"Excellence Can Occur in Many Forms." A Chat With John Amen, Editor of Pedestal Magazine
The Pedestal Magazine exemplifies the perfect balance of variety, depth and an ability to stay eclectic. In the literary world of many journals that come and go, this one has found a way to make deep grooves In the literary world. The Pedestal Magazine has earned well deserved respect for a many reasons, as you will discover in this interview.
Interview by Connie Post
How did Pedestal Magazine get started? Was it your brain child and how did you go about launching the magazine?
I had wanted to start a literary magazine for several years, and always thought that it would be a print journal, simply because that’s the format with which I was most familiar. Encountering a few online journals around 1999, I quickly decided that going in a digital direction would be exciting and involve a fresh approach. The first issue posted in December 2000.
Has Pedestal Magazine reached your expectations and/or goals over time? Tell me more about what your vision was for the magazine then and now?
Well, I’d have to say yes and no. Exciting things have happened that I did not expect and which were pleasantly surprising; also, things I may have wanted or hoped for—I can’t think what off the top of my head—never quite materialized, or at least haven’t materialized yet. When the journal launched, I simply wanted to publish the best work possible, including work by and interviews with some of my literary heroes. There have been some very gratifying moments with this project. I do, however, regret that I never had the chance to interview James Purdy, though at least we did review his Complete Short Stories when it came out.
How do you select your contributing editors? Can you talk about their role and how each of you works together?
There have been various guest editors over the years, although we now have an established editorial staff: Arlene Ang, Michael Spring, Susan Terris, Bruce Boston, and Marge Simon. We also have staff reviewers, Cindy Hochman and Ann Wehrman. The journal has come a long way, certainly in terms of organization, hopefully in terms of content as well. Sometimes work is edited by one editor; sometimes the process involves a group. Deciding on which editorial approach to utilize depends at least to some degree on each person’s availability and level of interest.
As you know, it is currently uncommon for most journals to pay their writers, and yet Pedestal has managed to consistently achieve this. This is admirable for a variety of reasons. Can you say why you feel it is important to pay your contributors and how you consistently manage to achieve this goal?
We’ve always paid contributors. This will always be a priority. I can’t imagine continuing with the project if we were no longer able to offer writers some kind of payment. We juggle many financial realities but have been able to sustain that commitment.
Your submission guidelines state that you celebrate diversity and the individual voice of each writer. Can you tell me how you utilize this concept as you sort through thousands of submissions a year?
I’ve always felt that it’s important for editors to develop appreciations beyond their preferences. We all have styles, themes, etc. which we prefer, but excellence can occur in many forms, some of which may not even be appealing to a given editor. Again, to recognize that something original, or at least aesthetically significant, is occurring even if it is not immediately engaging is an important and essential capacity for an editor. In our own ways, I think we’re all committed to that, to reading beyond our preferences. This is why our issues typically contain a wide range of content.
Your response time says 4-8 weeks which is remarkable in this day and age of slow response times. How does Pedestal Magazine manage to achieve this response time? What is the biggest challenge in meeting this response time?
It is indeed hard to stay on top of submissions. We usually do pretty well. Sometimes it takes a little longer than 8 weeks to get responses out, but for the most part we do adhere to that 4-8 week window. Some editors will read daily, whereas other editors tend to use a more marathon approach. It depends on what works best for a given editor.
Your Poets and Writers listing says you accept 1% or less of your submissions. Can you say more about the ideal submission? Can you say more about what grabs your attention first?
This is, of course, a difficult, perhaps ultimately impossible, question to answer. We can usually publish about 15-20 poems per issue, given both aesthetic and fiscal parameters. That said, there are probably 30-40 poems that could be included. So, it is very difficult to narrow the content down, especially in that final stage. Many times final selections come down to intangibles: a certain tone, particular phrasings, theme, a kind of resonance or affinity that occurs between editor and poem. There are also those pieces which exemplify craft or at least certain aspects of craft. Again, it’s difficult to say what the “ideal” submission is. This, the mystery of the creative process, is part of what makes being an editor so compelling—stellar work comes in so many forms and so many voices.
Each issue is often generous with several reviews of both chapbook and full-length poetry books. Can you discuss what you think this adds to the overall readability of the magazine? What kind of feedback do you get from your readership on reviews?
Readers seem appreciative of the reviews. As the managing editor of the journal, I’m committed to including reviews. Many journals are ceasing to publish reviews. Pedestal will never go in that direction. (We did, unfortunately, have to start focusing on full-length titles to the exclusion of chapbooks, given the sheer flood of titles). Intelligent, insightful responses to poetry are important culturally and in terms of staying engaged in the literary conversation. To be able to articulate one’s reading experience in such a way that another reader might be inspired or at least informed is an important art in and of itself. If there’s one trend right now that concerns me, it’s how reviews are being published less and less.
