Lucifer's Panties at Lowe's Garden Center
I told the serial killer he could feed his Venus flytrap Spam
summer I worked the outdoor lawn
and garden center.
I'd known to say this since fifteen, with my mother telling me
all men who ask young girls directions
from their white vans are murderers. Especially ones
wearing an arm in a sling who ask you to carry things. This one asked about hibiscus.
said Rum Runner, the Fifth Dimension, Eye of the Storm.
The flower with my own name, Anna Elizabeth, was too damn pink and ruffled. I switched
its label, wrote Lucifer's Panties, stuck its white plastic
flag back. I named others Unquenchable Burning,
Fire on the Back of Your Dark
Tongue. He wanted instead to apologize
crepe-yellow hybrid for a woman
whose dining room window
he'd shattered with a corner of drywall. He asked
gift was a good idea. I told him he was going to need
a good pot-one with an angel,
copper frog, fat gnome, or fairy: Girls love that shit. Probably terracotta.
His slung arm-likely struck by lightning from handling Bluebeard's hoard
the aluminum bed of his construction van.
I helped him repot. The killer grasping the flowers' pale trumpets, me
tamping the dark roots. Before he left, a turnip moth
played the wind chimes above the register without touching them.
pointed to the label, direct sun, but couldn't say,
the blooms indoors before the frost.
to the City Bayou by Its Sign: Beware Alligators
Pimp's-hat shadows in the feathery date palm. Everything,
I think, at this illegal
hour in the public park has
a half-drunk gait. Dear slow, dark water, why hesitate
like an older man's hand on my thigh? I'm not sixteen and I'm
gin-brave since hopping the cyclone fence. Are
starved for my face in the water? Dear clear,
that blooms in toxic bubbles
from your surface. Dear black bayou, once, by a river
I bit a man's neck. His scent: the raw
teak air husked inside stomachs of six
Russian nesting dolls-the ones
in the attic I pulled
apart and open. The ones I
pulled apart and open like Styrofoam cups
your red-clay banks. Though I'm not
Russian, I can last all night
in an icy wind in nothing
but beggar's rags or my blue bikini. I'm made
of so many girls I can't get them all
drunk at once or they'd mutiny. Dear underworld, I'll sit here
all night with my selves jumping out
like gin from my tipped cup. You'll
catch us one
by one. We'll lie in your hot shallows and,
dark smiles, raise your pulse.
Elegy: After Filling Out Egg-Donation Forms
I. Colors: Family Medical History
or beige-the velour posture of my grandfather's armchair.
Or orange-their couch with its thin rust stripes. Even
the tugged velvet of her neck.
Ehlers-Danlos. The names of two men
who discovered my grandmother's skin disease. Her hands
were extra soft, my mom said. Loose joints, elastic skin. Almost
too soft to hold.
II. Some of What I Write Are
Why are you considering becoming a donor?
I feel that I am exceptional.
Do you drink to get drunk?
Have you ever used marijuana? Even once?
Are you a writer? What do you write with?
and a turkey feather.
III. Cause of Death
An abdomen slowly filling with blood
feels like a full bladder.
After surgery, a nicked artery leaks
into the night. When
my grandfather rises, he makes it
to the hospital
before he realizes he's going to faint.
The emergency lever emits
a clear blue light. I wasn't there,
though I imagine the smell of green tiles
where he lay is Mississippi
IV. Confessional 1
Barbie heads switch perfectly,
Barbie's and Ken's. What a freak show.
Does it matter if a girl going 35 mph
down the hill
on Roberts Road on a pink and purple bike
aimed for the telephone pole? And if she only
grazed a pink star on her elbow without
hitting the foot brakes once? Either way
she missed the target.
VI. What I Had to Look Up
appears briefly in the New Testament
belonging to a prophetess who recognized
Jesus as the Messiah.
Meaning: "grace" or "favor,"
but I'm a terrible waitress.
sister, a "snare";
my mother, Cynthia, "a
from Kynthos"-mountain on Delos
where the moon goddess was born.
Dorothy, grandmother, a "gift from God." Does it matter
that I couldn't find my grandfather's name?
Does it matter that my father's name, Tim, is a nickname?
That it means
I'm sick of all the godliness.
Why can't our names
be the same as flowers or insects? Something
I might touch?
I sang in the church choir with my
neon pink. You heard me. The hole in the attic,
the hole in the attic, the hole in the attic
is a heaven
that spits you out on your back.
For seventeen years I didn't know
the name of the ugliest flower in the world-mimosa trees
grew hairy by the sewer near my high school.
I'm writing a winter poem now-snow and stars,
stars as fractured vertebrae,
as body cast, white back brace, machine-no,
I'm filling out forms-my family dissolving
with the earth, round as a wafer on their tongues.
If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting
Anna Journey is the
author of the poetry collections Vulgar Remedies (Louisiana State University Press, 2013) and If Birds
Gather Your Hair for Nesting (University of Georgia Press, 2009), which was selected by Thomas Lux for the National
Poetry Series. Her poems have appeared in American Poetry Review, The Best American Poetry, FIELD, The Kenyon
Review, The Southern Review, and elsewhere. Her creative nonfiction appears in The Southern Review,
among other journals. She's received fellowships in poetry from the Academy of American Poets, the Corporation
of Yaddo, and the National Endowment for the Arts, and she teaches creative writing in Pacific University's Master
of Fine Arts in Writing program. Visit her website at annajourney.com.
A Mini-Review of Anna Journey's
Featured Poems by Assistant-Editor Matthew Huff
No matter your aesthetic or experience in reading contemporary poetry, Anna
Journey is a master of attention grabbing first lines. Consider the first line from "Lucifer's Panties at Lowe's
Garden Center": "I told the serial killer he could feed his Venus flytrap Spam." Who doesn't immediately
want to read a poem in which a young woman, a serial killer, a Venus flytrap, and Spam are encountered within the
Journey's work is also marked
by her penchant for tackling numerous themes in a single poem with great clarity. Among the most prominent themes
in her first book, If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting, are sexuality, the death of her grandfather, the
death of her mother, and the impact all of this can have on understanding the Self.
While death is not specifically addressed in "Lucifer's Panties at Lowe's
Garden Center," it does deal with varied themes such as sexuality and gender roles in a deft manner. What makes
this poem unique is the varied assortment of references with highly ambiguous and imaginative interpretations. The
narrator is unnamed- we only know that it is relatively young female who works at a garden center-, the customer
is male and is suspected of being a serial killer based solely upon his mode of transportation, a white construction
van. "all men who ask young girls directions/ from their white vans are murderers. Especially ones// wearing an
arm in a sling who ask you to carry things." When the customer asks a question about hibiscus, he gets a slew
of odd responses: "I said Rum Runner, the Fifth Dimension, Eye of the Storm." All are answers
or references with very specific meanings but, at the same time, are highly ambiguous, contextually speaking.
The "Eye of the Storm," for example, has
numerous, disparate meanings; a quick search of the phrase reveals no less than eight feature length films, five
novels, multiple musicians/albums sharing this title or moniker, two video games, and a region of calm water at the
center of strong tropical cyclones. Whatever this references, the reader is assured that it is not something of
a positive note.
Perhaps the best example of ambiguity
comes from the eighth stanza: "His slung arm-likely struck by lightning from handling Bluebeard's hoard on
the aluminum bed of his construction van." While there are numerous versions of the Bluebeard tale, none of
them are particularly endearing to women. While the hoard may refer to a great amount of wealth that this man had
accumulated, it may also refer to the many corpses of his wives whom he murdered and stored in his castle.
Interestingly, though the man is described as the serial killer, it
is the narrator, a woman, who seems to assume a more predatory position within this narrative. The narrator being
indicated by a species of flower Anna Elizabeth, alters her identity by renaming flowers:
wrote Lucifer's Panties, stuck its white plastic
back. I named the others Unquenchable Burning, Hellflames,
Fire on the Back of Your Dark Tongue.
It is the narrator who, throughout the poem, appears to align
herself with this dark predatory sense; a person who in many ways characterizes him/herself as a demon, or at the
least someone with devious intentions.
the end of the poem, the narrator seems to have a change of heart regarding the intentions of the customer and
perhaps of her own role in this short-lived relationship/encounter. The fear or suspicion of one another is replaced
with a quiet intimacy:
Before he left, a turnip
played the wind chimes above the register
without touching them.
I pointed to the label,
direct sun, but couldn't say,
Bring the blooms in before the frost.
"Letter to the City Bayou by Its Sign: Beware Alligators" is quite different
from the first poem we feature this week; rather than a narrative poem, this is an epistolary whose recipient evolves
as the poem proceeds.
