The PEN Ten with Amanda Johnston
In this week’s PEN Ten, Guest Editor Kyla Marshell interviews poet Amanda Johnston.
Kyla writes: “Don’t look away.” Through her poems and her activist work with #BlackPoetsSpeakOut, Amanda Johnston urges us to face the sometimes painful, sometimes ugly realities that make up our world. Don’t look away from the terror wreaked upon black lives, or from the facts that our government has tried to obscure. Or, put another way: “Don’t stop afflicting the comfortable.” Her debut collection, Another Way to Say Enter, is out this fall from Argus House Press.
When did being a writer begin to inform your sense of identity?
I lived in Kentucky from 2000 to 2005. I started writing poetry with a group of faculty and students at the college where I worked. I became active in the local arts community and read across the state whenever and wherever I could. However, I didn’t identify as a poet until I was inducted into the Affrilachian Poets in 2004 and received a Cave Canem fellowship in 2005. Being in community with so many poets I admired challenged me to push myself personally and professionally to further develop my craft. Poetry became a huge part of my life. Now, poetry informs how I live, where I work, and how I raise my family. I discovered the poet within me and I continue to question what that means to better understand who I am and the work I’m called to do.
Whose work would you like to steal without attribution or consequences?
I would never steal another poet’s work. My goal is to write something as sharp and perfect as Lucille Clifton’s poem “won’t you celebrate with me.” If I can do that, even once, I will feel like I’ve mastered my craft.
Where is your favorite place to write?
In my office. I’m surrounded by books and pictures of my family and friends, but I’m also alone, wearing unplugged noise-canceling headphones. I hear my heartbeat and the light click of my fingers pressing down on the keyboard. I feel the words pass through me. I feel safe nestled in the center of my home with those who love and protect me, but separate and quiet enough to allow complete thoughts and images to rise from within.
Have you ever been arrested? Care to discuss?
I plead the Fifth.
Obsessions are influences—what are yours?
Current poetry obsession: hybrid forms. So. Many. Possibilities.
What’s the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words?
I don’t know. I do know that I try to reach deeper within self/place/purpose with each poem. This sets me in difficult water, but the more I stay there, the more I learn the harsh current and swim. When I feel myself start to buckle under the intensity of the work, I tell myself to not look away. I think that’s the start of something daring. A resistance to silence when expectations dictate what’s appropriate or improper for a moment. Like now. I’m considering this question and all I want to write is—Jordan Edwards, 15, was murdered by police outside of Dallas on April 29, 2017, just north of where I live. I want to scream his name and everyone else’s name who has died senselessly by those who’ve sworn to protect and serve. Say his name: #JordanEdwards. Don’t look away.
What is the responsibility of the writer?
I keep coming back to James Baldwin’s speech “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity,” specifically the passages: “The poets (by which I mean all artists) are finally the only people who know the truth about us. Soldiers don’t. Statesmen don’t. Priests don’t. Union leaders don’t. Only poets.”
And how for the poet “It is a total risk of everything, of you and who you think you are, who you think you’d like to be, where you think you’d like to go—everything, and this forever, forever.”
I believe this is our responsibility. I believe the writing tells on us if we try to find a safe way out, avoid a risk, or curve away from the truth, thinking it will keep us safe. The writing fails and reveals how we’ve neglected our responsibilities on and off the page to each other, to the people, those readers who have lives beyond the books we want them to buy.
Has the role of the writer and artist changed at all?
No. I believe our role has been, and continues to be, to create, to question and interrogate what we see, and to document what we find through our craft.
While the notion of the public intellectual has fallen out of fashion, do you believe writers have a collective purpose?
Writers capture threads of the human experience through language. We weave our threads together to create a fuller picture of our existence. The closer our writing stays to uncovering a truth, the better we can understand the questions and answers. If we fall short of that, we lose vital pieces of our collective story.
What book would you send to the leader of a government that imprisons writers?
The Crossed-Out Swastika by Cyrus Cassells
Where is the line between observation and surveillance?
There is a guilt associated with surveillance. The eye is not just watching, it is waiting for the inevitable wrong to occur and prescribes it with intense focus on its subject. Observation allows the image, information, or idea to reveal its truest self as is. The line is the intention behind the gaze.
Has the role and importance of narrative changed in this new digital landscape where false narratives and fictions are taken as truth?
Facts matter. They always have. I believe it is crucial that writers continue to combat the malicious manipulation of language being executed by those who seek to use its power against the people. Do not let them spin, bend, or silence the line. Hold the line.
Amanda Johnston, Mahogany L. Browne, Elizabeth Alexander, Terrance Hayes, Walter Mosley, Tracy K. Smith, and many others will present work at Cave Canem 20/20, a two-and-a-half day poetry forum at Weeksville Heritage Center, May 26–28. For more information, visit Cave Canem’s calendar.