Featured Nonfiction/Hybrid Writer: John Yohe
Updated: Sep 21, 2021
For this issue of Lammergeier, Ashely Adams spoke with author John Yohe about "Tower Point Lookout." Read on for a conversation about how power plays out across geography, using poetry to write prose, and Ukrainian progressive metal band Jinjer.
Ashely Adams: Thank you so much for taking time to sit down (metaphorically) and discuss this piece and process with us. First off, would you mind giving us a little bit of background on what inspired this piece?
John Yohe: The original ‘form’ was a long poem in twelve choruses, which I created/stole from Jack Kerouac. He wrote many ‘blues’ poems, and his ‘rules’ for them were to write in an improvisational manner, and to write all the way to the bottom of one page of whatever size notebook he had. When I became a fire lookout myself, I went back to his “Desolation Blues” (found in his Book of Blues) which he wrote while being a fire lookout on Desolation Mountain (and from which experience he also wrote the novels The Dharma Bums and Desolation Angels) for one summer. In my humble opinion, “Desolation Blues” is his best poetry. It also, by coincidence or plan on his part, is organized into twelve choruses, which to me goes right with the common musical chord progression of the ‘12 Bar Blues.’
So, my self-imposed ‘form’ was to write 12 choruses about my own fire lookout. I’ve written some others, one for every fire lookout I’ve worked at. Tower Point was my fourth lookout.
The other thing that happened is that, in talking with my friend Heidi, when we were both editors for Deep Wild Journal, she said at some point, talking about a poetry submission there, something like, “If it’s long, it should just be an essay.” I’m still processing that idea, but it did make me re-think, or re-vision, what “Tower Point Lookout” could be: It’s original form was full pages of text in my notebook, in poem form, with line breaks. But then I experimented with moving the lines up together into prose chunks, losing the chorus headings, turning them into paragraphs. Which ended up sounding ‘better’ somehow, though the text barely changed. I did tweak loose punctuation and nip and tuck sentences to make them ‘flow’ better for prose.
I could never have written this straight as an essay: it had to come more stream-of-consciousness onto my notebook pages, as a ‘poem’, though the original lines were so long I was taking them to the edge of the page, so sort of prose anyways. Maybe. But I still have a version of this as a long poem in twelve choruses!
AA: One thing that drew me to this piece was its use of “stream of consciousness” -- a melding of lyrical imagery with casual observations. Can you tell us why you choose this style rather than a more “typical” essay format?
JY: It goes back to the original form, and the influence of Kerouac, who was very much into this style of writing. In the original writing, in my notebook, one sentence would generally take up one line, and ‘be’ a complete thought, for me, in the process. The next line might be about something else, but still its own complete thought. Writing line by line allowed me to range more freely in my brain.
But also: there was mental preparation, a building up in my brain, before I began to write, with an intention of wanting to both write about the place (the fire lookout tower) and outside current events going on over in Portland (Tower Point is in Central Oregon, near Bend) as well as the more local history, which I was learning about on my days off by visiting the Prineville, OR museum (for example). I didn’t know how all these things would come together, or if they would. Or what else might pop up. Like that a fire would happen nearby helped, and maybe became the trigger to start writing: I would never start writing these pieces at the beginning of the season—I’d need to absorb the place a bit. But I think writing in a notebook nurtured the stream-of-consciousness, and the idea that I was writing line by line, rather than in paragraphs (though again, a ‘page’ ended up becoming a ‘paragraph.’ Line by line I could just shift thoughts more easily.
AA: Your writing is so heavy with the history of this location. How did you go about uncovering all of this information? What responsibilities do writers have when it comes to grappling with the legacies of a place?
JY: Like I said, on my days off, I stopped in the Prineville museum. And read some local history books. And talked to people who knew the area better than I, either friends, or the Forest Service and BLM workers I’d come in contact with. But also being aware over time of the general US history, in regards to white people displacing Native Americans. The mountains and valleys around that area (and all areas, but especially out west) come with names: Why is the John Day River named that? Who was John Day? Tower Point is in the Maury Mountains. Who was this Maury guy? I asked in the museum in town and one of the people there immediately told me a bunch of info on him, that he was a colonel, but really only because he was the richest guy around. And the soldiers there in Oregon weren’t fighting the Civil War: They were there to ‘protect’ white settlers—meaning drive off the Native Americans. There are still things I don’t know, couldn’t find out, like what the Indigenous peoples of the area call the Maury Mountains. And with the Ochoco National Forest, I never did find out what Ochoco meant.
AA: On a bit of a different note, I noticed you are a fan of metal music? As a fellow metalhead, I’d love to hear your recommendations, particularly anything that gets you in the writing mood. (Shameless plug, the Phraenozic concept albums by The Ocean have been my go to for inspiration).
JY: Thank you for this rec! Listening to an album now!
I grew up on classic rock: Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. Graduated to Iron Maiden and Dio, and progressive metal bands like (early) Queensryche and (early) Fates Warning, then (early) Metallica and Slayer. I really love odd time signatures, which all these bands incorporated, and I’ve wondered how that has influenced my writing and the rhythm of my writing. Tool was the next big band, still love them. The Ocean sounds a lot like the French metal band Gojira, who I like. Try their song “Flying Whales.”
To get in a writing mood, I generally listen to instrumental music, either classical or traditional jazz. I know Stephen King said he used to (?) write while listening to AC/DC, and maybe it shows, but I find hearing others’ words while writing distracting. For instrumental metal music, I sometimes use my Pandora “Buckethead” station, which dips into the old 80s and 90s neo-classical metal stuff too.
Lately, I’ve been into newer-ish bands featuring female vocalists, like Otep and an older metal band called Fear of God (I wrote an essay about their singer, called “The Ghosts of Dawn Crosby.”) Also have been liking this Ukrainian band called Jinjer. Their singer, Tatiana, is amazing. I actually like their first album the best. Try the song “Bad Water.” (I’ve written about them too: links to these essays can be found at my website.) There’s something about women doing the ‘cookie monster’ growl I like, though these bands all use odd timings too, and are ‘progressive.’ Tatiana is a great ‘regular’ singer, too.
AA: Finally, what’s your favorite bone?
My favorite collection of bones are the feet. I got plantar fasciitis about 12 years ago and couldn’t run for a long time, until I tried running barefoot. The PF vanished, and I went on to run marathons. I now try to be barefoot as much as possible, which feels good and keeps them strong.