Rappahannock Review Poetry Editors: “Like a Yin Yang” explores the development of an unlikely romance between two people. How did your relationships with other people inform your portrayal of love in the poem?

John Wojtowicz: Generally, all romance is mathematically unlikely right? And for love to be interesting or even just to be described honestly, there’s tension somewhere. It takes most of us some trial and error to come around to the idea that lovers who are too alike don’t usually end up meeting each other’s needs. The lovers in the poem are caricatures of my wife and I. When we started dating, we didn’t really have an agenda. The events are somewhat true with a lot of embellishments and subtractions in service of making the poem more true. For example, early in our relationship, my wife locked her keys in the car at a Dunkin Donuts near my house. She was with her best friend whose dad also arrived with a coat hanger. We ended up calling AAA. I sculpted this event until it fit the needs of the poem.

RR: The speaker ruminates on several moments within their relationship with the addressee, juxtaposing their expectations against each other’s actions. How did you approach framing this narrative from that perspective?

JW: I think it was a happy accident when I started to play around with the poem. The momentum started to build like a chess match where each player’s defenses are countered by the other but, in this case, the kings end up walking off the board holding hands. It helped to have the roadmap of my own experiences with discovery in romantic relationships to guide these opposite (or not so opposite) lovers as they defied each other’s conceptualizations. Most of our ideas about other people are projections and so there’s always surprise waiting behind the curtain when we actually get to know a person.

RR: We love the moments in the poem where the speaker’s voice and sense of humor come through (such as “you didn’t expect a guy who needed AA to have AAA”). How did you develop this voice as you wrote?

JW: I try to embody characters as I write them and I will have a conversation out loud between two characters. They also take on my qualities. It is sort of like how animated characters often end up looking like the actors who voice them. I try to lean into humor when the opportunity arises so it is a conscious choice to go with the funny line versus a more serious counterpart. Humor is risky because it is the least respected way of putting yourself out there. If someone tells a sad story, even if it isn’t well developed or fails to provide an emotive window, we usually respect the emotional labor. If something that’s supposed to be funny isn’t funny, we feel let down. My advice is to be confident when you use humor. If you’re going to go nude, you should strut around a little.

RR: We see in your bio that you worked on your family’s rhododendron nursery when you were young. Do you have any takeaways from that experience that have impacted your writing?

JW: I worked with a mishmash of retirees, alcoholics, undocumented immigrants, and whoever else needed a job. It was a revolving cast of characters so a solid stash of raw material is in that memory bank. One summer, I worked with this retired high-school shop teacher who got his hip replaced and worked on the nursery instead of going to physical therapy. His favorite days were when we would just weed pots all day. He would hum, tell dirty jokes, and then retreat into this meditative space for hours. I had no idea how he could just dial in like that until poetry found me. I wasn’t great at working with my hands which was a good indication I needed to go to college. While studying at Stockton University, I ended up taking a poetry course with Stephen Dunn that opened a lot of creative doors for me.

RR: Do you have any plants that you enjoy taking care of now?

JW: My house doesn’t get a lot of sun so I just have a few little plants situated near windows. I am having more success keeping them alive now that my cat is getting too old to jump up and chew them. My wife had this huge aloe plant that was constantly having babies but the cat eventually got the better of it. There’s a greenhouse on my property but the pipes burst before I bought the place. I haven’t gotten around to setting up a drip irrigation system. I like growing squash and zucchini because you have to do almost nothing to get a nice harvest. I’ve sworn off tomato cultivation. This summer I am going to try a little plot of zinnias and sunflowers. 


Read “Like a Yin Yang” by John Wojtowicz in Issue 11.1.