Anna Journey estranges embodiment with a frenzied tenderness, as can be seen in her poems for the Winter 2021 issue of TheGeorgia Review, which are included in her new book, The Judas Ear. During the surreal flashes that transitioned us from 2021 to 2022, Journey and I conducted this interview via email, where we chatted about her new collection, the possibilities of place in writing, and poetry’s psychological and mythic resonances.
My thanks to Anna for a very engaging and rich conversation.
Hannah V Warren
Hannah V Warren (HVW): I must begin by acknowledging my own devotion to the grotesque, the abject, the fabular—everything I love about your work. The Southern Gothic and fairy tales seem so intricately and intrinsically woven in your poetry. How do you see these genres/modes/monstrosities working in tandem? Where do you see effective friction?
Anna Journey (AJ): Well, I’m always up for a good story. Growing up, I didn’t have regular access to American television, since I spent my early childhood in South Asia (five years in Bangladesh and two in India), so my world was largely unplugged, quasi-Edwardian, centered around looking for toads in the garden with my younger sister and enjoying the fairy tales and folktales my mom read to us each night. My mom also had a penchant for telling gothic tales at the dinner table. Some of her “greatest hits” involve Ted Bundy, a baby born without an anus, and a pet chimpanzee named Travis who went berserk one day at his home in Connecticut and gnawed off a woman’s face. And because of my mom’s experiences acting in community theater productions back in Jackson, Mississippi, she’d read stories to my sister and me with a practiced, dramatic flair. I especially loved listening to “Bluebeard,” “Peer Gynt,” “Baba Yaga,” and “The Little Mermaid”—the original Hans Christian Andersen version.
Speaking of Andersen: I learned from Jackie Wullschlager’s Hans Christian Andersen: The Life of a Storyteller that the Danish author was so terrified of being buried alive that he kept a handwritten note tacked to his bedside table that said: “I only appear to be dead.” This way, no one would cart him off to the cemetery while he slept and drop him in a plot. While I don’t relate to Andersen’s highly specific phobia, I do see myself (and other poets) in his devotion to the meticulous note. In high school, for example, before I’d drop acid on a Friday night, I’d leave a post-it note stuck to the base of my toothbrush holder that reminded me to brush in small, soft circles. I had a horror of brushing my teeth too hard while coming down from LSD and mangling my gums. So in my poem “Hans Christian Andersen Feared Being Buried Alive,” I hoped to create a braided narrative that interweaves both Andersen’s and a contemporary speaker’s anxieties. I was interested in exploring the ways in which folks negotiate fear while affirming the belief that words can make a difference.
HVW: I’m interested in your notion of fear-negotiation and how you navigate this shared human experience. From “Golden Egg” to “Hans Christian Andersen Feared Being Buried Alive,” your recent poems embrace a bodily tenderness to describe intense (and often fear-induced) emotions like terror, dread, and trepidation. Can you speak further to your rendering of horror and fear?
AJ: When I sit down to write a poem, I think a lot about counterpoint. I think a lot about braided structure. If I want to write a poem like “Golden Egg,” in which a speaker feels haunted by a past decision to donate her eggs to a fertility agency, I’m going to look for another thread to enrich that anecdote, perhaps one that amplifies the poem’s psychological or mythic resonances. In this case, the other thread is a fabular one: the fertility agency is named Golden Egg after the auspicious fairy tale goose, which figures the speaker as the magical layer of golden eggs, even though she’s an acid-dropping restaurant server hustling for rent money.
Two of my earliest and enduring literary influences, Sylvia Plath and Larry Levis, modeled for me ways in which poets might draw on aspects of autobiographical experience while leaving room for wild inventions, often those of the mythic or fabular sort. Take Natalie Diaz’s hybridizations of myth, family narrative, and grotesquerie, for instance, in her poem “How to Go to Dinner with a Brother on Drugs,” in which a speaker invites her brother out to dinner, even though he’s high on meth and dressed up as a Judas effigy.
I’m grateful to hear that you find in my poems a tenderness toward the body. For “The Copper Pillowcase,” I got the idea for the poem by considering my own “anti-aging” pillowcase infused with copper oxide fibers. I decided to construct a narrative around this ridiculous, embarrassing object as a way to explore fears about aging and our changing bodies, though I made the character Dan the vain one (definitely not the speaker!) bragging about his fancy pillowcase that does not in fact end up staving off the ravages of time.
HVW: Speaking of counterpoint and what comprises a poem, your writing incorporates a tremendously grounded sense of space and place, including your poems for The Georgia Review, which pop into a Danish grave, a therapist’s office, a polluted river. I’m thinking back to what you said about your “largely unplugged, quasi-Edwardian” childhood filled with garden toads and fairy tales—even this anecdote feels settled in specificity. Does place hold a vital role in your poetics?
AJ: I find the imaginative possibilities of place richly generative and fascinating. I love poems with a vivid sense of place, especially those in which the author layers temporalities and repeated motifs. Take John Murillo’s “Upon Reading That Eric Dolphy Transcribed Even the Calls of Certain Species of Birds,” for example, in which the poet interweaves scenes of intimate partner violence in late 1970s South Central Los Angeles with two avian-infected moments: a lamentation of swans in a park of that same era in L.A. and a pair of sparrows on a street in present-day Brooklyn. Or look to Larry Levis’s “Poem Ending with a Hotel on Fire,” a sprawling meditation that travels back and forth in time and locale (and spatial dimension), from a public park, a green “wilderness” printed on a dollar bill, and a hotel in Cincinnati whose elevator doors open onto Dantescan flames. I think both Murillo and Levis push the imaginative possibilities of place in ways that recall Marianne Moore’s famous definition of poems as “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.”
A while back, I took lessons on how to play the Appalachian dulcimer from Joellen Lapidus, the musician and luthier who introduced Joni Mitchell to the mountain dulcimer at the Big Sur Folk Festival in 1968. I’d meet Joellen at her office in Westwood, where she also sees clients in her other professional capacity as a psychotherapist. When I’d arrive for my music lesson, I’d sit in a small waiting room that faced the two doors in the office suite: Joellen’s door and that of another shrink. For patients’ privacy, there was always this white noise machine with meditative nature sounds burbling away on a side table—always the same “Brook” setting that mimicked the sound of a stream eddying over rocks. The whole thing felt a little uncanny: the double doors, the two shrinks, the twinned clients. It also felt a little time-warped: me sitting with my old-timey instrument amid the robotic pastoral of a simulated creek. I got the idea for a poem in which the trope of doubling creates an architecture for a braided narrative. In “My Dulcimer Teacher Joellen Works as a Psychotherapist,” a speaker sits in the noise of a simulated brook in contemporary Los Angeles and recalls wading into an actual river, the James, that runs through Richmond, Virginia. My best friend Alicia and I used to sit up to our hips in the James, clink our beers together, and make a toast about the polluted water and our submerged asses: “Don’t get it in your holes!” Always good advice when dealing with a funky city-river mixed up with coal ash.
HVW: I love this last bit of advice. Though drenched in eco-horror, the memory feels idyllic. Thinking of the year ahead, what’s exciting to you right now? What sublimity and beauty do you anticipate?
AJ: I anticipate plenty of opportunities to deepen my understanding of what Keats calls “being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” While I’m not saying I embody John Keats’s concept of negative capability, I did once dress up as his famous Grecian urn for Halloween one year in grad school. For my homemade costume, I switched the enigmatic figures on the Athenian urn with Simpsons characters outlined in orange Puff Paint! I think it’s important to be okay with paradox, to embrace the ongoing mystery.