The poem appears to
start in media res, which indicates it may have been quite a long letter or series of letters. Though the letter
is quite conversational in tone and confessional in nature, it also shares a brash or confrontational attitude directed
towards some its recipient(s), all of whom are inanimate objects:
Dear slow, dark water, why hesitate
Like an older man's hand on my thigh? I'm not sixteen
gin-brave since hopping the cyclone fence. Are
starved for my face in the water? Dear clear, single rose
that blooms in toxic bubbles
from your surface. Dear black bayou, once, by a river
I bit a man's neck. His scent: the raw
teak air husked inside stomachs of six
Russian nesting dolls-the ones in the attic I pulled
and open. The ones I
pulled apart and open like Styrofoam
Each new addressee in the poem, with the exception
of the rose, brings a new type of confession or revelation regarding the speaker. As with "Lucifer's Panties
at Lowe's Garden Center," this poem is also highly sexual in content with a dark but sensuous awareness. This
is particularly evident near the end of the poem with lines such as: "Dear underworld, I'll sit here// all
night with my selves jumping out/ like gin from my tipped cup. You'll catch us one// by one. We'll lie in your hot
shallows and, with our/ dark smiles, raise your pulse."
I find the repetition of apart and open particularly striking in this poem, given its reference to the
death of her mother who apparently died after falling through a hole in the attic. The image of the Russian dolls
acting as a type of metaphor for both daughter and mother is interesting as it foreshadows the poem's last lines
but also brings in a type of religious connotation with the idea of finding new life in death; something is broken
or pulled apart to reveal something new.
description of the smell of the Russian dolls as "teak," typically a smell of tropical trees, is an interesting
juxtaposition; most don't associate tropical scents with anything Russian, much less dolls. Likewise, the Styrofoam
cups appear out of place in a moderately pastoral poem, but we are already dealing with an altered nature, one that
"blooms toxic bubbles."
After Filling Out Egg-Donation Forms" is one of only three sectioned poems found in If Birds Gather Your
Hair for Nesting. While these sections at first appear quite fragmented, they create a startling, beautiful
poem within the context of the book. As with the former poems, Journey applies a confessional nature to "Elegy:
After Filling Out Egg-Donation Forms," a poem that deals specifically with the death of Journey's grandfather
and her mother and also makes reference or allusion to the death of her sister.
Though the entire poem is highly confessional in nature, it is the fourth and fifth
sections I find of particular interest. The fourth section, "Confessional 1," raises the question of identity
and sexuality already expressed in the previous poems. The fifth section, "Confessional 2," acts almost
as an elegy for the speaker based upon a suicidal childhood experience. You get the sense that the speaker regrets
being the one creating this elaborate elegy rather than being its subject.
The seventh section, "Fall," has particular emotional impact as the speaker
relays the death of the mother:
I sang in the church choir with my hair dyed
neon pink. You heard me. The hole in the attic,
the hole in the attic, the hole in the attic
is a heaven
that spits you out on your back.
first, sixth and eighth sections are related to the entire family, but it is the eighth and final section, "Prayer,"
that results in a culmination of the many themes in the book and within the poem itself, an elegy for sister, mother,
grandmother, and grandfather, that deploys a haunting conclusion:
I'm writing a winter poem now-snow and
stars as fractured vertebrae, the snow
cast, white back brace, machine-no,
I'm filling out forms-my
with the earth, round as a
wafer on their tongues.
These poems do
a wonderful job of representing Journey's aesthetic and style. The opening lines immediately hook the reader. She
is not afraid to address dark issues. Journey's work often shifts in a way that surprises the unexpecting reader. And her
fragmented constructions stand on their own even as they elucidate larger meanings in the collection. If Birds
Gather Your Hair for Nesting is an excellent book (let alone an excellent first book). I am glad we could share
a small piece of it with you.
On Anna Journey's If Birds Gather
Your Hair for Nesting by Kara Candito, first published by Kenyon Review Online
Reading through a recent batch of first poetry collections, I find myself
returning again and again to Anna Journey’s If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting. It’s not just because
Journey’s poetry marks a refreshing departure from the emerging poet’s tendency to oversubscribe to one side
in the ongoing aesthetic argument between autobiographical lyricism and intellectual indeterminism. It’s Journey’s
absolute fidelity to a new, radically mythological, often magical mode of experience that makes If Birds Gather Your
Hair for Nesting such an important first collection, truly worthy of its National Poetry Series winner designation.
The title of the first poem in the collection, “Adorable Siren, Do You Love the Damned?” is a line taken from
Baudelaire, whose irreverent tone emerges as a generative influence for Journey in the poem’s opening:
The devil pries open my red hibiscus like skirts.
On the crack
corner those transvestite hookers won’t
competing with my garden’s
barbed and carnal tongues. The bitch
scent of the silver-
and pink-clawed possum in heat—all rhubarb-breath and
sharp as fuchsia
spokes of oleander. I could put
my eye out looking, I could run with knives.
There is much to take in here, from the marriage
of Baudelairian deviance (“On the crack / corner those transvestite hookers won’t quit”) and Plathian
slant-rhyme (“all rhubarb-breath and unbelievable / udder”), to a Southern Gothic mode of putrefaction (“.
. . my garden’s / / barbed and carnal tongues”). But, what strikes me most here is Journey’s unity and
integrity of imagination. Hers is a sensibility that melts distinctions and insists upon the power of unrestrained desires.
There is no gradual assent into Journey’s mythological realm full of sharp edges and jagged, disorienting enjambments.
Rather, she plunges headfirst into danger, running with knives, addressing the devil with spirited delight:
. . What song, devil, is best
sung from my balcony
in my birthday suit, but my heartleaf nightshade’s
liquory patina? I’m drunk,
I won’t wear heels, honey, or I’d fall
for anyone. I’d fall devil
over heels over edge
over open mouth
over forked tongue
that turns on mine.
One must be at ease with the contemplation of a fluid, volatile self to achieve such virtuosic images as “I’d
fall devil / over heels over edge over oleander / over open mouth.” The poems in If Birds Gather Your Hair for
Nesting announce a Plathian fascination with the edge of an abyss that signals self-annihilation. And like Plath’s,
Journey’s poems achieve a radical version of Keatsian disinterestedness in that the speaker either projects herself
onto the poetic landscape or explodes into it. In the spirit of “Lady Lazarus,” “Adorable Siren, Do You
Love the Damned?” is a virtuosic performance that disrupts and detonates clichéd images of femininity (“I’m
drunk, / though I won’t wear heels, honey . . .”) in radical and surprising ways. Yet, the poem’s hypnotic
rhythms are what resonate most fiercely, directing the reader’s attention away from the particularities of life toward
an imagination of pure force, a “forked tongue / that turns on mine.”
Journey’s incantatory language, coupled with reoccurring tropes of flowers, foxes, mirrors and mythical creatures
give me the sense that I’m stumbling through a fairy tale funhouse, where flowers have names like “Lucifer’s
Panties” and grackles collide with the ghosts of dead grandparents. These fantastical images are tempered by witty
takes on the contemporary clichés of childhood danger—from smashed windows to menacing white vans
to a wasp hovering “near a bulge in the picket fence”—Journey juggles the mythical past with the
mundane and material present with an authority all too rare in emerging poets.
While If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting is anything but a typical, autobiographical first
book collection, the poems in which Journey takes on the psycho-sexual relics of adolescent passage resonate as
some of her most accomplished. I attribute their success to Journey’s dazzling linguistic dexterity, which
enables fidelity to the foundation of an experience while transcending and universalizing it. Early in the second
section of the collection, “The Mirror’s Lake Is Forever” is perhaps the strongest example of
such a poem:
That’s when I knew the
mirror was all sex and hard
fact. Unlike knowing my grandfather
posthumously. Because a ghost can’t be
androgynous as a lamp is,
as peat moss is,
as the smell of cedar—
knife-feathery. Because the dead
can watch me pee without
even a trace of
embarrassment. And who
has the right to more? Mirror
that couldn’t reach my dead
grandfather’s closet—his jewel-colored
medical books in former editions,
his gay porn magazines:
as conchs in softcore seascapes.
who found them while cleaning
out his house, asks, Are you sorry
I told you? I said, No,
I’m not sorry. As if staring
into his horn-rims and my grandmother’s
coral dress could help me understand
their shut door splintering
know that shame
is beard-high with two daughters—the blonde
one with cats and the dark one with red-
haired girls. I know
the mirror’s lake is forever
dragged for corpses, lily-buoyant
arteries, livers, and cocks. I know
he’s caught there: doctor,
with his white coat, and gold-veined
tobacco. And what is more haunted
than the smoked voices
of cicadas under plums? And what
heats faster than silver? His constellation:
cold instruments raised
over useless space. Somewhere
there’s a ghost
I’ll open my shirt for . . .
