Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Interview with Anna Journey

A year and a half ago, I worked as an editorial assistant at The New Criterion. One of my jobs was to send the famously irascible poetry critic, William Logan, books for possible review. New books would come in from publishers all over the place. In this case, it was an act akin to leaving your baby out in the Savannah, with lions and cheetahs and hyenas running around searching for pink soft chewy things to eat. I liked going through the new books, for obvious reasons. Usually though, I'd peruse the book and feel uninspired, place it back down, and that would be that. I had been trying to work on a series of poems called "Quarry is a Place for Nesting" (it didn't work out) when what book should arrive but a book called If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting by Anna Journey. There was a feeling of almost sisterhood, with our similarly felt utliziation of a word like 'nesting'; so much of a wry conflation of maternity and a post-modern age's sensibility. I did my usual dance of opening the book in order to scan it for possibly exciting language. I read the first poem, "Adorable Siren, Do You Love the Damned?" I read the first poem. I read the first poem. I read the first poem. Almost immediately, my poem, which had instantly seemed so kith on the surface, became wildly inferior to the beauty, control, and wile of Journey's work. I remember being most drawn to the closure's sex-and-violence grace, which made me feel like something in me was slipping off into a crag:

...I'm drunk

though I won't wear heels, honey, or I'd fall

for anyone. I'd fall devil

over heels over edge over oleander
over open mouth

over birthmark over forked

tongue over forked tongue
that turns on mine.

The experience of reading this book made me want to trade in my diction for arcane tools and demented flowers. I remember wanting very badly to know this person, or at least make myself known to them. After I got into the contact with her, her name started popping up everywhere, whether in the literary journal Parnassus, or on random websites lauding the book as part of a best summer reading list. She's a poet of decadence, flare, trickery, and come-hither, someone with whom music and character are on equally intense lyric plains. I knew that speaking with her would be fun as hell, and all of its sexy devils. And with all of the sharp, irresistible language in her poems, this interview revealed to me the very level balance between her attention to language and her intellectual prowess in Contemporary Poetry, which are also earnest and smart as hell to say the least.

The Naughty Fabulist's Heart: A Conversation with Anna Journey

In your debut collection, If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting, there is, amid other things that I hope to get to, a powerful obsession with flowers and even the renaming of flowers. It’s like a Field Guide to Flowers of Hell. You also have an interest in the elegy, and suffice it to say, there rings an elegiac note (if not straight up elegies) throughout your collection as well. There is an obvious connection between flowers and the dead, but can you speak of how these obsessions converged in your mind to become such a ferocious lyric?

“Field Guide to the Flowers of Hell”—oh, yeah. I like that! You know, I think it’s tough to explain the nature of one’s own peculiar obsessions. (“Why was the Fonz my imaginary friend in fifth grade?”; “Why did I collect squirrels’ tails?”) Obsessions can often feel quite mysterious, even to the obsessed!

One summer, while I was a broke MFA student in creative writing at Virginia Commonwealth University, I worked in the lawn and garden section of Lowe’s hardware shop in Richmond, Virginia. Believe it or not, I actually requested the outdoor assignment, despite the mosquitoes and the sweltering June humidity. This way I could escape the bland palpitations of Muzak that sorely afflicted the indoor realm of the store. I could also stare at tea roses, Japanese maples, and stone fountains instead of light bulbs, vacuum cleaners, and toilets. When I wasn’t working the cash register, I’d go on watering duty, and walk around the steamy hanging gardens with a hose, letting the dry plants drink up and deadheading the shriveled stems and husks.

I only knew the names of a few flowers when I began the job. I soon realized, though, that if a lady walked up to me and asked me in which aisle we kept the lantanas, I couldn’t very well stutter, “Uh, you mean those yellow things with the tinier, orange tongue-thingies inside?” I soon memorized the names of nearly every plant in the store.