It’s always rewarding to encounter so many different voices, to have a sense of what’s happening creatively in this culture...
Has there ever been a review submitted you did not want to print? Or disagreed with?
Oh, definitely. This happens all the time. It happens with reviews, it happens with work we publish. I’m not 100% in agreement with everything that appears in Pedestal. But I respect and see the value of everything we’ve published. The involvement of other editors and writers was essential for the growth of the magazine; however, part of this process involves people having ideas that may not always line up with mine. It’s actually important that I not agree with everything. I mean, if I disagree really strongly about something, or there’s some practical reason for not publishing a particular piece or viewpoint, I might mention that, but all in all, I support the choices of other editors and writers. It’s ultimately a plus for the journal and the arts in general, even if in the moment differences can present as perplexing or downright annoying.
What do you find most rewarding about being the editor of the Pedestal Magazine?
It’s always rewarding to encounter so many different voices, to have a sense of what’s happening creatively in this culture and, to some degree, abroad. I like having contact with such a varied group of writers and artists. As I see it, any journal is a hub of sorts, a platform for creativity. It’s gratifying that Pedestal has operated as such for almost 15 years. It’s also gratifying to be able to compensate writers, to support them professionally.
What are your hopes for Pedestal Magazine in the future?
I want us to continue publishing the best work we can. I also enjoy doing features that present different kinds of work. We’ve regularly published issues of speculative poetry, along with our regular literary offerings. We did a feature on the Bizarro movement a few years ago. We’ve published different kinds of fiction, ekphrastic poetry, have run text and audio of spoken word and slam pieces. It’s always interesting to run interviews. In the future, I’d like to broaden a bit, at least from time to time, possibly including reviews of films and music. This year we will also be redesigning the website to include more up-to-date technology, which will give us additional options in terms of what we can publish and how we can present work.
How do you keep Pedestal fresh and interesting? How do you stay competitive in this market with such a plethora of thousands of online magazines?
I hope the journal continues to strike readers as fresh and interesting. We do get positive feedback on our content and, indirectly, on our mission, to support the arts as broadly as possible while sustaining a high level of excellence. A lot of this boils down to simply staying in the game. I mean, 15 years is a pretty good run, and I’m pretty sure we’ll be around for a while longer, if the current sentiment is any gauge. But there have certainly been times when it seemed like the project might have run its course. Around 10-12 years, I think, I talked with a few people about the possibility of ending the journal. I thought that maybe we had reached the end of the road, so to speak. The trick was to get back to the feeling I had when I started the magazine, the desire to cultivate and support the arts, to encounter new work, new voices. After that period of ennui, I felt like I got my perspective back, my enthusiasm and commitment were regenerated. I also found myself more and more appreciative of what other editors and staff writers brought to the table. There’s a lot to say for simply sticking with something; at the same time, a project has to be congruent with your priorities, interests, and current trajectories.
Can you tell me about a few of your favorite interviews that have appeared in Pedestal and why?
W.S. Merwin was a hero of mine when I was growing up. I first encountered his work in the 1980s as a young teen. I can say the same thing about Philip Levine and Ai. In each case, we had several phone conversations and then compiled the text. There were other interviews that were pretty important to me as well: Michael McClure and Sharon Olds come to mind. Again, I do wish that I had been able to interview James Purdy before he died. I’d like to interview John Ashbery, but I don’t know if this will be possible. There will always be a place for dynamic interviews in Pedestal. We’ve always run interviews as texts; at some point, I’d like to consider filming them and presenting them as video. I also think it would be exciting to present live interviews, interviews in real time. Given current technology, this is certainly doable.
Connie Post served as the first Poet Laureate of Livermore, California from 2005 - 2009. Her work has appeared in The Big Muddy, Calyx, Cold Mountain Review, Crab Creek Review, Comstock Review, The Pedestal Magazine, Slipstream, Spoon River Poetry Review and The Valparaiso Poetry Review She was the winner of the Cover Prize for the Spring 2009 issue of The Dirty Napkin and the winner of the 2009 Caesura Poetry Awards. Her work has received praise from Al Young, Ursula LeGuin and Ellen Bass. She has been short listed for the Muriel Craft Bailey awards (Comstock Review) Lois Cranston Memorial Awards (Calyx), Blood Root Literary Magazine, the Jack Kerouac Poetry Prize and the Gary Gildner Award (I 70 Review). Her Chapbook “And When the Sun Drops (Finishing Line Press) won the 2012 Aurorean Editor’s Choice Award. Her first full length book “Floodwater” was released by Glass Lyre Press in 2014 and won the 2014 Lyrebird award.