John Amen Talks Poetry vs. Prose

John Amen is the author of five collections of poetry: Christening the Dancer, More of Me Disappears, At the Threshold of Alchemy, The New Arcana (with Daniel Y. Harris), and, most recently, strange theater (New York Quarterly Books). His work has appeared in journals nationally and internationally and been translated into Spanish, French, Hungarian, Korean, and Hebrew. In addition, he has released two folk rock CDs: All I'll Never Need and Ridiculous Empire. He is also an artist, working primarily with acrylics on canvas. John travels widely giving readings and conducting workshops. He founded and continues to edit The Pedestal Magazine.

Loren Kleinman (LK): Talk about the title. How did you come up with it and what's its connection to the overall theme of the collection?

John Amen (JA): Life strikes me as prototypically theatrical. I have the feeling that much of what is occurring, at least in the human realm, is tantamount to an improvisation within certain prescribed parameters, which I think of as conditioning, karma, causality, etc. This life is like an unending theatrical production--comic, tragic, absurd, meaningless, exhilarating, sacred, profane, ritualistic, personal, impersonal, and so much more.

LK: You move from poetry to prose. Which do you feel most comfortable writing? Why?

JA: I think that both poetry and prose can be infused with energy, evocative images, and distinct emotions, and can direct and transport a reader in numerous ways. Prose is often regarded as a vehicle for narrative, poetry as being somewhat less anchored to the linear, but it seems to me that each can inform the other. Which will work best for a given piece is, at least for me, determined intuitively, with a sense that language and the desire for discovery can drive the creative process, regardless of what form it takes.

LK: What's so beautiful about doubt? What about infinity? How do we lose track of time when we write poetry? When we read it?

JA: I often experience doubt in the form of melancholy, which can be a portal to the epic, as long as it isn't part of a habitual psychological trance or dissociation, a state with which I'm unfortunately quite familiar. Melancholy often conjures for me a heightened and oddly exhilarating anticipation of death, which in turn reminds me of the finiteness of my life, finiteness being at least one of the fundamental realities, also probably the foundational source of anxiety and for many the primary artistic inspiration. I create because I know I'll die, because I yearn for infinity?

My sense is that I lose track of time whenever I'm fully immersed in my experience. This is how a moment can feel like a lifetime or vice versa. I've always been interested in how we experience time and/or timelessness in different ways, how these different ways inform each other, and inform our perceptions, feelings, and thoughts.

LK: Talk about the ordinary. How can poets make more use of observation, of observing the ordinary?

JA: Sometimes the to-do list, the routine, the day-to-day can feel oppressive. Within an artistic framework, however, I can transform the ordinary into what feels like the epic. When placed within a poetic context, an activity such as rolling the trashcan to the street can be elevated or re-contextualized; a seemingly mundane detail of my life can be transformed into something transpersonal and possibly mythic. This process is no less than redemptive. I think many writers share this experience, which is why you often hear people say, "I don't choose to write, I have to write."

Re observation, I do think that continuing to develop an observer's eye is important for me, both observing the phenomenal world--images, details, sequences--and the inner world--perceptions, sensations, feelings, thoughts--learning to note the nature and content of my experience as it shifts from moment to moment.

LK: What is the value of including symbols and abbreviations in your poetry? How does this technique mirror emotion?

JA: The use of symbols; for example, "@" instead of "at"; or abbreviations, such as "yr" instead of "your," are simply experimentations with language and what I might call iconography. I can't say that using symbols and abbreviations was a deliberate decision, or that I had a conscious strategy, there was simply an intuitive pull in that direction, a sense that symbols and shorthand--integrations of vernacular, really--might affect a reader's experience in a meaningful way. It's compelling how subtle changes can alter or impact the overall response. I've been curious to hear feedback from readers re the use of symbols and abbreviations. One person reported that the approach seemed "cosmopolitan," another that it "made for a streamlined read, especially when placed within the context of darker poems."

LK: Do you believe "poetry is the crown of literature"? Why? Why not?

JA: I do think that poetry can be uniquely transportive. Then again, I've certainly read prose that was equally evocative. This may seem like a cop-out, but I'd have to say that any writing, prose or poetry that offers the reader wings for at least a moment or two deserves a crown of some sort. Of course, what offers this experience will vary from reader to reader. I can also speak about this from the writer's perspective. There is something deeply affirming about discovering the right word, phrase, or image in a poem, but writing a resonant and rhythmic sentence can also be utterly transcendent. In the end, the relationship between reader and writer is a mysterious thing; as with all relationships, some will have deep congruence, others less.

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