gave the impression of a wagon traveling to different places. Do you see them as a sequence, perhaps as one poem?
I don’t see them as a sequence exactly, but I certainly see them as connected. I like the impression you got, Louis — thank you. The poem just needed three versions, and the book needed each of them at different points. Should one see the book as a quest upward, or downward perhaps, up Parnassus or down Mount Jackass, the three versions might simply reflect the poet’s gradual internal and external progress. After all it’s easy enough to feel discouraged not being able to improve society, even one’s own corner of it, and most concerned Americans might feel hopeless enough by now about a war one knows about mainly from seeing it on television, a hideously remote reality for something that serious. It’s not that hard to know burying one’s self in a pile of middle class burdens will be, for some, a realistic way to raise children, for others a form of self-burial. The last of the three, of course, is a healing lyric. Your parents are not perfect, and they love you. How much trading pain for pain might be avoided with such revelations? But the other versions have to be there, too.
I loved the evocations of your Texas childhood and family, particularly the son’s relationship with the father, with elements of rebellion and conflict as well as love. How did you give these personal narratives such universal power?
Such personal narratives had universal power a long time before I came along. Which is not to say I do not deeply appreciate your observation — such poems are, after all, great opportunities for falling on your face as a poet. Texas will always be profound to me. The places we live when we are little often stay uniquely meaningful. I always think Dad, his Dad whom we all knew as Kewpie, and Mom’s Dad, Granddaddy Bell, are the three greatest guys I’ll ever know. By the late '90s it became the norm to treat your father as ridiculous, like Homer Simpson, but rebellion used to be quite normal — beyond whatever Freud articulated. The best popular music of the 1960s is so incredibly good that a lot of cultural moments which were only really valid then became shadow versions of themselves for kids in the 70s, the 80s, even the 90s. Everyone was supposed to try to have their version of what they thought the 60s were. Kids my age wanted electric guitars for Christmas so they could play Van Halen covers. I always preferred the Stones and the Beatles, and I was captain of the swim team in high school and recruited to swim on a Division 1 team in college, so I was immune to some of that influence, but not all of it. For a while I suppose I thought you were supposed to be mad at your father. He was very patient with it for the most part, and eventually I decided rebelling doesn’t have much to do with originality. We returned to the norm then, which for us meant we were very close.
Your freely rendered translations of poets like Villon, Hikmet and Corbiere reminded me of similar work by Robert Lowell. Is Lowell a strong influence for you?
Robert Lowell’s “Imitations” is very important to me. After my first day in graduate school at BU I took Derek Walcott’s advice and went to the Grolier to buy it. Also at Derek’s suggestion I started rewriting Rimbaud and Baudelaire poems in free verse. Then I had the profound good luck to work with Rosanna Warren, both in the graduate poetry seminar and in her translation seminar. There I studied Dryden’s essay in earnest, along with the usual classic texts from Benjamin, etc. I still find Mark Strand’s Grade A poem “Translation” perhaps the easiest to sympathize with on this vast subject. I am not an expert in foreign languages but a poet who feels uncommonly indebted to older poets, many of whom wrote in languages other than English. My adaptations and imitations should not be understood too differently from, say, the Rolling Stones’ electric cover version of Robert Johnson’s acoustic “Stop Breaking Down Blues.”
The poem “Dallas Skinheads” stood out, combining the diverse elements that make the entire book so captivating. How did you see such disreputable characters as sympathetic, almost heroic?
The poem’s rhyme scheme is an abbc sort of pattern so it has a sonic fabric holding its various elements together. And it is in couplets, so they perhaps whisper the idea of heroics. And of course there is the organization of the poem, which for me is like the organization of images on a rose medallion vase or the weaving together of elements in one of Robert Pinsky’s poems. I never set out to try to write poems like Robert’s, but BU was the only graduate program to which I applied specifically because I knew I had to work with him. He proved to be every bit the mentor I needed as a younger poet, and more. Some influence is bound to show, I suppose. AS I say in the notes, I owe Robert a special debt of gratitude.
I should point out the young skinhead is not a neo-nazi but a social misfit trying to find a way to affirm himself. There is something at least poignant, if not necessarily heroic, in the struggle to affirm one’s self in the midst of confusion. The older lyric from “Streets of Laredo” is often thought of as a light little cowboy song. The Smothers Brothers did a pastiche of it. But it’s about a young man who’s gotten himself fatally wounded for no particularly good reason, and is trying to ask before he dies for some modest funeral. The Mom character in the poem experiences the sudden death of her own mother and begins to slowly destroy herself. The Americans in the Midwest, whose children may be rebelling for reasons unclear to them, may themselves be voting for a president who wants to make possible a winnable nuclear war. Unconscious, destructive impulses are not the private property of the young, even if the young may be the most obvious sufferers of such impulses. And of course, it is a poem about influences. We have free will, perhaps. The question is, do we use it?
Like Lowell, you have a gift for memorable, striking individual lines that click into the mind like gold coins. Do you work and rework these lines, or are they products of sudden inspiration?
Well, thank you for a great compliment. I compose all the time, always have a pen and scrap of paper in my pocket or by the bed, so sudden inspiration must certainly be part of what I’m doing. But I work on the lines, the stanzas, the poems, all of it, over and over. I have spent years listening to a poem over and over, trying to make sure the rhythms I have on the page are right for the poem itself. I take great swaths of lines, pull three of seven out and fuse them with one or twelve more I wrote at another time. No rules, really, except that I want to the poem to be itself, to be a realized, complete work of art. And, sure, for me part of that is giving it the right lines, not the flashiest lines, not the strangest lines, not the most formally strict lines, none of that. If the lines are memorable I give credit to the poem, that is to say, I said it aloud so many times it must have wrung from itself whatever wasn’t ringing true. As Shakespeare, Lowell, Sidney, Villon, Fulke Greville and Frost teach us, what rings true artistically IS often memorable. Thank you for the kind compliment to those poems.
What direction is your work taking these days?
My next book of poetry is called “American Bull Terrier.” It has begun as a book about force, Being as Force I guess, in the Heideggerian sense. But it will certainly go from there to become more complex. Dad is one of the heroes of "Medicine Show" — Mom and Dad. Mom is an ethereal presence reappearing throughout, and Dad rests in a big poem right before the last section. So far Kewpie (my father’s father) appears to be one hero of the new one. And my wife, of course, remains a Muse and a beacon. I never worry about formal strategy or such things. I learn about the form of the book as I write, revise and organize the poems.