As suggested by the title, the poem functions as a dreamlike adolescent self-portrait comprised of haunting images.
“The Mirror’s Lake Is Forever,” is lyric voyage filled with internalized enigmas. As such, it
is mercifully devoid of sentimentality and full of uncanny wisdom and insight (“Because the dead / can watch
me pee without / / even a trace of embarrassment.”) into a world where the ghosts of dead grandfathers who
denied their true desires float to the surface of consciousness, like drowned bodies.
Like Baudelaire who condemned the repressive pleasantries of bourgeoisie life, Journey resists a life
of appearances, “the selfishness of portraits— / / their shut door splintering the past’s /
exact coffin-space.” The speaker’s vision of her grandfather as a cold physician, “with his white
coat, and gold-veined / tobacco” refuses to sublimate the strange excesses of memory and identity. The poem
ends in a series of questions: “And what is more haunted / than the smoked voices / / of cicadas under plums?
And what/heats faster than silver?” address the larger concerns of the collection. What burns through the
surfaces of things to reveal their complex, hidden textures? Journey’s answer seems to be language.
A self experienced through language, not emotion, is the driving force of transcendence in “The Mirror’s
Lake Is Forever,” a poem that is overwhelming, seductive, and irreverent in its treatment of social and cultural
By resisting the dead “coffin-space”
of regulation and inscription, Journey’s speaker arrives again and again at a slippery, subversive multiplicity
of meanings. This open-endedness of subject and form draws the reader back to the clause, “if,” in
book’s title, If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting, and toward a deeper contemplation of the title
poem, one of several in the book that takes its subject matter from the quirky magic of Appalachian folk myths.
Journey begins this penultimate poem with a simple answer to the question of what happens when birds gather strands
of your hair to build a nest: “Among other things, / you’ll go crazy.” Yet, madness is kind of
rapture, a catalogue of images and peculiar memories—“fools’ gold / catching in the car door,”
Barbie Dolls with mohawks and “the time a mockingbird / / crapped right down the part of your hair.”
Journey’s sensibility compels her to sift through all of this chaotic debris, to find a kind of jagged magic
in the wreckage of experience and identity. This is her most important achievement in If Birds Gather Your
Hair for Nesting, a plural poetic vision that announces itself with wit and voracious joy.
A Review of Anna Journey's If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting
by Randy Marshall, first published by Blackbird
Few poets demonstrate the rewards to be reaped through careful attention
to small, significant gestures like Anna Journey. Even within the roomiest, most ambitious poems from this, her
prize-winning debut collection, Journey never forgets the basic scientific fact that vast amounts of energy
can be transferred from one location to another, one form to another, in a split second. Think lightning bolt.
Think five-car pileup.
take, for example, the quick dedicatory nod to Baudelaire that Journey makes in her opening poem. What better
homage to the decadent dandy of Les Fleurs du mal fame than the vast arrangement of flowers that this
collection sets before us? From her opening description of the devil prying apart “red hibiscus like skirts”
to her final, myth-inspired scene of “a poppy field with its charred seeds / between silks with a scent that
could bring // the gods to their knees,” this poet revels in exposing fecund nature at its erotic, perilous
In his essay
entitled “Gifts,” Ralph Waldo Emerson notes how “Flowers . . . are always fit presents . . .
because they are a proud assertion that a ray of beauty outvalues all the utilities of the world. . . . They are
like music heard out of a work-house.” With these poems Journey flings the shop door wide open. She puts the
needle on the record. She pumps up the bass.
Journey privileges image in her work with an acuity and aplomb that speak to her background in the plastic arts.
She approaches the materiality of language like a painter, or a potter at the wheel, always cognizant that the
subtlest highlight or the slightest pressure, however gingerly applied, alters the entire body of the artifact
taking shape before her. Figures circle back upon themselves but don’t quite duplicate. The startling evocation
of a “miscarried sister” in “Rose Is Dead and Crashes the Party,” who appears rather
fantastically in the book’s third section, raising
mask of an io moth
to the would-be
of her cheeks, her not-yet
nose’s Swedish hook
sharp on the scent of the before
is foreshadowed with quiet minimalism, much earlier (textually, temporally), in “Visitation of
the Rose,” where she is embodied as a “torn hem” of “wet jasmine” dazzling “the
green door / of the antique shop,” who doesn’t even create a blip on the “ghost radar”
of the shopkeeper’s “vain / little shih tzu.” Where one poem attempts to divine the future,
another travels into the past to flesh out memory or to commune with the strange yet familiar figures who wander
its ruins. Thus the poet relies less on conventional narrative structuring and more on surrealistic effects of
accumulation and scatter to propel her ruminations through the four sections that make up the volume.
The controlled profusion
of floral imagery mentioned above is one obvious example of this technique. As is the distinctive field of associations
which Journey develops through a constellation of poems featuring foxes (and other creatures with red hair).
phantasmagoric womb where we encounter “Fox-Girl before Birth” is rendered with such lyric compression
and complication that it’s difficult to say whether the “wide / Chinese fans of her gills”
and her “webbed palms” represent some undesirable misinterpretation of the genetic code or simply
the gradual, humanizing metamorphoses all fetuses must undergo on their journey toward birth. In “A Skulk
Is a Group of Foxes” the poet conveys her images didactically, descriptively, to enact a heady exploration
of the way words themselves evoke the world. On its literal surface the poem tells of the appearance of an actual
fox at the edge of the poet’s backyard. Composed, collage-like, of nine single-line strophes layered between
an equal number of irregularly lined stanzas, the call-and-response effected by the form ultimately mimes the
interrupted, interspecies drama that is the impetus of its unfolding:
than the fox’s shy dance with the neighbor’s
to the winter crab apple that’s erupted
into a yellow cloud. My
at noticing them
unlit the flame under the pine, then the slow
The next time
says, Don’t skulk
in the doorway ―come on in, you’ll know
they’ve conjured the animal.
in “Red-Haired Girl Wants You to Know,” when a somewhat-petulant (and unmistakably human) speaker
comes forward to confess that she “detests / the way red-haired women morph // into whores, sinners, or
fox fur / shawls with the heads left on,” the mock complaint of her disdain demands that we reconsider
all the sly, slightly evasive modes of self-representation to which she’s been a party. Bad totem.
Anna’s not coy. She’s just complicated.
This process of imagistic recapitulation, when carried out in “real time,” within a single
poem, becomes even more pictorial, as if the poet is laying out a repeating visual element in dabs of pigment
across a canvas in progress. In “My Great-Grandparents Return to the World as Closed Magnolia Buds”
the composition happens to be a landscape in which the ghostly flowers promised by her title are suggested first
as “tip after tip // of white-tailed deer” disappearing into a stand of trees bordering a bayou
cemetery. When the nascent blooms make their actual entrance into the space of the poem, it is through a distracting,
slightly damning simile that we see them, “their clammy petals pulled / shut, like Klan hoods.” Several
stanzas later the speaker almost forswears the gambit of the title completely, complaining that “magnolia
buds are too awkward / and pungent for angels” after all.
But the uncanny logic of the poet’s tropes quickly reasserts itself as she reasons that the buds “could
hold the blood of a woman / or a man” and so stumbles, through a surprising, scene-altering simile, toward
the poem’s haunted, self-effacing conclusion:
like the gauze pads
she used in Germany to patch shrapneled
eyes of soldiers before knowing
the right place. Because this is the right place,
the wrong time,
the lapse of decades a salt brine between us―
of women linking arms. In
the photograph―with me,
unborn, the bark hardening on a sycamore, dry wind
over the bayou,
the palsied cotton just about to fall.
And so we move through observations of an actual landscape into
a meditation upon one that is only spectrally available, in a photograph. The presences that weave the two spaces
together are summoned tentatively, and not without some trepidation. The variable metrics of Journey’s
lines here, the way they hesitate and nearly stall, convey the speaker’s rapt anticipation of new discoveries
mingled with regret over what must remain ungraspable in the final balance of her multidimensional elegy.
With a title that echoes
the conventions of still life painting, “Corpse Flowers and Grackles” seems to offer up its subject
in fairly explicit terms. But this calmly determinate surface is swiftly distorted by the eruptive pressure of
a deeper narrative impulse in its opening lines. The grackles themselves are rapidly displaced by reference to
the sound they make, then by the speaker’s apprehension of the way “their cries want to be something else—the
shrill of brakes, a crooked / cop’s static.” What emerges is a subtended family anecdote, featuring
a “prison nurse” aunt, whose most remarkable attribute is “her stubborn refusal to name / anything.”
