Pedestal Magazine, John Amen (Interview)
Interviewed by Anastasia Farley
Poets and writers alike will undoubtedly feel at home after exploring Pedestal Magazine. Pedestal primarily publishes poetry and reviews, and they recently celebrated their 20th anniversary with Issue 87 of 2020. They are currently open for submissions until May 30th for their June 2021 issue, Pedestal 88. The interview I had with founder and managing editor John Amen started as an interview about the inception of Pedestal and the editorial processes involved in a literary press. But it soon became a discussion about so much more. Pedestal’s mission to “support both established and burgeoning writers,” as well as their commitment to “promoting diversity and celebrating the voice of the individual” can be clearly seen when talking to Amen. Amen reflects the open, welcoming presence of Pedestal, with his North Carolina accent conveying his “very small-town” roots. After reading this interview, you’ll want to read Pedestal yourself.
ANASTASIA FARLEY: I wanted to first start with your introduction to publishing and editing, and also just writing, because I saw that you have a lot of pieces [published] in various different genres.
JOHN AMEN: I was always interested in writing, I think I got into it as an early teen. I always found it meaningful. I just had a real interest in it. Mostly poetry. I actually got into music for a good, few years, where I was channeling all of that more into songwriting. But then I kind of came out of that, and now I’m focused really on poems and publishing poetry. I’ve been doing reviews, which is a nice compliment to that…And I really like that, I think it’s very grounding, and it’s a good contrast to poetry, which feels more…etheric, almost ungrounding at times.
AF: So, in terms of Pedestal Magazine, I wanted to know what was the inception of this magazine, and maybe how the mission has evolved or changed over time. And just the whole creation of this magazine.
JA: Well, our first issue was December 2000, and I had gotten interested in the idea of publishing a magazine probably in ’97 or ’98. It started to really become clear that that was something I wanted to do. And then I started to see online magazines, not many in ’99 or the early 2000s, but there were a few on there. Pif was on there, Offcourse, I think Stirring. Nothing like now, there’s just so many now. Which is great!
Anyways, I thought it was really interesting, and it seemed kind of radical at the time, and edgy, and a new frontier of sorts. And so, then I let go of the print idea and went with the online. We’ve always published poetry. One of the things that’s changed is that when we started, it was pretty much just me, and now we have six or seven of regular staff. When we do an issue of poetry, we usually have four editors. Each editor reads, and we discuss these pieces. There’s much more people involved, more of a team than it used to be. We used to publish fiction, and we haven’t done that for a while, but we may pick that back up.
AF: I did want to ask how you decide what genres you want to publish? I think reviews are really interesting and an interesting inclusion to see in literary magazines. (I briefly divert to praising his list review of the best albums of 2020, which included Rina Sawayama’s debut album SAWAYAMA. “Last year was a good year for music,” Amen says)
JA: Music reviews are really popular now. But, for some reason literary reviews…there are a lot of magazines that are starting to drop them and I think its unfortunate. It’s one of the ways you keep the conversation of literature going. We operate day to day in a ‘like, don’t like’ kind of mentality, with social media in particular. I think reviews give people an opportunity to write and read about the subtleties that actually make things work as opposed to a sort of ‘thumbs up, thumbs down’ approach. I’m committed with Pedestal to always run reviews. To have some kind of commentary on literature just seems kind of important.
We ran a speculative issue one time…a pretty interesting subgenre. We’re open to genre. And if we do fiction, it’ll probably be a special issue, with a guest editor.
AF: Delving more into the editorial process, because I read in an editor’s note that you said it’s always “an exhilarating, expansive experience,” and I wanted to hear about the process you and your team go through.
JA: Most issues don’t have themes…[they] are open. The upcoming one in June…will be open too. The process usually—it varies a little bit from issue to issue—but usually, let’s say, there’s four editors. Typically, we would be open to submissions for a month, each editor would read for a week, and make however many picks. Then we’ll take all those picks and put them together. And then from that overall number, let’s say 50 poems, we’ll pick 20.
So that’s when it gets really interesting because there’s all of these discussions. So, people are making a case for this and that poem, and that’s always interesting because people shed light on why they think this or that works. As an editor you’re tying to be objective as possible. You want to be able to see excellence outside your preference. That’s how I looked at it. As editors we agree that we’re not looking for a homogenous thing, we want to recognize a variety of things, that are all excellent in their own way. Usually we work through it all very well (“You’d be surprised about how heated someone can get about a poem,” Amen said, laughing about the initial bumpiness of this process during the early stages of Pedestal. “But I guess that’s a good thing!”) The interpersonal dynamics not only yield a better mix of work, but you also learn something, and are asked to operate in a way you might not otherwise, and to dialogue in skillful ways. Life-learning as well as an aesthetic exercise…The great thing about art are the conversations that can come out of it.
AF: I wanted to talk about cover design and how you pick what goes on the cover, if it reflects the pieces. Also, some of the poems have recordings along with them, so I wanted to ask about the decision making behind that.
JA: We say to the poet, are you able to include audio? Usually about half, or more than half, send us an audio, which I like. I think it’s a nice element. To be able to read it and then hear it, or hear it and read it together. It’s one of the advantages of being online, you have that kind of capability. More and more, that technology is becoming pretty usable, even for poets (laughs) who are notoriously not tech-savvy.
As far as the art, it’s somewhat random. sometimes I’ll see something posted somewhere and just think, wow that’s a great image! We also get submissions, people send art. We don’t have an actual call for submission for art, but sometimes we’ll pick one from there. A lot of times, I’ve just got an eye out. It could be on social media. We went to a gallery one time, got in touch with the artist, and we went from there. Something kind of spontaneous, and magical about it.
AF: I just wanted to pick your brain about your passion for poetry, and your thoughts on it.
JA: That’s a big question. What appealed to me when I was really young was there seems to be something about how language is used in poetry that seems particularly alchemical in a way. There’s something where you’re using language to go beyond language. I can reflect now and I realize that there was something redemptive about it for me as a young teenager. Through poetry there was a kind of validation that could happen. Redemption seems like an exaggeration but not really. There was and there still is something redemptive about it. For me, in a way, poetry can transform suffering into something beautiful, you know? People say, “Oh that’s a sad poem.” Well, not really, not necessarily. Yes, I suppose that you could say this content is sad but the process of putting those conscious and unconscious experiences into language in that way is very life-affirming. It goes beyond the kind of utilitarian uses of language. There’s something that takes you beyond yourself, and beyond the world, and beyond language itself. That’s a pretty powerful thing to engage in.
We went on to discuss music, music reviews, as well as music’s similarities to and relationship with poetry. Amen also discusses asking writers, poets, and other individuals that left an impact on him, citing James Baldwin, John Ashbery, Jesmyn Ward and W.S. Merwin. When talking about the books that impacted him in his youth, such as a collection of Greek myths and a poetry collection titled Naked Poetry, it became a discussion about the evolving relationships between people and art, as well as the impact of writing, music, and art on young creatives. John Amen and Pedestal Magazine represent the type of mentorship and guidance that all young writers and poets can hopefully experience during their journeys as artists.