Pedestals, Perspective and Poetry: an interview with John Amen

One of the long-running journals that’s been supportive of poetry, particularly speculative poetry is The Pedestal Magazine, founded and edited by John Amen. It recently marked its 80th issue in what has been a busy year for him, with the recent release of his latest collection, Illusion of an Overwhelm this April from New York Quarterly Books

His other collections include strange theater (New York Quarterly Books, 2015), a finalist for the 2016 Brockman-Campbell Award and work from which was chosen as a finalist for the 2016 Dana Award. He is co-author, with Daniel Y. Harris, of The New Arcana.  His poetry, fiction, reviews, and essays have appeared in journals nationally and internationally, and his poetry has been translated into Spanish, French, Hungarian, Korean, and Hebrew. He is also Staff Reviewer for No Depression

We had a chance to catch up with him recently about his collection and his current directions.

Tell us a little about yourself. How did you get started as a writer? What was one of the hardest things for you to learn?
I was drawn to writing when I was pretty young, probably 8 or 9. I started writing poems and stories around then.

I think that for writing to become and/or remain vital probably requires a lifelong commitment on the part of the writer, which translates to consistent and persistent practice. This is probably the case with any complex and ongoing endeavor. I keep hitting new edges, working my way out of boxes, into new ones, out of them. Forging congruity between experience and language, between conception and articulation is an organic and elusive process; a moving target, so to speak.

When are you most satisfied with a poem?
I guess at some point a piece feels finished. Then it gets published, then it’s in a book, then I reread it and say, “Oh my God, I should have worked on that one a bit more!”

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What’s a poem you usually suggest for a reader who wants to read you for the very first time?
The poems in strange theater would probably be a good intro. Then again, I want to plug the newest collection! So…check out Illusion of an Overwhelm.

What was your family’s response to your path as a writer?
Most of my family was deceased by the time I started seriously publishing. Had my grandparents who raised me been alive at that time, though, my grandmother would have been jealously supportive, my grandfather cautiously supportive, which is to say they would have vacillated between offering encouraging comments and passive-aggressive quips; i.e., mixed messages.

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Who do you look up to as your literary heroes and heroines?
Anyone who takes on the lifelong commitment, practicing for “the long haul.”

What was the impetus for Illusion of an Overwhelm?
That’s a tough question, really. I’ve always been somewhat of a Jungian enthusiast, and I’m sure that played some role with the poems in the first section (“Hallelujah Anima”). “The American Myths” are inspired by the overlap of politics, archetypes, and personal experiences. “My Gallery Days” is an attempt to elegize, eulogize, and satirize the art world as well as some of the misfits, dilettantes, and tragic figures I’ve known over the years. The final section, “Portrait of Us,” is an attempt to envision a life from the standpoint of someone who is on the verge of death or has actually transitioned into a different and dispersive experience.

There are some evocative images in Illusion of an Overwhelm. When did you feel it was complete and fully tied together as a manuscript?
Again, there came a time when the book felt complete. Most of it still feels pretty complete to me, though with every book, including this one, there are pieces, upon revisiting, that seem a little off, a little rough here and there.

The American Myths section of Illusion of an Overwhelm addresses some often painful and dark moments in US history and where faith and tradition, youth and the rise to manhood figure in it all. What challenged you the most writing this sequence?
To translate the political into the poetic or at least contextualize the political poetically, and in a way that preserved an ultimate sense of mystery, demanded new approaches on my part. The needed balances and segues were different than with other poems. Trying to create a seamless confluence of the political, archetypal, and personal, as mentioned above, demanded quite a bit of patience. I think that’s another thing these poems taught me or at least reiterated: the importance of patience. Hopefully I’m becoming a more patient writer.

Do you have any poetry projects you really hope to take on in the next few years?
I’m engaged now in a series of poems related to the recent death of my uncle. I have other projects in mind. I’d love to write more prose at some point, fiction and nonfiction. In the end, I guess we only get to document a fragment of the ideas and impulses that arise.

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What’s your favorite music to listen to as you write?
I listen to music pretty obsessively but not while I write.

Coffee or Tea?
Coffee! In fact, I think I’ll get a cup now.

What’s your preferred writing space?
Definitely my office, though I’ve done some decent work in other places.

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80 issues is a long time for a literary journal like The Pedestal Magazine. What keeps you going?
We work together well, and we’re all committed to reading beyond our preferences and default criteria, which is to say: seeking and acknowledging potentially innumerable forms of excellence. As anyone who edits a magazine knows, the process can be quite overwhelming—reading through thousands of submissions, arriving at a small percentage of pieces to be published. But it’s also remarkable to encounter so many voices. I still experience a sense of being adrenalized when reading submissions.

What’s your advice for beginning writers who want to write poetry?
Just start writing and practice. Keep reading. Discuss relevant matters—aesthetics, techniques, history—with other people. Live. Share your poems, if you’re inclined. Mostly just practice. And live. Be committed to the process for, to reuse the phrase, “the long haul.”

 

Be sure to visit him at his website http://www.johnamen.com/

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