We’d get shipments of new flowers each week. One time, several carts full of roses arrived and, to my surprise, the flowers were named “Anna Elizabeth” (my first and middle names). I got a real kick out of helping load those frilly, pink versions of myself onto the tiered display cinderblocks. I was like, “No, after you, Anna. After you.”

There are certain varieties of hibiscus with bizarre and cosmic names, such as “the Fifth Dimension” and “Eye of the Storm.” I decided to see how far out I could go with my renamed flower and decided upon “Lucifer’s Panties,” among other monikers. There’s a poem in my book called “Lucifer’s Panties at Lowe’s Garden Center” that draws on my experience in the garden center. So goes my floral education.

But I think poets have always been interested in flowers. Wordsworth gets it right in “Ode: Intimations of Immortality” when he writes: “To me the meanest flower that blows can give / Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.” And look to Baudelaire’s haunting Les Fleurs du Mal or Plath’s aggressively leonine bouquet in “Tulips”: “The vivid tulips eat my oxygen.” Flowers remind us of our mortality: they’re beautiful; they’re brief. Plus, I like a lyric in which decadence and damnation meet.

I’d like to imagine all poetry collections are written as a way to avoid and/or escape the Muzak, that bland score of ennui. And rereading “Lucifer’s Panties at Lowe’s Garden Center” with this autobiographical tip does change so much of the experience for me. That you changed the name of the flower from “Anna Elizabeth” to “Lucifer’s Panties” due to the flowers being “too damn pink and ruffled” makes me wonder about gender roles in this collection—especially up against the devil, who is unmistakably male, and with whom you are always in the midst of some spectacular bitch dance. The devil is also part of a community of red things that so often make an appearance (your hair included), but his appearance is, for obvious reasons, the most active. And yet, it seems the devil’s always up against you, the fearless feisty femme, rather than the other way around. Could you talk about that dynamic a bit, and then more generally how the devil works as a recurring character?

I think I’ve always been interested in the fabular realm: I love the magical characters that populate fairy tales, folk tales, and myths. The devil strikes me as one of the most potent mythic figures. He’s dark, he’s gaudy, he’s powerful, he’s wounded, and, oh, he’s sexy as hell. I think there’s a lot of imaginative and erotic potential to be found in such a figure. Maybe he’s my male muse, or a kind of alter ego: my big, red, psychic wrestling partner in that—what did you call it?—“spectacular bitch dance.”

In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Blake calls Milton “a true Poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it” for the way the latter writes more adventurously and imaginatively about Satan in Paradise Lost. I think all poets hold a lifetime membership in the Devil’s party, or at least they should!

I think, too, that recognizing—and reckoning with—the demons that wander our streets and thoughts is a way to split open the beautiful world and expose its underlying sense of menace or threat: dark desires, bizarre fantasias, old traumas that warp the machinery of our memories and our minds’ eyes. There’s a wonderful quote from an interview with the film director David Lynch in which he discusses growing up cloaked in the beguiling normalcy of Middle America. He used to stare at a lovely cherry tree in his suburban neighborhood. “But on the cherry tree,” Lynch says, “there’s this pitch oozing out—some black, some yellow, and millions of red ants crawling all over it. I discovered that if one looks a little closer at this beautiful world, there are always red ants underneath.”

I know I’ve got my glittery card of damnation in my wallet at all times. I absolutely love that Lynch quote, and it reminds me of your poem “Walking Upright in a Field of Devils,” specifically the lines, “In the field: goat eyed and planetary, // something about to move, the half-bloomed moon, / a pecked-out tea rose.” What a great moment. It also makes me wonder, speaking to that beguiling normalcy of Middle America—or really, any American suburb—about your dueling negotiations with the, as you called it, “fabular realm” and the autobiography. You speak of your dead grandparents and great-grandparents with a kind of Blakian weirdness—in “The Mirror’s Lake Is Forever,” for

example, the dead, your grandfather included, “can watch you pee without // even a trace of embarrassment.” Your immediate family does come up too, especially that sinewy image of your mother and her snapped vertebrae. How does one follow the other further down that infernal rabbit hole?

