|“I never desire to converse with a man who has
written more than he has read.” —Samuel Johnson
by Bill Yarrow
Growing up in a library, I fell in love with reading at an early age.
I should explain.
My dad’s business (running a penny arcade on the boardwalk in Ocean City, MD) kept him employed from May until September from early morning to midnight seven days a week. The rest of the year he was home with us. He was a voracious reader and an avid, if indiscriminate, book collector. He would frequent book auctions and purchase whole lots of books. One week, he’d bring home cartons of different encyclopedias. Another week, it would be plays—two or three hundred hardback editions of individual plays. Novels, cookbooks, memoirs, collections of letters, essays, literary history, art books, limited editions, small books in leather bindings, paperbacks of every stripe—our house was a book depository, repository, what you will. Our bedrooms, bathrooms, rec room (that’s what “family rooms” used to be called), garage, crawlspace—wherever you went in our house, you’d confront shelves or stacks or boxes of books.
I caught his habit.
I read everything. Everything. And then I bought every book I could afford and started building my own collection. As a teenager in the 60’s, I used to go into Center City (that’s what Philadelphians call their “downtown”) and hang out in this little bookstore on Chestnut Street (or was it Market Street?) called “Reedmore Books.” In the back of the store, they had a section of books without covers for ten cents apiece. I found some great books there! Ever read Nog by Rudolph Wurlitzer? On the back cover, in giant letters, a blurb screamed, “The novel of bullshit is dead!” (Thomas Pynchon). How could I not buy and not read that one?
The more books I read, the more books I wanted to read. The more authors I learned about, the more I wanted to read everything by those authors. I read like a demon. I devoured book after book after book. I never felt satiated. I never got tired. I could read anywhere—sitting, lying down, standing up, walking, on buses, on trains, on subways, on airplanes, in quiet places, in noisy places, alone, among other people, in libraries, in fields, on public benches—it didn’t matter where I was.
People who remember me from college remember me as the boy who always had a paperback in the back pocket of his painter’s pants. I was determined to read, along with the reading for my regular classes, at least one extra novel per week. Ah, the optimism of youth!
—Was there one certain writer you read who made you want to become a writer?
—No. Every good writer I read made me want to be a writer.
—When did you start writing seriously?
—When people started praising me for my writing.
All it takes is some early praise. And then all it takes is never stopping.
—At what age did you win your first prize for writing?
—Age 20. I won the Academy of American Poets Prize at Swarthmore College judged by Mark Strand.
—At what age did you publish your first poem?
—Age 30. In Confrontation or maybe it was The Antigonish Review. Same year. I can’t remember now which came out first.
—At what age did you publish your first full-length book of poems?
Age 60. Pointed Sentences (114 poems) was published by BlazeVOX in January 2012.
—30 years passed between publishing your first poem and publishing your first book of poems. Did you ever get discouraged?
—30 years passed between publishing your first poem and publishing your first book of poems. Did you ever stop writing?
—How old are you now?
—How many books have you published so far?
—Two full-length books of poems and four chapbooks. My third full-length book of poems The Vig of Love(79 poems) will be published by Glass Lyre Press on September 24, 2016.
—Are you still writing actively?
—Yes. I write all the time. Usually, I have about 40-60 poems out at magazines at one time.
THE OGONTZ BRANCHA Poem by Bill Yarrow
There are stories I will not tell, stories I shudder
to remember. You’ll forgive me for withholding them from you.
You may, of course, not tell me everything about yourself either.
A violation of intimacy? To me it seems its guarantee.
What I mean is we can tell each other anything,
but we don’t have to. A string is stronger for its knots.
It’s not that I prefer living in a house with a locked door.
That’s not what I mean. What I mean is
did I ever tell you about the Ogontz Branch?
I mean the Ogontz Branch of the Philadelphia Library.
It was on Ogontz Avenue between Old York Road
and Limekiln Pike. Thirty years ago, it was old and run down.
It wasn’t close to where I lived, but I used to love
to go there afternoons after school. I’d drive over,
hang out, read the paperbacks. No one there knew me.
I made friends with the librarian, a young woman
from Conshohocken with an odd, cocky smile.
Part of her job was shooing out the boozy bums.
It was in the Ogontz Branch where I discovered Intimacy
by Jean-Paul Sartre. A book of five longish tales,
the only stories Sartre ever wrote. With eyes blazing,
I devoured them. I ate without tasting, speeding through them
like a starving man before a meat buffet, but back then
I read many books I said I loved but didn’t understand.
Back then that was perhaps the point—to race through the pages,
to engulf, to possess the book—that, I felt, was the true thing!
It would be decades before I understood what I had missed.
If I am a book, I am Intimacy. Read me. Wrinkle my pages.
I am not asking for understanding. If you want to check
me out, ask the head librarian of the Ogontz Branch.
(This poem appears in The Vig of Love)
Bill Yarrow, Professor of English at Joliet Junior College and seven-time Pushcart Prize nominee, is the author of The Vig of Love, Blasphemer, Pointed Sentences, and four chapbooks. His poems have appeared in many print and online magazines including Pirene’s Fountain, Poetry International, RHINO, FRiGG, Corium, Gargoyle, Iodine Poetry Journal, and PANK. He is the co-author, with the Boston composer Ray Fahrner, of Pointed Music, a CD of poems from Pointed Sentences. Yarrow is also an editor at the online journal Blue Fifth Review.
Poems on Fictionaut:
TV interview on You Tube:
Eleven Print Interviews 2010-2014:
Print Interviews 2015-2016: