John Yau with Donald Breckenridge
Donald Breckenridge (Rail): What were your earliest literary influences when you first really discovered reading for the pleasure of reading?
John Yau: The first book I remember really loving was Mari Sandos’s biography of Crazy Horse. And the other book I remember really loving was Thor Hayderhal’s “Kon-Tiki” when I was seven or eight. Those are the first; biography, archeology or adventure books are the first books I remember reading when I was young. I couldn’t stand children’s books when I was young because they were meant for children and I didn’t want to admit that I was a child. So those are the first books and then I don’t remember reading with real pleasure again until 12 or 13. That’s when I discovered Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Burroughs.
Rail: The Beats. Are those influences still evident, do they still resonate?
Yau: No, I don’t think so. Well, I did discover surrealism when I was 13 or 14 and that probably still resonates to some degree. That came through painting I think because in Boston at 13 or 14 you couldn’t see a surrealist painting at the Museum of Modern Art, you couldn’t see any contemporary art. I did have a friend who really loved Salvador Dali when I was 14, so he talked about Dali, then I discovered that there were other Surrealist painters, and then I found out about Breton and I managed to get something on Breton around then. And the other thing I should say is I discovered a lot of the writers of Boston. Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and I read everything connected to Boston at one point. When I was 13, 14, 15, just because I couldn’t believe that someone living in Boston could write. So when I read Lowell’s “For the Union Dead,” I knew every landmark that he talked about. I passed through Lowell when I was a child and could see aspects of my own childhood back through Robert Lowell which to me, meant something at that point even though I’m not sure what it meant other than oh, you can actually write about these things.
Rail: Were you toying with the idea of writing then?
Yau: Yes. I supposedly, and why would my mother make this up, I supposedly told her when I was 13 that I wanted to be a poet. And my mother, much to her credit, said that that was a wonderful thing to want to be. I mean how many mothers would…most mothers would shriek and send their child to a therapist.
Rail: And then you came to New York in 1974. Tell me a little more about your time in Brooklyn. We lived a block away from each other in two separate decades in Fort Greene overlooking the park.
Yau: When I moved to Manhattan from Boston, and the woman I was with rented a room in an apartment on the Upper West Side and the man who owned the apartment owned a parking garage, he inherited it from his family. We decided we should move out of this apartment when we found out he had gotten into a relationship with some woman and gotten her pregnant and he didn’t want to marry her and one day he was at the door trying to break into this woman’s house with a tire iron and I had to be the one to defend this person. I was 23 or 24. I was in a situation I didn’t understand. So my girlfriend and I thought we should move and there was an ad for an apartment in Brooklyn that stated that we could live like Henry James overlooking a park. It was in the Village Voice and it was I think $175 a month. We had no idea, I focused on the life like Henry James and we took the subway to this apartment, the top floor of this brownstone. The man who owned it was the former assistant to the Foreign Ambassador for Japan. He had a Japanese wife and this incredibly beautiful furniture and showed us this apartment he fixed up and it was fabulous. We moved in and it wasn’t until after we moved in that we realized that the neighborhood was so weird. It never seemed to bother us because we had this really great apartment that was really inexpensive. But people would come over for dinner and said that they would never come back to the neighborhood again.
Rail: What were the most significant aspects of literary cultural life for you as you moved from Brooklyn College and began working as a writer.
Yau: I think in the ’70s it was so incredibly easy to meet people. That just kind of blew me away, you know when I was in Boston, New York seemed like the city where everybody lived in another world, suddenly I’m in New York and I meet John Cage or Harry Mathews or John Ashbery and I’m having a conversation with them. And I just thought that was amazing that I could meet Ron Padgett or people I started reading 10 years earlier when I was a teenager and then I’m sitting there talking to them and half the time I wouldn’t even know what to say to them, tongue tied. When I met John Cage, he came over and said something to me and the first thing I said to him was excuse me I have to go to the bathroom. I literally ran to the bathroom, closed the door and washed my face in cold water to calm down. I didn’t have much of a conversation with him, but it was just that I had met him. I was incredibly lucky but I also wanted to be where that could happen.
Rail: And then in the ’80s? Is that when you began writing fiction?
Yau: Yes, I began writing fiction and I also decided to really concentrate on writing about art and this would be something I’d pay much more attention to than in the ’70s and it became a much larger part of my life. I also liked the art world culture to some degree.
Rail: Well, I think it seems more accessible. The writing community is such a tiny world, a microcosm.
Yau: In a way I used art culture to let my writing go where I wanted it to go because I wasn’t really friends with that many people so I was just going to see where it went. I was probably encouraged to some degree by knowing somebody like Ashbery and other people, like Harry Mathews. But among my own generation, I knew practically no one, well Albert Mobilio, but…
Rail: Was Harry Mathews very supportive?
Yau: In the beginning he was. I remember once we went to a bar and he took out this huge notebook and showed me all the Oulipo experiments and explained them to me one by one and that was just an eye opener. You could actually conceptually figure something out and follow through on it. That was useful. Also, in the ’70s, I went to a huge number of readings. I felt like an innocent who just dropped in on all of this. I had no judgment because I had nobody to judge it with. I just had myself to fall back on and my own inclination was to have no judgment so then I was receptive to all of it. So that was pretty great.
Rail: How did you retain that non-judgmental perspective?
