Interview with John Amen
Born in New York and raised in Tryon, North Carolina, John Amen has travelled and settled across the U.S. a great deal of his life. However, he considers North Carolina to be his one true home. Now living in Charlotte, his writing career took a positive shift with the launch of Pedestal magazine (for which he is Editor in Chief) in 2000 and his first published book of poetry Christening the Dancer (Uccelli Press) in 2003. Since then, Amen has released two more solo works: More of Me Disappears (Cross-Cultural Communications, 2005), and At the Threshold of Alchemy (Presa, 2009), and a multi-genre collaboration with writer Daniel Y. Harris entitled The New Arcana (New York Quarterly Books 2012). Apart from his writing, Amen also occasionally paints and composes folk rock having released two LPs: All I’ll Never Need (Cool Midget 2004) and Ridiculous Empire (2008 Cool Midget). Now traveling extensively, doing performances (both poetry and musical), and conducting workshops, John Amen still embraces the growing culture in his current hometown calling this a “dynamic time for writers here in Charlotte right now.”
KS: Do you know at what point in your life you really started to enjoy writing, or realize it was your talent?
JA: Yeah, I think from pretty early on like age 11 or 12—definitely in my teens. Artistic expression was actually a bit of a lifeline for me, and it was sort of life affirming as well. It was redemptive and it mixed a lot of dysfunction and self-destruction or self-destructive tendencies. There was a lot of that going on back then. So I think expression really connected me to a life-force and it felt worth-while and it felt—not that I was suicidal—I don’t think I was really suicidal per se, but at the same time I probably had more connection with death energy than with life energy and I think writing, or even just artistic expression in general, was the connection to life. It was very renewing and rejuvenating and gave me a purpose.
KS: Would you say your writing was darker back then too?
JA: Probably, [laughs] I would think so. Probably my favorite writers back then were the Romantics to some degree, and then I think early on the Confessional Poets like Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. So for me it was more of a need to process inner conflicts, family problems and just that general sense of being somewhat out of sync with life around me or even within me. So yeah, I would say I was definitely darker and I think that, in a sense, is still the case even into my 30s or so. I think it takes a while to resolve some of those deeper issues and to put them down in a way that’s probably cathartic to the sense that you can maybe progress from there into something new.
KS: So now where do you tend to draw your inspirations from?
JA: I mean, I don’t really know what can really be considered inspiring specifically, but that’s the great thing. Anything can be inspiring. You can be somewhere or see something—an image, a sound, a person or just hear a conversation and you’re inspired.
KS: Is there anything you really require to help you to be able to write or paint or make music—a muse of sorts, I suppose?
JA: I think less and less overtime—I mean I guess there’s the time of course. You have to make the time, right? You have to create the space and the time to do it, which I’m fairly committed to. I guess to some degree I’ve structured my life to what’s possible. However, I don’t know if I have to have a muse per se. It doesn’t have to be in the morning or at night, or with music on or off. It can really just be any time or place for me.
KS: What do you do if writer’s block ever hits you?
JA: I’ve been fortunate, really. I don’t think I’ve ever had a so-called “block.” I’ve had times where I was more inspired than other times—or more fertile and more productive, but I think I’ve always been committed to write from where I am. I’ve talked to a lot of people who’ve had blocks and I think part of it is trying to write in a way that is no longer congruent to where you are now. So there’s a disconnection between the language and the inner-landscape to inspire what you’re writing about. I’ve always tried to be authentic in that sense and it doesn’t always work of course. It’s not like everything that comes out of that is going to be great, but at least it keeps the process going to where there’s not some kind of freeze that takes place, and then from that some sort of fixation about not being able to. A block is self-perpetuating in some ways. So I’ve been fortunate with that. Also sometimes there are other mediums that can help too. If you’re not having a particular writing flow, maybe try to play some music. That’s how I got into painting, because painting felt so simple for me. I’m not a painter really, but it felt so cathartic and physical. It’s like movement and color and rhythm, and it just feels like it sort of unclogs things.
KS: So with that at mind, as an experienced writer and artist, do you feel that there is a so-called “peak” to creativity? For instance take Arthur Rimbaud who wrote all of his greatest poems between the ages of 17 and 20 suddenly decided to stop completely, claiming he was creatively drained. Or Bob Dylan as well admits that all of his own best songs were in the 60s and 70s and he’s never been able to write like that again since. Do you believe that there could be a creative limit?
