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.

John Wojtowicz

Like a Yin Yang

You once told me that part of my allure 
was that you knew 
we wouldn’t last. But after the night 
we came home kissing 
across the threshold and I lifted you 
onto the kitchen counter 
and, as usual, you left before I awoke 
but this time had locked 
your keys in the caryou didn’t expect 
a guy who needed AA 
to have AAA. We sat on my stoop 
sipping coffee and laughed 
about how you thought my solution 
would involve an old coat hanger
though you were unsure if I owned a coat hanger. 
And when in three months  
I lost my license, I thought your solution 
would involve an ultimatum 
but instead you offered  
to drive me down the Blue Ridge Parkway 
with its 45 mph speed limit 
and rhododendrons. I joked how 45 mph 
should be the national limit 
and asked you to pull over at almost 
every scenic overlook
along the 469 miles of America’s Favorite Drive. 
I think it was at Craggy Gardens 
around MP 364 that I told you 
how I grew up on a nursery, made 1,000 
rhododendron cuttings 
a season—that rhodos were first classified as roses 
and are the national flower of Nepal.
You said you couldn’t picture 
me as a farm boy and laughed 
when I said, in a husky voice: “that’s because 
I was a nurseryman.”
I told you there was a Free Tibet 
bumper sticker on my first truck 
and got heated describing the ongoing atrocities. 
You told me to breathe 
and then taught me to breathe.
You told me how you attended six schools 
in five years; how you don’t 
have a hometown or a middle name; how 
you love the homeliness of moss, 
the way it curates space.
We conversed lying like a yin yang
on a road-worn Guatemalan 
blanket and fell asleep in the shade 
of a Catawba rhododendron
as a nectarine sunset
juiced the Appalachian mountains. They’re older than 
Saturn’s rings and Earthly bone.
You stayed long enough
to see my court clothes become my work clothes.

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John Wojtowicz  grew up working on his family’s azalea and rhododendron nursery and still lives in the backwoods of what Ginsberg dubbed “nowhere Zen New Jersey.” Currently, he teaches social work at Stockton University. He serves as the Local Lyrics contributor for the Mad Poet Society blog and has been featured on Rowan University’s Writer’s Roundtable on 89.7 WGLS-FM. Recent or forthcoming publications include: Rattle, Split Rock Review, Soundings East, West Trade Review, and The Ekphrastic Review. He is the author of the chapbook Roadside Attractions: a Poetic Guide to American Oddities. Find out more at: