The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Anna Journey about tooth fairies, fistulated cows, and her collection of poems, Vulgar Remedies.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month the Rumpus Poetry Book Club hosts an online discussion with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To learn how you can become a member of the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Lauren O’Neal.
Camille D.: Can I begin, because I might have to leave sooner than later, by saying I love the inventions of this book, or rather, the way you reinvent the longstanding facts of our existence. Also, though, I am sort of freaked out that my childhood teeth are still rattling around somewhere in a basement in Iowa City.
Brian S: I have no idea where my childhood teeth are, though I’m fairly sure I swallowed at least one in my sleep.
Anna Journey: There’s something disquieting about the tooth fairy’s mythology, no?
Brian S: I was completely unaware of that mythology before this book.
Anna Journey: What, you never got money for a tooth, Brian? I think you need to call your parents.
Brian S: No money for teeth—raised a Jehovah’s Witness. No Santa or Easter Rabbit either.
Camille D.: Yes, but not more disquieting than the pail of blood. When you were writing through these remedies, myths, etc, what sort of “feelings” did you have? I mean, perhaps, to ask how much sleep you lost as you were uncovering all these disquieting remedies and curses. Bad question, probably. I think I just want to know how long you were haunted by the ideas before you transformed them into poetry.
Brian S: Do you remember which poem you wrote first? Did you know then that you’d be exploring these things?
Rebecca: Hi! Sorry I’m late. I was trying to make a Photobooth GIF on Tumblr. Oops.
Brian S: GIFs make the interwebs run. You are forgiven.
Anna Journey: I wrote “Tooth Fairy Pillow” before the first Vulgar Remedy poem, though I’ve always thought the pillow with the pocket was magical yet foreboding. Yet the strangeness of fables has been a longstanding preoccupation of mine.
Rebecca: I did not have such a pocket. Just a regular pillow.
Anna Journey: There’s this fantastic museum called The Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles, where I picked up a few especially resonant myths and superstitions, like the one about burning your childhood teeth or else risk growing a tooth belonging to the animal that gnawed your lost tooth.
Brian S: It’s interesting that that’s the first poem, since the first line is “I’d like to continue / where we left off.” That’s a great name for a museum, by the way. I wouldn’t be able to resist.
Camille D.: I remember reading about that gas-mask bra and thinking that was a great idea, and so when I read your poem I was delighted to know someone had written about it in such a great way. There is something important about writing through what we see in passing. The trick is the transformation. You accomplish the transformation wonderfully.
Anna Journey: I think the gas-mask bra won the award for the “Ig Nobel Awards” one year, if I remember correctly. I’d like to try out for one of those!
Brian S: I especially liked the way the poems in this book worked with both meanings of vulgar—the common and the, well, gross.
Anna Journey: It’s a slipper adjective, that’s for sure. Er, slippery.
Camille D.: It’s true what you say, Brian. You play with slipper adjectives a lot, Anna. Ones that slip, that is…
Anna Journey: Thanks, Rebecca. I’m very interested in the materiality of language. I wonder if, perhaps, this comes from my background in the visual arts. I was a potter for a number of years and earned a BFA in art before going to graduate school for creative writing.
Brian S: Yeah, the places and things in these poems were incredibly vibrant.
Anna Journey: This may be why, too, the physical world can feel as magical to me sometimes as the purely imagined world.
Brian S: Do you still make pottery at all?
Anna Journey: Nope, I do not. Once I figured out I could work with imagery via language, well, that was it for me.
Rebecca: I felt like I was in a dream world for most of these poems, a lush, magical dream world. So when I got to the poems about coffee and insomnia and Ambien, they very much seemed to fit what I was already feeling.
Anna Journey: Many of the poets I most admire have a way of embodying their peculiar obsessions via landscape that can sometimes seem magical.
Rebecca: And I really liked how well the poems worked together, so I stayed in that world—the Swedish sand tarts in a poem near the end called to memory the Swedish sand tarts near the end. The poems all seemed to brush up against each other, reinforcing them.