JA: Well I hope not, and I don’t think history really tells us that. I mean most writers if anything peak later. Rimbaud is kind of an exception, I suppose and to some degree that’s really a young man writing. That’s a young man’s poetry—it’s beautiful and I’m not saying it’s not quality, but the perspective, the voice and the content is something that you would write when you’re that age. He just tended to do it very well. But no, in my senses, whether the poetry is better than it used to be or not, I don’t really know. Somebody else would have to say that. But I feel like I’m much more plugged in and inspired than I used to be. I feel more fluid and more in step like I’m better able to express things. I do feel like there’s been some kind of expansion in terms of what I write about. So, I don’t think you would have to peak. I mean with a lot of rock music you do probably. For the most part rock stars peak in their 20s and 30s, but a lot of that has to do with marketing. With Dylan I would say yes, his stuff in the 60s and 70s were pretty hard to beat, but he’s done some pretty strong stuff in the 90s too. I’m assuming you were referring to his 60 Minutes interview, which is where he said that. However I feel like the good news for writers is to some degree you always tend to come into stride with something. Maybe you feel that all of your life if you’re lucky, but I sort of feel right at this moment like I’m really starting to be able to express what I unconsciously wanted to express all those years ago. There’s some sense of being in a space that I haven’t been in before. There’s definitely progress.
KS: Back to something you mentioned about some art being under the influence of marketing. Do you feel that pop-culture is taking art into a direction that it shouldn’t be going into?
JA: No, not really. People gravitate towards whatever they gravitate towards. Certain things speak to certain people, and there’s such a wide range of things in general. Of course some things are going to be more popular than others. I don’t know why. There’s accessibility and congruency with expectations. I mean, there is marketing, but I think art manifests in so many ways. If anything, what the digital orientation has done for art is kind of a great thing in my opinion. The whole digital space and social media especially is like an art project in a way. It’s like one big performance piece. That’s why when people say they hate it because “who wants to see a picture of somebody’s dinner?” Like: “Oh, I had spaghetti!” Well, taken literally, yeah it’s a bowl of spaghetti and it’s kind of boring, but if you take it in the context of the fact that this is all one kind of performance piece about cultural minutia, then it all is kind of fascinating. Looking through that lens makes the whole thing more engaging. I’m actually kind of fascinated by that. Warhol would have loved all of that, and a lot of other people would too. So, yeah there are things that I don’t really resonate with, but somebody else does. But I think art is a pretty vibrant and vital thing. It’s very encouraging, given all the war that goes on, I think art is one thing that is definitely connecting us to our culture.
KS: So, on top of your poetry, you’re also a painter and a musician. Do you take a different approach to your poetry than to writing music or painting?
JA: I think it is different. I can’t say exactly how it is, but I think there are different motivators emotionally and structurally with the different mediums. Painting to me, which I haven’t done as recently as I would like, feels so spontaneous, because I’m an abstract painter. I do wish I could paint a bit more realistically, but to me it’s just sort of spontaneous expressionism. There’s a movie about Jackson Pollack and a documentary as well, but in both of them they showed him painting and he would move in an almost shamanic dance while painting. So to some degree they’re less of paintings and more documentations of movement and a visual component to choreography. To some degree when I’m painting, I don’t feel I’m moving as much as him, but you can still see those choreographed shapes and movements and color. And with music I’d say I’m still more of a songwriter than a musician in a way and pretty lyrically oriented, but there is something different even there. I feel like lyrics or songs succeed or fail for different reasons than poetry. They are different effects at work. Even back to Dylan, sometimes people do publish his lyrics just on their own, but I don’t think they actually work so well. I think part of what he isn’t credited for is how great his melodies are. Those lyrics are phenomenal, but it’s the lyrics in conjunction with the melodies that make it work, because if you don’t have a great melody, or at least a melody that people connect with, then it doesn’t land.
KS: Of all your poems that I’ve read, I have to say the one that stuck out to me the most was ‘An Incident Worth Reporting.’ It sort of made me think of a Hunter S. Thompson-esque anecdote by being kind of absurdly interesting while at the same time I found myself bursting into laughter. What’s the story behind that one?
JA: I mean that’s an interesting one in particular, because one could say it’s more of a prose piece or a prose-poem in a way, or even like a vignette. I don’t quite remember how I landed on that specific image in the piece, but the underlying feeling is almost Kafkaesque in a way. Like when he wakes up and suddenly he’s a cockroach. There’s the sense of being so out of sync with your perceptions and whole orientation. Was the Neanderthal in that prose really there? Was it not there? Clearly no one else besides the narrator saw it. I guess I think about that sort of thing a lot. Like what if I was driving down the road and every red light I see is green, and I have a wreck that’s my fault. The other person would say “Well, why didn’t you stop?” And I would just say, “What are you talking about? The light was green.” So, I think that’s the underlying message, to be sort of out of your mind although you’re convinced you’re not. Like you’re living your life and your life is your life, but everything that goes on to some degree are norms to only you. Your norms are not everyone else’s norms.