As a novice poet, I’d try to faithfully record my immediate personal experiences. I’d write about a break-up or, you know, the monstrous tragedy of turning twenty-two. To encourage me to write outside my limited experiences, an early poetry teacher of mine suggested that I try assuming personae. I love Norman Dubie’s persona poems. I admire the cinematic sweep of his historical places, his vivid imagery, and his startling approach to the dramatic monologue. Damn, he drives me wild! Dubie remains an important poet to me, and he has one of the most formidable imaginations I’ve ever encountered. I wrote many a persona poem trying to apprentice myself to his style. I felt like my early efforts fell flat, though. I mean, my severed head’s posthumous monologue to a cluster of fallen pecans was affectively shocking, but it felt like a showy, baroque cicada shell. It’s when I returned to personal subject matter—after avoiding it for a long time—that I felt I maybe began to fill in that missing core.

Each poet writes from her own oddball set of “dueling negotiations,” or tension-creating oppositions. I suppose the fabular autobiography is my favorite weird knot of invention, myth, and memory. I feel haunted by the past—my mother’s accident, my mysterious ancestors, my childhood so distant that even those old, euphoric moments warp. I also feel like I’m in love with magicians, alchemists, and sideshow freaks. If I weren’t a poet, I’d be one of those folks. Or maybe poets are already magicians, alchemists, and sideshow freaks! So, I find myself laughing at—and sympathizing with—Larry Levis’s outburst to his graduate poetry students at VCU (“I don’t give a shit about your petty, little lives!”), even as I’m irresistibly drawn to the siren song of my own personal history. But I’m also a naughty fabulist at heart. Sometimes I open my front door in the morning, holding my coffee mug, and find myself stepping into the lands of Kafka or García Márquez. As Wallace Stevens says, poetry is the supreme fiction.

What a strange land both those lands would be! Larry Levis’s comment makes me wonder about Sylvia Plath, perhaps because admirers of Plath do give a shit about her petty, little life. There are so many lovely ties between you two, from the music to the raw, coarse, lest we forget female imagery. There’s this line of yours, for example, from the poem “Letter to the City Bayou by Its Sign: Beware Alligators,” where you write, “I’m made // of so many girls I can’t get them all / drunk at once or they’d mutiny,” which reminds me of one of my favorite Plath poems, “Fever 103°,” and that famous closure: “(My selves dissolving, old whore petticoats)— / To paradise.” I know that you’re invested in the work of Plath, both aesthetically and scholarly—could you talk about her influence on you, and also how you came to unearth, “Ennui,” a previously unpublished poem of hers?

Plath’s poems are the ones I remember loving for the longest time. If she and Charles Wright had ever gotten together, I would’ve fought the celestial beams of energy in the cosmos to become their love child. I recall reading “Lady Lazarus” in my ninth grade creative writing class and then writing my own poem. I think my fifteen-year-old brain named my early effort “I Know Who Waters the Roses in Hell.” A prescient choice! At that point, however, I didn’t yet recognize the difference between the deeply psychic, Dantescan scope of Plath’s “Fever 103°” and the kitschy, gothic verve of Veruca Salt’s post-grunge tune, “Forsythia.” They both have strong (and sly) female voices, grotesqueries aplenty, and a sort of eerie flower-power; and—at the time—that was good enough for me.

But, you know, I eventually stopped head-banging my dyed pink hair in coffee shops filled with clove smoke, and went to art school as an undergraduate. Because I majored in art at VCU (I wanted to become a potter and to live in the Blue Ridge), it took some time before I realized I needed to study poetry. After taking my first college-level poetry course when I was twenty-one, I knew I was hooked. I doodled notes—and little hearts—all over Plath’s pages in the McClatchy anthology!

My favorite party trick is to recite, from memory, the entirety of “Daddy” or “Lady Lazarus,” while imitating Plath’s crisp, slightly British accent. Her poems’ theatric muscularity, steely imagery, and take-no-prisoners speakers have always stuck in my head.