Yau: I don’t know how I do it. Probably because when I was younger, there were a lot of things I didn’t like and then I thought how stupid it was to dislike it. And then I just thought, well, who am I to dislike it? I mean I remember going to different shows when I was in New York when I was in my teens and I remember walking around the galleries and seeing a Willard Midgette show and loving the show and seeing H.C. Westermann and loving that and later being told that I loved all the wrong people. I thought, how am I supposed to know these are the wrong people to like and why should I now discount my entire experience of this and then now you’re supposed to like H.C. Westermann and I see this change and thought well, this is ridiculous.
Rail: That’s a healthy way to keep perspective. And then the ’90s?
Yau: The ’90s. Well, I moved to Berkeley for two years so that was significant and I lived, well not lived but stayed for long periods of time in Germany.
Yau: In Berlin.
Rail: That must have been intense.
Yau: So both of those were fairly significant in the sense that I saw myself from another perspective.
Rail: An American abroad.
Yau: An American abroad in California. What it was, I had dropped out of literary culture so long in New York that I felt alienated. And I went to California and I met a poet, Andrew Joron, he sent me a book of his in ’92 or ’93 and I actually didn’t write a letter back, I liked the book but I didn’t write back.
Yau: I think I was at that point where if someone offered, I didn’t write back, I wouldn’t know what to say or I felt probably still alienated from literary culture at that point and the idea of someone writing to me as a writer seemed foreign to me. So then I showed up in San Francisco, I did write to him to let him know I was going to teach there and I met him the day I got to San Francisco. And he recited for me three writers, I was one of them, Albert Mobilio—who is one of my closest friends—was one of them and who was practically unknown at that point, and then Joe Donahue who was another one of my closest friends. He recited our poems and I was completely flabbergasted. That was actually significant for a number of reasons, one because I actually realized that somebody had read my work and…
Rail: How did you become such close friends with Albert Mobilio?
Yau: I think I met him through Joe Donahue. I met Joe Donahue on a train going to Boston. Joe Donahue grew up in Hull, Massachusetts. It was Christmas vacation and I was going home and I got on this crowded train and nobody sat next to me. Well, probably because of the way I looked: long hair, black leather jacket, and sunglasses. Just when I thought no one was going to sit next to me this guy sat down next to me and pulled out a book of John Berryman and how many times in your life do you sit next to someone who pulls out a book of poetry, so we started talking, and I think I pulled out Louis Zukofsky, so then we had something to begin with.
Rail: How has having a daughter changed things for you?
Yau: Well, now we have a babysitter that watches the baby from 10-8. So there’s that. And then the other thing is you learn how much time you waste without a kid and with a kid you realize you just have to waste less time. That seems to be it. I think its great having a kid, sometimes I feel like I don’t spend enough time with her but I also know that when I’m not hanging out with her, I become conscious of how I spend my time. In a way I realize even in the ’80s and ’90s I probably spent a lot of time doing nothing or not doing anything substantial. Now it’s different. In the ’80s I had this habit when I worked of going to the bookstore every single day and buying something.
Rail: Which bookstore, the Strand?
Yau: Yeah or at one point when it was still in existence, the 8th Street bookstore on 8th between 6th Ave. and 5th Ave. Another thing happened in the '80s when I was writing; one of the things is that it was extremely psychologically painful for me to write. I would just get depressed in the course of writing and not be able to move practically. This actually started in the ’70s when I wrote. I remember when I revised some poems in the ’70s my way of revising was to copy the poem over and over again as if the simple acts of handwriting a poem would make me change it. So there were some versions where I handcopied the poem 300 times hopefully to change two or three words.
Rail: And would there be any transition in the poem?
Yau: No. I mean like a John Baldessari “I will not make boring art,” like over and over, I mean that was literally how it was. So I think now, writing, because of that, is not psychologically painful, because I’ve already trained myself to doing something or just staying in the room and concentrating. In the ’70s I really didn’t know how anybody wrote, I had no idea. I was just writing and sometimes I actually thought writing was the physical act of writing on a piece of paper and I would dislike what I wrote or I’d finish one line and try to get to the second line then work on it and try something and then I’d write another line and nothing worked and then I ended up writing the first line over and over again. It was a real madness. I mean my real writing came out of that.
Rail: I was really taken aback by the fiction you gave the Rail which I love, “Another Example.” It is quite different from the work in “Hawaiian Cowboys.” What’s transforming? Is it more of the elements from your poetry?
Yau: Yes, I think that’s it. I think that’s partly it. “Hawaiian Cowboys,” the way I wrote that was I decided to write a book of stories, I just decided one day I’m going to write a book of short stories, it’s going to be 12-13 stories long, because most books of short stories have 12-13 stories in it. I didn’t know what the stories were going to be and I just started writing stories and I numbered them all 1, 2, or 3 in my computer and I got up to 17 or 18 beginnings and I kept going back to them everyday and I wouldn’t know which one I was going back to because they were all in numbers. So I’d open up the one on the computer and work on it and if it didn’t work, I’d open up number two and if I got bored I’d open up number three and it just kept going that way until the stories emerged. I would move it from like number one to a title and work on it and I had a book of stories after two years. I haven’t really written a book of stories like that since then. My Symptoms has some of that. That I decided I was going to write some pieces but they were more like dramatic monologues rather than fiction pieces. So then now with this piece, Another Example, I just thought I’m going to write another book of short stories, I’m going to write 12 of them, I don’t know what they are, but that was just one of them.