|Oct/Nov 2017 Reviews & Interviews|
John Amen is a poet, songwriter, and musician. He is the editor-in-chief and publisher of Pedestal Magazine, one of the most respected electronic journals on the web. He has published five books of poetry, including Illusion of an Overwhelm (New York Quarterly Books, 2017).
GWP What kind of a personality does it take to do what you do? To be a non-academic poet? A poetry hustler, as it were?
JA I suppose I'm "non-academic," in that I don't teach in a university, though I feel a certain kinship to and affinity with academia. Sometimes I miss the academic world and, especially when I do readings on university campuses, regret I didn't go the PhD path. I like the word "hustler"; I think it's pretty accurate. Fortunately or unfortunately, if you're a poet, regardless of whether you have academic ties or not, and you want to reach an audience, move books, draw in some kind of revenue, etc., you've got to be prepared to do some hustling. I'll mention, too, that I've always appreciated marketing and/or promotional work, which many poets don't. So I do my best to promote my own work as well as the work of others vis a vis Pedestal Magazine.
GWP How do you take time off? Is that possible? Something you desire periodically? Do you ever get away?
JA There's a sense of being constantly engaged in an artistic way, in terms of observation or reflection if not application, as if life were field work or research, that whatever I'm doing is only as valuable as my ability to contextualize it artistically; i.e., how does this or that relate to or how might it inspire the next poem or project? I used to be much more single-minded, and I think it cost me a bit experientially and relationally. I'm a little looser now, I think, a little more flexible, making room for other things that matter in and of themselves, though I can still lapse into this sense, this illusion or delusion that life—all of it—is ultimately valuable only because it's the material, the raw data of art.
GWP How does constantly having to hustle affect your poetry, do you think? As opposed to the academic or traditional "leisure poet" gigs? In Strange Theater, in particular, you seem to carefully allow a sense, here and there, that the experience sometimes leaves you feeling jaded. For example, lines like: "I mean you want folks to know how you feel / but the bills are nagging / the car needs to be fed."
JA I enjoy the "hustle," for the most part. I was brought up in a motivated family. This has pluses and minuses as we all know. A capitalist setting, whether it be cultural or familial or both, can prompt one to be motivated and productive; however, it can also render one dependent on production, response, affirmation; that is, achievement (results) can supersede engagement (process) in terms of how things are valued. I have all that going on as do the majority of people in America and probably other countries as well at this point. I don't think the "hustle," specifically, affects my poetry. I think the deeper orientation, being motivated and geared towards productivity in the capitalist sense, can create weariness. I don't tend to think of myself as "jaded," but it seems every artist has to navigate that area between "true self" and "conditioned or compulsive self." Who am I? What am I doing? Why am I doing it? Am I chasing illusions? What really matters here? In the end, art itself, the act or process of artistic creation, is very pure, but obviously content is informed by experiences related to cultural issues and conditioning as well as deeper existential struggles, some of which are very personal, some of which are profoundly transpersonal.
GWP So you never say to yourself something along the lines of, "If I didn't have to spend so much time marketing and establishing contacts, I would be writing poetry that…" [finish the sentence to personal taste]. Or "…I would be producing a book of the poetry of my dreams every ten years or so."
JA Well, sure I do. I get overwhelmed by this or that detail or set of logistics or keeping whatever traction going, but what you're getting at, for me, is how we navigate this spectrum, on one end of which is obligation, responsibility, or commitment, the other end of which is freedom, abandon, or spontaneity. How to somehow integrate these conflicting needs? This, to me, is what alchemy, on a psychic or existential level, is: the reconciliation, moment to moment, of apparent contradictions into paradox. The Greeks were onto something by suggesting, as I read them, that Eros and Thanatos exist side by side, not only in the natural world but also in the psychic one. I want to move forward, I want to retreat. I want to connect, I want to isolate; ultimately, I want to live, I want to die. This may seem extreme to some. They may not relate, but that's my experience—not that I'm dealing with suicidal impulses, per se, but more that I want to bloom and I want to wither at the same time, because blooming takes effort and involves suffering, although so does withering, if it's done mindfully and not resignedly. That's a long and perhaps more abstract answer than may have been expected, but again, being alive, and especially in human form, and with an active ego, I'll add, makes things quite complex or, more aptly, complicated.
GWP I have to agree. That is abstract. But I think it is a matter of my having failed to ask the question well. Let's move on and maybe we'll brush up against what I was looking for in one answer or another. How much of the narrator in your poems is you? The various first person personae in your poems seem clearly to be closely related to your own self-image but more or less distorted to serve your given purpose at a given moment. Is that a fair description?
JA Like an actor, I guess I have to feel resonance with or connection to a voice or persona, even if it doesn't seem to bear that much resemblance to me. Some personae are pretty representative of me, some not. Some are based on perceptions of other people, some are simply aspects of self and other combined.
GWP What about The Gallery in Illusion of an Overwhelm? The section seems full of real autobiographical detail ("I hate this gallery Z sd, tablet in hand. / I love it I retorted… —that night he turned on me, saying universality / died w/ Plato.", "Jaeger said that Doggett staged the fiasco, it was / his scripted swansong." "Hey Hill, / who the fuck nods while perusing grant applications?" etc.). The first person character seems to be pretty close to your image of yourself at the time. You seem to keep the ambient details realistic by the fact that you've lived them. But both persona and details are distorted toward various purposes, touched up a bit, perhaps, in order to highlight the turmoil. Was there a Gallery? Was that a part of the business side of things at one time?
JA I've painted off and on for many years. I've never been part of a co-op or collective, per se, though I've been around a lot of artists. My experience outside writing is more in the music world, playing in bands, etc., though that was quite some time ago. I'm not trying to be theoretical or evasive, but there's no way for me to address this question without mentioning imagination. I tend to think of imagination as a leap from the known into an alternate view or realm, so that what's imagined is in fact somewhat/minimally derivative, though seemingly not. In many ways, it feels to me like a leap from a particular or set of particulars into a seemingly unconnected universal—a kind of: how-did-you-get-here-from-there situation. But all that happens behind the scenes, so to speak, and has to be attributed to The Muse (speaking metaphorically). So, I've known people like those characters. I've operated in somewhat similar ways, I guess. I've also observed and read and had conversations and seen movies and remembered dreams and imagined dialogues and talked to myself, etc. So, yeah, there's some kind of personal grounding, but the poems in that section are not ultimately what I could call autobiographical. I think I could say that about many of my poems.
GWP On the other hand, the narrator's parents… There have been father-issues, in particular, in each of your books, but the portrait the narrator has drawn has progressively gone from perhaps more or less normal problems to a dark place. In some ways, the mother was fared even worse over time.
wry Medea, forever mumbles to herself
in a room stale with doilies & potpourri,
one more Valium behind the curtain...
This trend appears to indicate a progressive fictionalization in that area. Across your books, it feels like you are working to make the parent relationship progressively edgier, darker. Do you feel like there is something you need to explore there? Maybe something urgent on some level?
JA In short, yes. Most families have at least some dysfunction, and mine is no different, to say the least. Mother is mother but also, at times, representative of the feminine, and tied to the anima experience, which is extremely all-encompassing, relationally and existentially, and which I tried to explore in the opening section of Illusion of an Overwhelm. Similar dynamics with father. I'm probably a little more liberated from family history at this point, I hope, but I do think there continues to be an urgency around mother and father, though perhaps in a broader, more mystical sense. Origin, identity, connection, all that has so much to do with the father and mother, literally and energetically. Milton and Blake certainly addressed this in their own ways, Blake perhaps more politically, Milton perhaps more in terms of karma and the unconscious.
GWP Are you familiar with the work of Dean Young? While your personalities would seem to be very different, your poetry tool kits seem to share quite a number of tools.
JA Yes, I certainly am. I've appreciated his work over the years—his take on the surreal, inventiveness with narrative, his atmospheres....
GWP Do you agree the two of you share a particular tool kit? Is that a conscious choice of yours?
JA Well, we probably share an interest in and connection to the French surrealists, John Ashbery, Charles Simic, maybe Rae Armantrout, among others. We're also both, I think, exploring balances between unity and disunity, intimacy and distance, subjectivism and objectivism. I think we've absorbed those sources somewhat differently, and we tend to resolve the mentioned contradictions (into paradoxes) in different ways. But from what I can tell, we probably do share some stylistic and thematic proclivities.
GWP Personality-wise you seem more intent on shock than he has ever been. He seems less confident, more vulnerable, amused rather than a victim of societal-collapse PTSD. His poetic world is only fraying, not shattered. You are getting up there in age these days, but Illusion of an Overwhelm is another escalation of physical and emotional havoc. Do you think you will ever begin to question yourself? Your poetic directions? Will you ever be able to transition into middle age? Ever be able to smell the roses without them turning black?
JA Ha, ha, I guess you don't have to worry about not "going gently into that night" if you've been telling jokes in the darkness since you were born. I do think that much of Illusion, especially the last part, is about the passage of time and also the deep recognition of beauty, especially as it appears in the so-called mundane. Also, I have a series of poems called "Portraits of Mary" (from the Alchemy collection) in which, I think, I explored love, beauty, humor. I tend to think of most of my poems as self-inquiries. I do sense that directions and content have changed a bit from collection to collection, at least that's how it feels from my standpoint, but who knows... all I did was write the pieces. Once you publish them, your intents or explanations or clarifications mean absolutely nothing. Reader response is all that matters!
GWP Thank you, John Amen, for doing this interview. Do you have any readings or otherwise events coming up? We'd love to help get the word out.
October 14: Woodstock, NY; The Golden Notebook
October 19: Philadelphia, PA; Moonstone Poetry @ Toast Café
October 25: St Paul, MN; SubText Books
October 26: Glenview, IL: The BookMarket at the Glen
October 27: Evanston, IL: Bookends & Beginnings
November 14: I'll be hosting another FABO event in Charlotte, NC, this time welcoming Jane Ormerod and Chad Weeden.
Pedestal Magazine submissions are open November 6th through December 3rd.
Thanks so much for this feature. I appreciate the interview and review very much, as will the folks at NYQ.
• Read Gilbert's review of Amen's Illusion of an Overwhelm.