Plath’s early Petrarchan sonnet, “Ennui,” the poem you’ve asked about, is an example of how hard she worked in order to become a groundbreaking poet. A common misperception about Plath is that is her depression made her a great poet—as if illness were an instant poetry wand. That old madwoman trope does a great disservice to Plath’s work in that it undervalues her rigorous studies and likely unprecedented sense of discipline and ambition. No one worked harder to become a poet than Plath.

Plath wrote “Ennui” during her undergraduate studies at Smith. The piece is especially interesting, from a scholarly perspective, because it shows Plath creatively responding to Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. (I’ve written about the subject elsewhere, in my essay “Dragon Goes to Bed with Princess: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Influence on Sylvia Plath,” which was published in Notes on Contemporary Literature.) Although the poem’s laden with all sorts of literary allusions, the fairy tale imagery in “Ennui”—particularly the “naïve knight” and “blasé princesses”—connects with the imaginative associations and metaphors Plath annotated in the margins of her personal copy of The Great Gatsby.

I inadvertently encountered “Ennui” during my first year as an MFA student in creative writing at VCU. I took a seminar course on Fitzgerald, taught by Dr. Bryant Mangum. One of our homework assignments was to peruse the University of South Carolina’s website called the “F. Scott Fitzgerald Centenary.” I was immediately fascinated by Park Bucker’s essay, “A Description of Sylvia Plath’s Copy of The Great Gatsby.” Bucker mentions how next to the passage in which Fitzgerald’s blasé golden girl, Daisy, complains, “I’ve been everywhere and seen everything and done everything,” Plath scrawls the phrase “L’Ennui.” Her marginal notes also refer to Gatsby as a “knight” and to Daisy as a “princess.” I understood that Plath had titled several early poems “Ennui,” so I grabbed her Collected Poems from my shelf and flipped to the index. Although the full text of “Ennui” is not included in the book, the index to her uncollected juvenilia does list the title. The Collected also specifies that Indiana University’s Lilly Library houses the original typescripts of the poem in the Sylvia Plath archive. Thus, I obtained photocopies of “Ennui” from the Lilly Library for use in my research. Because I’d written about “Ennui” in my seminar paper, I wanted to properly cite it in my bibliography. I assumed the poem had been previously published, perhaps in a school magazine or someplace like Mademoiselle, but I couldn’t figure it out. I finally discovered the poem’s unpublished status through writing to the librarians at the Lilly Library and to the estate of Sylvia Plath. Her estate, currently overseen by her daughter Frieda Hughes, generously granted the online journal I worked for at the time, Blackbird, first serial rights to publish “Ennui.” So that’s the story of my youthful, literary sleuthing: Anna Banana, PI.

That is pretty incredible. I can’t even imagine the level of excitement the people of Blackbird must have felt getting those serial rights. Or more importantly, how freaking awesome that must have been for you! That is quite an adventurous first year in MFA-land. I think the most exciting thing that happened to me my first year was finally having an ingrained understanding of the NYC subway system. So it goes. And speaking of MFA programs, did you begin work on If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting while you were at VCU?

I wrote almost my entire first book at VCU, although a handful of poems from my first year in the PhD program at the University of Houston ended up going into the collection. The Houston poems in If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting include “Adorable Siren, Do You Love the Damned?,” “Letter to the City Bayou by Its Sign: Beware Alligators,” “Elegy: I Pass by the Erotic Bakery,” “Night with Eros in the Story of Leather (1),” and “Night with Eros in the Story of Leather (2).”