We’re told she never coughs up appellations for her “two mean mutts” or her “half-Persian
cat,” much less an explanation for the stink of the corpse flowers she cultivates. Their stench just hangs
in the air, undeniable as the aunt’s compulsive retellings of “the story of her son // shooting a
man outside a bar in Jackson.”
The child/speaker of the poem is left to imagine all sorts of reasons for the “tropic rot”
at the heart of these recollections. And, though the grackles are eventually restored to us, as themselves, doing
their little “black ballets in the spear grass,” the aroma of those flowers is like a Proustian hand
holding open the gateway of the speaker’s deep memory, through which a youthful version of herself wanders
back to stroll along some vast reservoir of imagination and dream, where the poem abandons her:
about the scent of the corpse flower, whether it reeks
from standing water, a dark bird dunked in its fetid basket,
or its own body, its own body that,
when it opens,
lets everything in.
This “logical” progression might, in the hands of a lesser
poet, devolve into a clumsy arrangement of fragmentary considerations impelled by the speaker’s familiar
nostalgia. But this tale within a tale is rescued and elevated by the quirk and surety of Journey’s discernment
of the occult linkages between her signifiers. The care and precision with which she crafts each lyric juxtaposition
reveals just how scrupulously she has dwelt with the raw material of her observations, mulled them over in memory,
rappelling down the sheer, inscrutable face of the circumstantial to reach the supporting bedrock of her imagery.
Certain critics have observed
that a common failing among the poets of Journey’s generation is their tendency to render the self as something
more “theatrical than confessional or meditative” and that, as a result, voice becomes less an “organic
extension of self” than a type of “artifice, a fabrication of vocabularies and rhetorics” which
lacks the blood and pulse to keep readers fully engaged. While Journey’s poems are dramatically
inflected at the level of diction and tone, their polyvalence never feels gratuitous or merely decorative. The
presences animated within her richly evoked atmospheres attempt to resurrect the large, multitudes-containing
self of which Whitman so barbarically sings.
These are arranged into a chorus of pseudo personas like the “gin-brave” soul who hops a cyclone
fence to sit a spell and pen a “Letter to the City Bayou by Its Sign: Beware Alligators.”
Addressing her own tipsy warning to the “slow, dark water,” half-bragging, half-bemused, she laments: “I’m
made // of so many girls I can’t get them all / drunk at once or they’d mutiny.”
Even the poem’s trendily convoluted
title is no mere fashion statement. It pulls its full share of rhetorical freight, establishing the epistolary
frame the poet has chosen and reproducing, with faux-journalistic rigor, some telltale signage of intense local
color. And watch out for the semantic wobble in that second little preposition! It creates (at least momentarily)
the delightful possibility that the road sign might have a voice of its own (of which the poem is about to enact
some fantastic articulation). This effect is no less weird or wonderful as the reader comes to accept the poet’s
more pedestrian use of “by” simply to tell us where her itinerant speaker has landed, spatially, next
to the drink. Language here, it would seem, isn’t just about getting the literal work done. Like all
serious humor it relies on suggestion, dark hints, and an undeniable urge to play.
The colloquial and the profane are just two patterns adorning the rococo
surfaces of Journey’s richly carved fantasias. Her speakers take great delight in reproducing the fine
details in turns of phrase that echo everything from the campy, lip-synch-tinged exchanges of “transvestite
hookers” on sultry street corners (“I’m drunk, / though I won’t wear heels, honey, or
I’d fall / for anyone…”) to the tomboyish hucksterism of nubile garden-center clerks, selling
expensive pottery to scary, blue-collar guys with coolly premeditated sales pitches to the tune of: “Girls
love that shit.”
adept ventriloquism can lend a certain “produced for the stage” quality to the most confessional
of Journey’s vignettes, but the manner in which the poet hybridizes the bawdy rant of a queen who expects a measure
of reverence from lovers and enemies alike with the self-parodying interior monologues of a bashful shopgirl
who finds it difficult to take a compliment (even from a paying customer) reveals her compelling sympathy for
characters of all sorts as she (and they) flirt(s) with something that feels an awful lot like the truth.
Journey’s formal innovations
are often just as remarkable as her thematic density. Having obviously spent some time in the classroom of Charles
Wright’s dropped line, Journey incorporates the visual and rhythmic effects of his signature prosody into
several of her own compositions. She employs it, much like Wright, to navigate readers across the entire page,
often front-loading consecutive lines with gradually elongating fields of negative space to create kinetic verse
paragraphs out of argument and image:
The flower with my own name, Anna Elizabeth, was too damn pink
and ruffled. I switched
label, wrote Lucifer’s Panties, stuck its white plastic
flag back. I named the others
Unquenchable Burning, Hellflames,
Few young poets ache so openly (and so wonderfully free of irony) to
achieve the sorts of radical transformations that art makes possible—from the time-bound to the eternal,
from attentive and generous daughter of a plainspoken autobiography to awe-inspiring diva of myth and history,
from exiled spirit in the material world to delirious medium bridging the divide between daylit rationality and
night’s swirling intuitions. Something
akin to the mighty “fukú” described by Junot Díaz in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar
Wao, that collective bad karma which propelled the nightmarish history of the Dominican Republic (and perhaps
the entire planet) for decades and hovered with stunning virulence over the lives of one particular family (as
chronicled in that novel), seems to be at work in Journey’s poignant, otherworldly almanac, filled as it
is with curses and the charms to avert them, old wives’ tales, home remedies, and love spells gone predictably
awry. But the astral guide who is our poet would seem hell-bent on reminding us that every family is home to its
own dark secrets, tragic accidents, and late-blooming bohemians. And that, in the naked light of facts, pushing
up daisies for eternity looks a lot like just reward.
Click here to read the LA Times review of If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting
First Book Interview with Anna
Journey by Keith Montesano, first published by First Book Interviews
Keith Montesano: You hold an undergraduate
degree in art. How has that background influenced your poems?
Well, for one thing, I'm obsessed with the image. I'm obsessed with lots of things, probably (Deadwood,
long hikes, guys with beards), but I'm a sucker for imagery. I can't stop myself. As it happens, I know my way
around a potter's wheel reasonably well, but overall I'm a terrifically untalented visual artist. A misanthropic
painting professor once declared, during a critique, that an art project of mine belonged in the home décor
section of Target. Ouch! After I considered the fact that although his estimation was probably true, an art professor
who took pictures only of pine trees with elliptical holes that resembled vaginas and who kept bird bones in his
pockets probably had it worse off than I did.
Anyway, while taking my first college-level
creative writing class as an elective during my junior year as an undergraduate art student at VCU, I discovered
poets like Charles Wright, Sylvia Plath, James Wright, and W.S. Merwin. I wanted to do what they did with imagery
and sound and the lyric that wove in personal elements without sacrificing room for wild invention. I was hooked.
I really wanted to propose to Charles Wright, actually. (Ahem, the offer still stands, my man.) So I took another poetry
course at VCU-in which Gregory Donovan taught me pretty much everything I know about poetry-and one at George Mason
University, and then began the MFA program in creative writing at VCU in the fall of 2004.
often had you sent out If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting before it was selected for The National Poetry
AJ: I'm fortunate to have met with that desirable combination of both
timing and luck. During the fall of 2007, I sent my manuscript to six contests and finalized for three of them,
one of which resulted in Thomas Lux selecting the book for the National Poetry Series.
it always been If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting or had it gone through different titles?
AJ: I agonized for a long time over the title. Although I enjoy inventing titles for
single poems, I had difficultly drumming up one that spoke for the entire collection. The book went through two
different titles. The first title, Carnival Afterlife, lingered for a few months, though it never felt quite
right. As I sat in David Wojahn's office at Virginia Commonwealth University one day, he leaned back in his swivel
chair and, in that wily deadpan of his, drawled, "It's too dactylic."
Goldberg said, "Sure, who doesn't like Carnival Afterlife? But that's not your book." Instead,
she pointed to three poems in the manuscript that might make for stronger title poems, including "If Birds Gather
Your Hair for Nesting." I liked the idea of having a long, quirky title, as well as a mysteriously incomplete
"if clause." Also, there's a motif that loosely weaves in and out of the poems-images of red hair-so introducing
that image in the title felt important.
KM:How many different versions
did your book go through as you were sending it out?
AJ:The book took
approximately three main forms. I began by gathering all of my favorite poems-my "book poems"-into one
behemoth, unruly mess, without any section breaks. Trying to sequence the poems while staring at my computer screen
drove me crazy! I felt cross-eyed and had trouble picturing the poems as a unified body of work.