KS: Yeah, that’s sort of why I made the Hunter S. Thompson comparison, like when he walks into a hotel lobby and everyone is suddenly a giant lizard. I sort of pictured you scrambling with your mind like, “What the hell did I just see?”
JA: Yeah exactly. You stop on the road and you see a Neanderthal masturbating on the median, and you get out to tell someone presuming that if somebody else sees it it would be somehow validating. There’s that sense that to some degree things are real or communal, but in truth they’re not.
KS: So who—fictional, famous or personal—would be your biggest inspiration? Or, at least presently, because I understand that inspirations can change overtime.
JA: Well, when I was younger I’d say Kafka was pretty significant. The stories themselves with their underlying perspective. I’d say Phillip K. Dick was as well; W.S. Merwin; probably the Confessionalists themselves too: Sylvia Plath, Sharon Olds, although Sharon Olds sort of leans towards the second-generation of that category. Nowadays I’ve been enjoying reading Denis Johnston, and John Ashbery has been very significant to me too.
KS: And anyone outside of writing as well?
JA: Oh yeah definitely, perhaps even more so. No one I can really say off the top of my head, but definitely music has had a big influence especially emotionally—painters as well. I think what it is, more than influence, is just the sense that, particularly with starting out, you encounter things that make you almost aware of what’s possible. I remember encountering W.S. Merwin’s work for the first time when I was about 13 or so, and just thinking, “Here’s something that’s possible.” Even now I still have that experience of encountering something that’s completely congruent. It’s almost like you’ve found someone who’s had a similar experience and you think, “Wow! You see it that way too.” Sometimes it could be that you’re introduced to something you didn’t really know you didn’t know and new possibilities are presented. It’s more in terms of inspiration than influence, I suppose.
KS: For you specifically, should poetry always be personal? Is that something you strive for or can it be about just anything?
JA: No, I don’t think it needs to be personal. Sometimes it might be, but I think I’m now less personal than I used to be. Now it might be personal in a deeper sense, there might be a personal connection there, or there’s an emotional tone trying to be expressed. As far as the details, however, I don’t really think so. I mean I think of the Confessionalists, which aren’t exactly personal actually, but they write in a very personal way. They sound very first-person, working through particular things that sound as if they are indeed personal. But you could take on all sorts of roles and perspectives. At the end it could feel sort of personal, but not necessarily be personal. It can be transpersonal.
KS: I’ve noticed a common motif of religion throughout your poetry, for instance your father in the poem ‘Inheritance,’ insisting that you “drive a naile [sic] through [your] right palm with a nail-inge [sic] gun,” in order to atone for your “incorrigible agnosticism.” Has religion had a major impact on your upbringing in general?
JA: Perhaps a little bit at times, but not really. I think more so that some people are seeking for a kind of answer or a sense of connection to something meaningful. Even Atheists are trying to make sense of things in a very similar way. They seem to have more in common than not. I think we’re finding out more and more that there’s really not a big gap between what scientists are doing or, what they’re looking for, and what others are doing in a more humanitarian way. Maybe the focus is a little different, but there’s a big myth in that whole left-brain/right-brain theory. When it comes to religion I think there is connection to the relationship with the father and the mother. There’s the real relationship, and then there’s the history of the world we live in and also spiritual implications around all of it. What was here before me, and will be here after in some way impacts who I am. So I think that’s how all of that is getting translated. That’s probably to some degree the psychological subtext and then it literalizes in a piece like ‘Inheritance.’
KS: Do you have an all-time favorite fictional character?
JA: I’d say I like Kafka’s K mainly because of that sense that there are things he simply can’t get to the bottom of. He is somehow embroiled in a scenario that he didn’t necessarily pick and he doesn’t know the rules. Whatever way he moves, there seem to be consequences he can’t anticipate. There’s really a humor about that. I mean, at first it seems kind of dramatic and tragic, but now it feels more humorous in a way. Sort of like something out of a Phillip Roth novel or even a Woody Allen film—and with Allen particularly, that’s kind of on his trajectory.
KS: Any shout-outs you’d like to make?
JA: Well I just had a feature in Main Street Rag, which is great. I really appreciate that happening and Scott Douglas is the editor over there. My new book will be coming out from New York Quarterly Books, which isn’t local but Raymond Hammond is the Editor and Chief there. I’d also like to mention The Pedestal Magazine, which I edit. I think the staff at Pedestal does a phenomenal job. So I really think Charlotte has a lot going on right now in the literary realm. It’s a pretty dynamic time for writers here in Charlotte right now.