Your earlier question about the devil got me thinking about how the landscape of Houston seeped into my psyche. In Richmond, I lived on the benignly named Cherry Street, between my favorite punk rock cafe and a lush, Southern Gothic cemetery sprouting ancient magnolias and overlooking the James River. In Houston, my apartment fell between the gritty S & M supply store “Leather Forever”—its display of leather corsets, braided whips, and punishment paddles—and a cluster of raucous nightclubs pulsing with bass and neon. One of the biker dives that I could see as I scrambled eggs in my kitchen had in its front window a taxidermied bobcat baring its fangs. There was this twitchy neighborhood guy—my boyfriend and I called him “The Alpha Mullet”—who’d circle the block on his wobbly bicycle, selling meth to the clubbers. Once, I went outside on my balcony to drink a glass of wine and a tranni hooker was strutting in my driveway. She had a pretty sweet wig, but her pimp looked a little tweaked out and I was like, “Uh, can I just stare at the moon without getting mooned, please?” My block was a writhing sexscape!

That’s pretty rough. Those writhing sexscapes definitely shine new greasy light on your poems. I’m certainly interested in how the different regions affect your process. It’s always got me thinking about organization. It seems to me that the recurring characters in the book help to organize the book into sections. What decisions went into the order of the book? Were there any specific organizing principles?

The best way I know how to show off a book’s character is to allow the poems themselves to suggest an order. This technique makes for a more natural progression, one that takes its cues from a poet’s own obsessions. All poets write from their obsessions: for Frank Stanford it’s meditations on death and the delta; for Linda Bierds it’s historical figures and events; for David St. John it’s desire and its cinematic landscape; for Beckian Fritz Goldberg it’s the relationship between body and spirit. Because we all write from our own peculiar psychic obsessions, there are often conversations between poems that begin to happen as you shuffle the pages.

My obsessions in If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting, as we’ve discussed, are often mythic or fabular: I’ve got classical myths, family stories, Appalachian spells. I’m also interested in persuading a reader by voice. Because the voices in my poems are so similar tonally—even in the persona poems—I decided to emphasize that continuity in the book by suggesting that there’s one recurring character.

In addition to creating a tonal through-line, I found that giving structure to my book through the repetition of certain images and motifs best suited my poetic instincts as a compulsive mythologizer. For instance, in most sections I placed a poem about a metamorphosis. In one section, family ghosts return to the world disguised as magnolia buds. In another section, a miscarried sister crashes a costume ball in the form of a luna moth. Rather than grouping all the metamorphosis poems together, I scattered them throughout the book so they’d echo and intensify through repetition and accumulation.

Most writers I’ve talked to agree that it’s important to print the poems and spread them out so as to find common threads, to notice pleasing clusters, and to shuffle the pages with ease. Some poets drape their poems over ironing boards, some string them along clotheslines, some spread them across the floor. I used the surface of an extra twin bed in my cabin at the writer’s colony, Yaddo. I made four horizontal rows of poems on the bed—one row for each of my book’s four sections. Using multiple sections helped me manipulate my poems within small, manageable units: each section was like building a longer poem with its own echoes, intensifications, and closure.

Finally, I sent off the manuscript. But not before I did a funny dance in front of my blacklight poster of the nine muses and hinted to Orpheus that it’d be in his best interests to help me out.

Looks like the muses saw your dance was good. So, let’s talk about the present and near future. You must have some projects lined up. Do I hear any second collections ringing in the firmament? Do you think you’ll ever escape the devil, or are you in that red bosom to stay?

I’m almost done revising my second poetry collection. Right now, I’m calling the new manuscript Whisper to the Hive. You know, there’s this funky superstition that after someone dies, you’re supposed to go to a beehive and tell the insects about it. That way, the bees won’t abandon their hive. I love the magical thinking behind that belief—that language carries such potency and power.

I also love the red bosom, but I don’t think there are any devils in the second book. There’s a recurring character from the speaker’s past who has an eyeball-sucking fetish, an angel who likes to slurp barbecue sauce from her red fingers, and a restless insomniac with a penchant for hallucination. And some twisted elegies. Oh, and a fistulated dairy cow, a clawfoot tub, a feline specter, a childhood house, and a fickle A.C. unit that all double as portals through time.

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