The second version of the book came together during my two-week residency at Yaddo, in Saratoga Springs,
New York (that was May through June, 2007). I slept in a third-floor former servant's quarters in the gothic Trask
mansion on the hill and worked during the day in a sunny, cornflower blue cabin called Meadow at the edge of the
woods. I believe escaping my usual habits and forging new rituals helped me look at my work in a much more focused
way. (I love my devilish cat, Jellybean, but she has a knack for ambling across my poems, books, and sitting in
my special chair.) Each day I'd get a fire going in my woodstove, then blast the Grateful Dead from my laptop for
the first half an hour or so while I drank an entire thermos of black coffee. I'd watch for white-tailed deer or squirrels
in the lilacs. I'd lounge in the upholstered rocking chair by the stove, reading through some of my favorite poetry
collections-particularly ones organized into multiples sections, like Norman Dubie's Groom Falconer, and
Beckian Fritz Goldberg's Lie Awake Lake and In the Badlands of Desire. I'd also been reading a lot of Sylvia
Plath and Larry Levis.
There was a bare single mattress across the room from my wooden desk.
I'd spread all of my poems across its quilted surface into four horizontal rows (one row for each of the four sections).
Organizing the poems in such a manner helped me see with clarity the entire book-what worked, what didn't-and encouraged
me to physically manipulate the poems, which was an incredibly satisfying experience.
each poem, I circled its first few lines and last few lines. I did this in order to highlight the manner in which
the piece began and ended, sometimes writing a single word next to the circled lines that briefly sketched the image
or tone (like "devil" or "sassy"). I used the circling technique to help me fine-tune transitions
between the poems. For instance, maybe I'd end with a devil image and then segue into another kind of malevolent
figure, like a would-be serial killer, or something. Or, if I'd ended one poem on a note of trash-talking bravura,
maybe I'd follow it with a poem that began with a starker, or more vulnerable tone, to provide a kind of counterpoint.
All in all, I viewed the challenge of sequencing the book as if I were constructing one long poem.
few weeks after my stay at Yaddo, I graduated from VCU during the summer and then left Richmond to begin the PhD
program in creative writing at literature at the University of Houston. During my first year in Texas, I wrote about ten
or so poems that ended up replacing others in the manuscript, which resulted in the third and final shape of the
collection. I'd say, though, that I found the soul of my book while I worked in that rare state of solitude at the
colony. And what a pampered solitude it was! I remember calling a friend one night to complain about a dinner option
that seemed overzealous, even for the most committed of carnivores-some kind of poor little beast stuffed inside
another poor little beast (maybe veal stuffed with lamb? Is that even a real dish?). She laughed and told me to
shut the hell up.
KM: Was there ever a concern for you to have the majority
of the poems published before you were sending out your manuscript?
know, reaching new readers always excites me, and appearing in literary journals and anthologies that I read and
admire is an effective way to do that. I don't think, though, that I wrung my hands about placing every poem in
a journal as if the unpublished ones would spontaneously combust into some sort of shameful obscurity. Talk about pressure!
Writers already nourish so many self-loathing ticks and inventively neurotic ways to punish themselves. Do we really
need another reason? It's important to cultivate a healthy and generous attitude toward your own work.
KM: Though I don't think the quote exists anymore on the website, before Ausable Press
merged with Copper Canyon, I was floored by Chase Twitchell basically saying that a thesis is not a publishable
book. Do you think those graduating MFAs, with their theses completed, should take heed of that advice? How much
did your own thesis develop before it turned into your book?
AJ:An MFA thesis
is not necessarily a publishable book, but I believe it can be. It really depends on the author: whether you've
developed a distinct poetic voice, whether you've accumulated enough works that speak with confidence and authority,
whether your poems are sequenced in such a way that they create rich arcs in emotion or narrative. Each poet's work
evolves at a slightly different pace. My MFA thesis certainly contains some embarrassing poetic attempts (like a lapse
into gothic overdrive featuring a guy with glass eyeballs and a train wreck), though the bulk of the work and the
sequencing are more or less the same as they appear in my book.
been a managing editor for Blackbird and a poetry editor for Gulf Coast. I wanted to know what
your opinion is on the proliferation of online journals as venues for writers to publish their work. You've published
in online journals yourself, and they seem to be becoming just as valid a venue for publishing work as print journals
AJ: I'm a great believer in online literary and arts journals,
and I think most writers are, or at least they should be. Poets & Writers published an essay by Sandra Beasley,
"From Page to Pixels: The Evolution of Online Journals" (May/June 2009), for example, and T.R. Hummer
writes, in another issue of P & W, that online publications are "an unstoppable force, and one that will
do enormous good for the visibility of the art."
You'd have to be a real dinosaur
not to recognize the difference between, say, Grandma Tiffy's blog posts about sunsets and a reputable literary
journal like Blackbird, the latter of which is a university-funded publication and whose senior genre editors are
permanent staff members (creative writing professors, presidents of nonprofit arts organizations, etc.) with an
editorial policy committed to upholding literary excellence. When I worked at Blackbird, I saw contributors
win Pushcarts for poems (Linda Bierds' "Meriwether and the Magpie" comes to mind, for instance); I saw
an entire poetry collection of Norman Dubie's, The Spirit Tablets at Goa Lake, published serially online;
I saw the online publication of "Ennui," a previously unpublished sonnet by Sylvia Plath. We even scanned
and published copies of her original typescripts with doodles, with permission from her estate.
I think there's a lot you can do online that you can't get away with in print: Listening to audio files
of writers reading their own work, for instance, is an amazing gift. I remember when I first started reading modern
and contemporary poetry how often I listened to recordings of Plath's crisp gutturals, Eliot's anglophilic warbles,
and Ginsberg's nasal exaltations. I want more! Also, publishing online can increase your presence by making your
work available to a wider audience. If people "google" your name, some of your poems will come up. (This,
of course, can also backfire should folks send their second or third tier work to online publications; so it's always
smart to be judicious and discerning about where to send your work, but especially since online poems will float
around the internet forever. And yes, I do have one early poem I wish I could make go away. It involves a vomiting
KM: Has being an editor helped shape your own writing in some
AJ: Oh, yes, very much so. I think being an editor has encouraged
me to become a more omnivorous reader. Sometimes I surprise myself by admiring work that's, say, incredibly elliptical
or disjunctive, which differs from the kinds of poems I usually seek out to read or to write myself. Reading and
appreciating a variety of work keeps me on my toes.
Editing also allows me to advocate
for poets whose work I find exceptional. Supporting poets in the earlier stages of their careers can be especially
rewarding, I've found. You know, soliciting National Book Award-winners and Pulitzer Prize-toting folk is always
a real thrill and a pleasure; but what I consider even more exciting-and necessary-is calling attention to poets who may
be less familiar to most readers. Some of my favorite younger poets, for instance, are Sarah Vap, Kara Candito,
Joshua Poteat, Sandra Beasley, and Nicky Beer.
KM: Do you have any advice
for writers as far as how to get their work published and avoid being another rejection from the slush pile?
AJ: Well, I suppose my first piece of advice would be something along the lines of, "Don't
beat yourself up over returned SASEs covered with only your own handwriting." Rejection happens a lot and it
happens to everybody. Rejection from a journal doesn't automatically mean your work isn't any good.
I think what makes a poem stand out from the slush pile is a combination of qualities: its distinct poetic
voice, inventive turns of phrase, balance of both sound and sense, music and mystery, and surprising images and
metaphors. Poems that stand out in the slush pile all exhibit a heightened sensitivity toward language and a willingness
to take bold risks with it-with syntax, with enjambments, with varying levels of diction, with unusual yet urgent
metaphorical associations-but without imploding under the weight of mannerism, under easy irony, or under the period
style: that jumpy American Surrealism Lite. I get bored with poems that are overly ironic, or deadened with theory,
or lazy toward language, or play it safe by fracturing themselves into a tedious kind of highfalutin obscurity.
Sometimes editing means reading a piece that looks like a poem and sounds like a poem but that has no heart. Sometimes editing
means saying, "The emperor has no clothes."
KM: What do you
remember about the day you saw your finished book for the first time?
Let's see, I received a single advanced copy in the mail a few weeks before the motherload arrived. I checked my
mail as I rushed toward my car, headed to teach two classes in a row. Recognizing the University of Georgia Press
on the return address, I tore into the package, squealed, did a vague sort of jig à la the Lucky Charms elf,
ran back upstairs to show my boyfriend the cover, and then carried the book with me to campus, clutching it periodically
like the Holy Grail. I showed it off to my students, lest they think I developed some kind of maniacal eye-and-lip-twitch
overnight. Oh, and I think I slept with the book perched regally on my bedside table.
Did you suggest the image that was used on the cover?
AJ: I'm fortunate
to have incredibly generous, encouraging editors at UGA Press who gave me lots of creative control during the whole
publishing process. They actively encouraged my participation on all fronts: cover art, font, blurbs, you name it.
My first choice for cover art was Les feuilles mortes, a painting by the surrealist Remedios Varo. The
painting features a red-haired woman in a floor-length green dress, seated in an eerie, monochromatic grey room,
with a decaying, jagged carpet made of grass beneath her. She's winding a ball of blue yarn from the hollow chest
cavity of a stooped, faceless apparition, from which a white bird and a red bird fly. Also, some autumn leaves have
blown into the room from an open window. We worked hard to gain permission to reprint the Varo painting, but it turned
into a dead end, as the painting is privately owned and the last owner on record, according to the most recent catalogue
raisonné, is now dead. For weeks I sent letters and emails to a long-dead French airline heiress!
I don't recommend doing that. It's a bummer.
The good news, though, is that another favorite
surrealist of mine, Leonora Carrington, has an incredible painting, Grandmother Moorehead's Aromatic Kitchen,
housed in the Charles B. Goddard Center for Visual and Performing Arts in Ardmore, Oklahoma. I love the whimsy
and the darkness at work in the painting. The warm-toned piece evokes a scene in an alchemist's red kitchen, with
a tottering, bloated, white goose in the foreground. What more could a girl ask for, you know?
KM:How has your life been different since your book came out? Tell me about your recent
first review of the book in The LA Times.
AJ: Well, I've received
kind notes from readers and solicitation letters from editors previously unfamiliar to me, which is absolutely wonderful.
I'm continually surprised and grateful to hear when people enjoy the poems. Last summer, I had my reservations about
joining Facebook, but a good number of these kinds of communications have been facilitated by the social network. Also,
I get other surprises, like The LA Times review you've mentioned. Besides The New York Times, next
to none of the big newspapers review poetry anymore, so it's especially encouraging to notice when venues other
than literary journals pay attention to first books of poetry.
have you been doing to promote the book, and what have those experiences been like for you?
I've been giving more readings than usual, which has helped me grow less shy and wretchedly muckle-mouthed
when I'm behind a podium. I've also participated in some interviews. But, really, Regan Huff, my excellent publicist
at UGA Press, has been doing the lion's share of publicity work-booking many of the readings; sending out review
copies to literary journals, newspapers (including The LA Times), independent bloggers, and even to students
(both graduate students and undergraduates who express an interest in writing about the collection). I'm lucky to
work with a university press that advocates so strongly for my work.
influence has the book's publication had on your subsequent writing? Are any new books or other projects on the horizon?
AJ: I don't know if my crippling, yearlong writer's block sprouted directly from my comparing
new poems to those in the published collection-which is an unfair yet entirely natural thing to do-but giving my
new work such a hard time certainly didn't help me out much. I'd beat myself up about it: "I'm never going
to write anything worth a damn ever again!" So dramatic. Then I'd go watch another episode of The Sopranos.
Of course, it also didn't help that for my first two years in Houston my "office" was technically a large
walk-in closet (with a couple of windows that looked out on a tar roof but without vents for A.C. and heat). I resented
having to sit in that stagnant box. Go figure.
Since then I've moved to a new apartment
and have begun work on a second manuscript, although it took me nearly a full year to arrive at a place where I'm
writing work that seems like it's doing different things than I'd done in my previous book-work that excites and
invigorates me. I've written probably a fourth or so of the new material and a whole pile of false starts and abandoned
drafts. I take some comfort knowing that many writers feel a similar sense of post-book ennui and often take a year-or
more-to gear up for the next important phase in their writing lives.
Do you have any additional advice for poets sending out their first books to contests and open reading periods?
AJ: Only send to places where you'd be thrilled to have your book taken, otherwise you'll
feel deflated and cheated. Wait until the manuscript feels ready and then send to six to ten of your top choices.
Want the best for your work-not just for your career, but for those poems that arise from a place of urgency and
necessity, and in which you faithfully believe.
A Conversation with Anna Journey: Q & A with Davis McCombs’s
Graduate Poetry Course, first published by Kenyon Review Online
collaborative interview with the poet Anna Journey took place during the seminar, “Contemporary First Books
of Poetry,” a graduate course for students in the MFA program at the University of Arkansas, taught by Davis
McCombs. For the course, the graduate students read eight books and corresponded, via email, with the poets studied.
McCombs has taught the course five times before, using new books in each instance. The MFA students who collaboratively
developed the questions for the following interview are: Kaveh Bassiri, Josh Brown, April Christiansen, Aran Donovan,
Erin Jones, Andrea Kendrick, Traci Letellier, Kristin Mason, Katie Nichol, Bouji Salassi, John Scott, Jillian
Trimble, Joe Trimble, Rodney Wilhite, Corrie Williamson, and Toby Wray.
McComb's Class: We know this is a difficult question to answer, but can you talk to us
about how your poems come into being? How, for instance, do they begin: with an image, an idea, a line? At what
stage in the writing process are the forms of your poems determined?
Anna Journey: My poems usually begin with an image plucked from a cluster of related
images that I’ve recorded in my notebook. So, for example, I was talking to a relative susceptible to hypochondria
the other day, who’d fantasized that she’d reactivated a vanished twin embedded in one side of her
jawbone through hormones from birth control pills. Well, I knew I was going to appropriate her weird grievance
and use it as a trigger for a poem (who wouldn’t?), so after I hung up the phone I started doing my image-cloud
thing. I also read a little about vanishing twin syndrome online and in a medical book, where I learned the term
“fetus papyraceus,” which describes the condition in which a dead fetal twin is compressed by its
growing twin into a flattened, parchment-like state. The dead twin becomes a piece of papyrus! I loved the image
of the vanished twin as “parchment-like” and so that triggered a bunch of associations, including
my relative’s vanished twin unrolling an ancient scroll—an old letter—in her jaw, trying to communicate
with her. Also, I look for “echo patterns” of potential associations, so my speaker’s cousin
trying to see an absorbed twin in her jaw triggered the image of my speaker raising her cousin’s pointer
finger, in childhood, to trace the face of the man in the moon, and that image led to their staring at the belt
of Orion, etc. . . . So I follow the initial image and let the ensuing metaphorical pairings form a kind of helix
which twists and makes turns in the poem’s overarching dramatic circumstance.
The form takes shape almost instantaneously. I’ll “hear” the first line as I see the
image and the sound of it determines the line length. I like white space (to give my dense language room to breathe),
so I often find myself drawn to couplets, or to irregular stanzas composed of only a few lines each.
MC: The focus of this class is on contemporary
first books of poetry—and many of us are currently writing first book manuscripts. Can you tell us about
your experiences submitting and publishing If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting? Was it a long process?
Do you have any regrets about how the book came into being?
I was fortunate to have met with that incredibly desirable combination of both timing and luck as I set out to publish
my first collection. I finished my MFA thesis (the manuscript of If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting)
in June 2007 and submitted it to six contests during the fall of that same year. I finalized for three contests,
one of which resulted in the book’s selection for the National Poetry Series. I received the news about the NPS
in August 2008. The book came out from the University of Georgia Press in March 2009; so, the process from selection
to publication was mercifully swift.
think I have any regrets about the book, except for the first edition’s one typo, of the irritatingly homonymic
variety, on page thirty-two. And, naturally, as time passes there are certain poems to which I feel less close.
But, you know, I’d be worried if I felt like I hadn’t grown as a writer.
MC: We admired the structure of the book, the way you ordered the poems, the sections.
Can you tell us about that process? We noticed, for example, small movements within the larger structure, several
sets of what we called “paired poems”: two Van Gogh poems, two Keats poems, two elegies, and, obviously,
two poems called “Night With Eros in the Story of Leather.” Can you tell us about that?
AJ: I sequenced the poems in my book in a little
cornflower blue cabin in the middle of the upstate New York woods, at the artists’ colony Yaddo. I used
the surface of an extra twin bed in my cabin to spread out all of my poems, creating four horizontal rows—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.
I circled the beginning image or phrase in each poem as well as the ending, and wrote descriptions like “sassy
tone” or “image of fire” so I could fine-tune transitions between individual poems. I also circled
images and phrases that repeated throughout the manuscript, so I could get a better idea about the quality of
my own poetic obsessions and shape them with intent.
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. 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 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 each
section I placed a poem about a metamorphosis (and, in some cases, several poems). 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, into a “metamorphosis
section,” I scattered them throughout the book so they’d echo and intensify through repetition and accumulation.
I tend to write poems in clusters and then I keep the
strongest ones, which perhaps results in the “paired poems” phenomenon of which you speak. I didn’t
consciously decide to have groups of two, however, and there are other clusters comprised of trios, such as the
poems which use fragments of Appalachian folk myths as imaginative triggers (“A Rabbit Must be Walking,”
“A Crawdad’ll Hold Until It Hears Thunder,” “If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting), or
the “fox poems” (“Fox-Girl before Birth,” “A Skulk Is a Group of Foxes,” “The
Shapeshifter Introduces Her Village to the Moon”), for example. I like the idea of having micro-movements
within the larger manuscript because I get bored quickly. I need to have a lot of stuff going on. I like to run
into pleasing echoes of previous images/characters as I move through a book’s winding trajectory. So, the
spacing-out of closely related poems (like the metamorphosis poems, for example) was deliberate. I wanted the poems
to mirror each other and refract rather than create a linear progression.
MC: We spent some time discussing your use of metaphor, the way at times in your poems one metaphor
seems to generate another metaphor, on and on, the poem gaining speed as they move away from their occasion(s).
It seemed to us that you were using metaphor to disorient and disrupt as much as you were using it to clarify and
enhance. We found that particular aspect of your work interesting and effective. Would you mind sharing your thoughts
on that topic?
AJ: I think
the associations in most of my poems tend to defy rational logic, so the speedy movements from metaphor to metaphor
of which you speak are propelled more often by images than by narrative. I often use a fragment of personal history
or myth to generate a poem, although the poem often strays into other worlds of metaphor. The way my metaphors
“move away from their occasion(s),” as you’ve accurately termed it, results from my needing to
relinquish a certain degree of rational control in order to allow the poems to lead me where they want to go.
Stevens talks about the imagination as the mediating
force in a world of resemblances, that metaphor is “the creation of resemblance by the imagination.”
It’s always been important to me in my poems to create not just a single coupling of resemblances but to
enlist a sequence of metaphorical couplings. When I feel a poem is working well, the linkages between my metaphors
acquire a speed in which their velocity creates a kind of three-dimensionality, what I hope is a holographic field
MC: Will you
tell us about discovering the unpublished [Sylvia] Plath poem? How did that come about? How did you discover The
Great Gatsby connection?
didn’t discover the existence of Plath’s early Petrarchan sonnet, “Ennui,” as the
piece has been safely housed in the archive of Plath materials at Indiana University’s Lilly Library for a
number of years. I did, however, discover the poem’s unpublished status, quite accidentally, during my first
year as an MFA student at VCU.
At the time, I was taking
a seminar course on Fitzgerald; and for homework one weekend, I was instructed by my professor, Bryant Mangum,
to peruse the University of South Carolina’s online Fitzgerald archive, where I came across Park Bucker’s
fabulous transcription of Plath’s handwritten notes in the margins of her personal copy of The Great Gatsby.
Next to the paragraph in which Daisy claims, “I’ve been everywhere and seen everything and done everything,”
Plath scrawled the phrase “L’Ennui.” I knew from the index of Plath’s Collected Poems
that she’d titled an early poem “Ennui,” so I requested copies of the poem from the Lilly Library.
From there, I wrote a seminar paper for the course discussing Fitzgerald’s influence on Plath. (I also discussed
an essay she wrote on Tender Is the Night, and several other poems of hers, including “Medusa,”
“Morning Song,” and “Daddy.”) As I was compiling my works cited list, I wanted to specify
the journal in which “Ennui” had originally appeared, but the librarians told me the piece had never
been published. I confirmed that fact with the estate of Sylvia Plath.
I was an editor at the journal Blackbird at the time, so I negotiated (for nearly two years) with
the estate to gain first serial rights to the poem, which we published in November 2006. I also published a scholarly
essay (a condensed version of my seminar paper) about the sonnet in Notes on Contemporary Literature,
in which I place the poem in a historical and literary context and argue that “Ennui” is Plath’s
creative reaction to her collegiate studies of The Great Gatsby.
Near the end of chapter seven of Gatsby, Nick Carraway observes the lovelorn Jay Gatsby pining outside
the Buchanans’ mansion as Daisy and her husband Tom sit in their kitchen, absorbed in conversation after
the murder of Myrtle, Tom’s mistress. Plath underlined the last sentence in the chapter, “So I walked
away and left him standing there in the moonlight—watching over nothing.” Underneath this sentence,
Plath writes the following: “knight waiting outside—dragon goes to bed with princess.” Plath’s
unique interpretation of the scene using fairytale imagery shows her imaginative use of metaphor in direct response
to Fitzgerald’s prose. “Ennui,” given its time frame and utilization of the tepid knight and
idle princess metaphor, suggests that the poem is Plath’s creative reaction to Gatsby. Plath’s
sonnet evokes a quality of post-romanticism in which fantasy is futile and idealism is dead. Fitzgerald’s
golden girl, Daisy Buchanan, is the probable inspiration for the “blasé princesses” in Plath’s
MC: On a perhaps related
topic, do you consider Plath an influence? What other writers have been important to you? Someone suggested a
possible affinity with the Gurlesque poets. Are we on the right track? If not, can you set us straight?
AJ: I do consider Plath an early, and
lasting, influence; she was one of the first poets I identified with and tried to emulate as an undergraduate
student. Some other early influences include Charles Wright, Jorie Graham, and T.S. Eliot. The contemporary poet
who’s been most influential on my development as a poet is, however, Beckian Fritz Goldberg—her bold
associations, her startling images, her irreverent tones, and her interest in fusing lyrical beauty within realms
of the grotesque. Norman Dubie and Larry Levis, too, have been enormously influential on my poems; also, I read
a lot of poetry in translation, such as Rilke, Celan, Amichai, and Akhmatova.
Although I admire writers associated with Gurlesque poetry (such as Sarah Vap, for instance), I don’t
share all of their aims. Similarly to Gurlesque poets, I’m interested in exploring the grotesque and in cultivating
subversive female personae. Also, many of my poems could be called “performative.” Ultimately, though,
I think my poems aren’t as interested in camp as Gurlesque writing, or as focused upon the particularized
realm of girl culture.
your poems deal at times with what might be considered risky subject matter (murder, sex, erotic pastries!), but
we were curious about what aspects of the poems felt to you the most fraught with risk. To put it another way,
does writing poetry scare you and if so, how?
Yes, writing poetry shakes me up, in a good way. I mostly don’t know how a given poem will end (when I do,
the poem ends up feeling flat and unsurprising). So that realm of uncertainty during the writing process often
feels the most fraught with risk, to me. Earlier last summer, for example, I sat down to write an epithalamium I hoped
to read to my husband during our elopement ceremony on a seaside cliff, in Catalina. I began typing the title,
“Wedding Night: We Share an Heirloom Tomato on Our Hotel Balcony Overlooking the Ocean,” which soon
grew into: “Wedding Night: We Share an Heirloom Tomato on Our Hotel Balcony Overlooking the Ocean in which
Natalie Wood Drowned.” My loving epithalamium turned into a grotesque spiral in which swirled the newlywed
couple and the drowning actress as she claws the side of a rubber dinghy, the two worlds linked by the weird specterly
generations of an heirloom tomato’s DNA. So, you know, I didn’t read the poem at my wedding. I was like,
“Save me, Rilke!” I read an excerpt from one of his letters to Emanuel von Bodman instead.
MC: We talked about Robert Bly’s
idea of the “leaping poem” and we wondered if his idea about works of art possessing associative or
imaginative leaps seems true or useful to you as a poet.
I think Bly’s wonderful notion of leaping poetry in “Looking for Dragon Smoke” is based more
on a surprising disjunction of images, whereas I feel the leaps in my poems are often more akin to the kind of
associative jump cuts we see in cinema.
We loved the painting on the cover of the book and felt that it was a perfect accompaniment to the poems.
Did you choose the painting? If so, how did you encounter it? Were you happy with the book’s design?
I am happy with the book’s design. I like the vigorously
Satanic color palette and the little, swirly hairballs. And yes, I did select the painting by Leonora Carrington.
I found the image in a book in my personal library, Leonora Carrington: Surrealism, Alchemy and Art, by
Susan L. Aberth. I also corresponded with the copyright holder (which turned out to be the owner of the gallery—very
convenient!) on behalf of the University of Georgia Press, in order to receive permission to reprint Grandmother
Moorehead’s Aromatic Kitchen. All she wanted was a copy of my book. No fees! Good woman.
I’ve loved Carrington’s work for some time; she and
Remedios Varo are my favorite women surrealist painters. As it happens, my first choice for the cover was Varo’s
Les feuilles mortes. I won’t bore you with my tedious story involving the ten million emails I sent
to the last recorded owner of the painting—a long-dead French airline heiress—but let’s just say
her children are all quite elderly and unreachable, and it was impossible to find out who currently holds the copyright
to Les feuilles mortes.
I’m obsessed with the black-and-white 1970s feminist photography of Francesca Woodman, particularly the
manner in which she complicates the genre of self-portraiture.
MC: We noticed several poems that refer to drawing or painting. Do you have experience
in the visual arts? If so, does that work influence or inform you poetry?
AJ: I went to art school as an undergraduate at
Virginia Commonwealth University, where I studied ceramics. I suspect my addiction to imagery comes from that
background and that visual sensibility.
a terrible visual artist. My teapots and coffee mugs and plates were just things; and not in a rock-your-world,
cosmic, Pongian kind of way. They were just things; they didn’t change you when you looked at them, and they didn’t
have any psychological or emotional complexity. My pots were just products of my technical proficiency. When I
finally took a poetry workshop with the excellent Gregory Donovan as an elective during my penultimate year as
an undergraduate, I discovered that I could make the kinds of images—images with conceptual depth—I
wanted through the medium of language. I remember the first time I met with Greg to discuss a poem, he asked me,
“Are you an English major?” I shook my head and felt sort of sheepish. He barked, “Well, why the
MC:Can you talk
to us about the poem “If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting?” Why is it the title poem? Do you consider
it a kind of ars poetica?
“If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting” wasn’t initially the title poem. Even though I take
great pleasure in titling individual poems, I was having a terrible time coming up with one that spoke confidently
for the collection as a whole. I was like, “My titles are all too damn long for a book title!” So,
I picked one of the shortest poem titles in the book that I thought might work and titled the early draft Carnival
The original title, however,
never felt right to me. It didn’t evoke any of the qualities that I admired in other books’ titles,
such as the cinematic sweep of Larry Levis’s The Widening Spell of the Leaves, the defiant tone of
Beckian Fritz Goldberg’s Never Be the Horse, or the strangeness of C.D. Wright’s Translations
of the Gospel Back into Tongues. One day, I sat with my mentor David Wojahn in his office as he delivered
his deadpan indictment. He leaned back in his swivel chair, stroking his stubble, and said: “It’s too
My poetry hero, Beckian,
after reading the draft of my manuscript, wrote me an email, saying: “Sure, who doesn’t like ‘Carnival
Afterlife’ as a title, but that isn’t your book. Better titles: If Birds Gather Your Hair For Nesting;
Red-Haired Girl Wants You to Know; Walking Upright in a Field of Devils. The work is not so Carnival-esque
and I think a lot of titles now tend in that direction—carnival, circus, puppet shows, whatever. Mainly I just
don’t see it as capturing the mood of your work.” As soon as I saw her list of choices, I knew in my
gut: “Of course!”
I chose “If
Birds” as the title poem for several reasons. First, I liked the oddball image and its fabular implications.
Second, I liked the way the mysteriously incomplete “if” clause functioned rhetorically. I hoped readers
would find pleasure in discovering the rest of the phrase when they reached the title poem toward the end of the
book. According to an Appalachian folk legend, if a bird gathers a piece of your hair and uses it to build a nest,
then you’re driven mad. The fact that the collection’s title is rooted in myth seemed to speak for the
mythic nature of my poems, and there are also images of red hair repeated throughout the collection. I think I
do see the poem as a kind of ars poetica. All of my poems are probably either elegies or ars poeticas.
MC: We took note
of Mark Doty’s blurb that refers to your work as “Southern to the core.” Do you consider yourself
a Southern poet? What does that term mean to you?
My parents were both raised in Mississippi, and so the roots of my family tree are tangled in the South. Because
of my interest in braiding elements of my family history with mythic or fabular materials, certainly there are
aspects of my poems that resonate with the South. My concern, however, with being labeled “a Southern poet”
is that viewing my work through that lens may lead to a reductive reading of the work. I hope the range of my
poems transcends any regional designation.
did, however, write almost the entirety of If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting in Richmond, Virginia,
and you don’t get much more Southern than that city—its ancient magnolias, its Southern Gothic cemetery,
its brown river, its Civil War cobblestones showing through the cracks underfoot. Because I lived in Richmond
for eight years while I went to VCU as an undergraduate and as an MFA student, that Southern landscape inevitably
permeates If Birds. (There are also a few Houston poems, and, hence, a bayou or two.) I’d
argue, though, if I’d written my book in the Midwest, images of my grandfather’s ghost would appear, wandering
among the silos and, I don’t know, the devil would seductively thumb the hairs of platinum corn silk in
a field. Landscape is not an end in and of itself; it acts in my work as a scaffold for the psychological material:
how we deal with loss, how we enact desire, how memory troubles the present, etc. . . .
Right now, I live in Venice, California, so lots of oceans, eucalyptus groves, black-chinned hummingbirds, and Martian-like
succulents—like the Finger Mound and the Black Rose—populate the poems. I like to think I’m loyal
to internal regions, not geographical ones.
What are you working on now?
My second book of poetry, Vulgar Remedies, is forthcoming from LSU Press, in the fall of 2013, so I’m
currently writing poems for my third collection. I’m also collaborating on a libretto for an opera and working
on a couple of lyrical essays, the latter of which blend art criticism with meditations on poetry, personal history,
fairy tales, and myth.
What advice would you give us at this stage in our careers? Have you ever received what you consider bad advice?
AJ: First, I’d advise you seek out summer
residencies to fuel your writing by applying to a pile of artists’ colonies, such as Yaddo, MacDowell, the
Vermont Studio Center, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, among others. Colonies are fabulous places
to read intensively, write a pile of poems, and organize poems in a manuscript. And it’s nice to escape
from academe for a while and just sit there in the woods, mostly alone, to reckon with your work. Also, I think
it’s a great idea to build relationships with other artists—not just other wonderful poets, but composers,
playwrights, visual artists, filmmakers, novelists, and performance artists. Meeting other creative people helps
you branch out and such relationships will enrich your own work. I still keep in touch, for instance, with the
composer Laura Schwendinger, who I met the first time I went to Yaddo. Recently, she commissioned me to write a
libretto for her chamber opera based on Plath’s life and work. Laura is an amazingly accomplished composer; her
work has been performed at places like Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center. Plus, she’s into drinking elderflower
liqueur and sneaking with me into Plath’s old studio at Yaddo with a Ouija board, so, you know, the girl’s
Second, I recommend that you read
Beckian Fritz Goldberg’s essay about putting together a manuscript, “Order & Mojo: Some Informal
Notes on Getting Dressed,” from the book Ordering the Storm: How to Put Together a Book of Poems
(CSU, 2006). I wish I’d read essays about structuring a poetry collection as I approached ordering the poems
in my book; things would’ve been a lot easier!
Third, I suggest that you define what success regarding your first book means to you. That may seem like
abstract advice, but, actually, it’s not. In addition to the contest circuit, there are many great presses
who have open reading periods. Which press’s books do you find of especially good quality? There may be presses
out there who publish wonderful work, but have a teenie weenie art budget, and so they may have a sort of general
cover template for all their acquisitions. That may suit you just fine, or it may not. How much control do you
want over the cover art? What makes a book ugly to you? How do you feel about poem titles printed bold fonts? Do you prefer
serif or sans-serif typefaces? How many contests will you submit to initially? Make sure you only send your manuscript
to places you’d be happy to have publishing your book, or else you’ll feel deflated and cheated.
Fourth, read broadly, as I’m sure you do, and review new
collections of poetry. Don’t leave the discussion of books solely to the critics in major newspapers’
reviews of books. It’s important to contribute your voice to the discourse of contemporary poetry. Plus, reviewing
books keeps up your critical chops, and it also makes for good karma.
I’m sure I’ve probably received some bad advice at some point, but probably not regarding
the big issues. I think I’ve just experienced garden-variety sorts of unhelpful workshop comments. For example:
a plainspoken narrative poet will tell me not to be so baroque, or someone will say, “Write a poem without
using any adjectives” (yeah, I’ll get right on that), or “You can’t mix the grandfather
stuff and the erotic stuff in the same poem.” You know, advice that means: “Dude, your aesthetic bugs
me.” You’ve just got to keep waving your freak flag while you take the advice you find helpful and
leave the rest.
Click here to read an interview with Anna Journey at The Rumpus
Click here for a video of Journey reading "Vuglar Remedies: Tooth and Salt"
Click here for a video of Journey reading "Nightmare
Before the Foreclosure"