Brian S: Back to the materiality of these poems: they’re so physical, and yet also intimate. Like “Nightmare Before the Foreclosure.” I don’t know if the poems are autobiographical, but they feel like they could be.
Anna Journey: Yes, many of the poems weave autobiographical elements with fabular or mythic materials.
Brian S: So the fistulated dairy cow?
Anna Journey: Would it disappoint you if I said there was no fistulated cow?
Brian S: Not at all.
Anna Journey: Excellent.
Rebecca: If there was no fistulated cow, you described it perfectly. I’ve seen one. Never had my hands there, though.
Camille D.: Speaking of materiality, it seems you were very aware of how a line and a stanza and the shape of the poem on the page play a role in the overall function of the poem. Can you talk a bit about this aspect of your craft?
Anna Journey: Camille, I’m a compulsive enjamber. I’m drawn to half-meanings created by the line, so that’s definitely an element of craft that’s always on my mind. And I’m a big devotee of the short line, of couplets and tercets, and of irregular stanzas with lots of white space. I’ve got to give the dense language room to breathe!
Brian S: I noticed that while your sonnets were pretty much perfect iambic pentameter, they were more likely to rhyme internally than at the ends. Any particular reason for that choice?
Anna Journey: Yes, I prefer assonance and internal rhyme to end rhyme. I mean, the sonnet already looks like a box. Best not to get too boxed in, though.
Jody Smiling: The line “Where’d you get those boobs?” stands out for me in both “Elegy” and “The Devil’s Apron.” I’m not sure though, when I read it, how to respond—perhaps sad, perhaps annoyed, perhaps alive…? Can you expand?
Anna Journey: Jody, I think the echo of the uncle’s last words embodies all of the descriptions you’ve offered. I wonder if the genre of elegy is necessarily difficult, in the way we mourn or remember a life. Even a quasi-pervy one.
Rebecca: Quasi-pervy. How excellent. He was.
Anna Journey: I’m running on that platform, actually.
I think, too, those last words can seem complimentary (“look how you’ve grown”) or icky (“look at your breasts”), or perhaps a sadness at the uncle’s recognition of his own aging.
Jody Smiling: Yes, that’s what I was feeling. That and the similarities in boobs and baby teeth…is there a boob fairy?
Camille D.: In parts of this country (Venice, CA, included) there are an abundance of boob fairies!
Anna Journey: If you leave a nipple ring under your pillow…
Brian S: How long have you been working on these poems (he says, so as not to type anything inappropriate).
Anna Journey: Brian, Good show. I took about three years to complete Vulgar Remedies.
Camille D.: I’d love to hear you talk more about the double and triple and quadruple meanings you create. At what point of the crafting process do they become conscious.
Anna Journey: Camille, I tend to employ braided narrative threads in the lyric, so often echoes (of phrases or images) will occur and will hit my ear so I can shape different resonances and shifts in tone.
Camille D.: I’m just back from teaching at the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference, and so my intense craft questions are articulations of the questions my students have been asking all week. We’d get wowed by poetry, but then we’d really, really want to figure out how it could be done. I wonder, as I read your book, how much you as a poet and artist think about the magic busting quality of some of these remedies, if that question makes sense. In other words, how much you think about the way that we are always trying to find answers in the world, and for people like us, now, poetry is our way toward answers.
Anna Journey: Camille, I tend to view the superstitions or fragments of myth as triggers for lyric inquiry. I also find I think of this kind of language as ars poetica—if we can find the right combination of words, we can make something improbably or extraordinary happen.
Rebecca: Were you writing any other poems that didn’t make it here? Or was your head here for the entire three years.
Anna Journey: Rebecca, yes, lots of poems got the axe.
Rebecca: That’s interesting, because these poems are all so intense and so intensely familiar to each other. I almost assumed your head was only there.
Camille D.: Does the axe mean they die on the vine (there I am with a wine country reference again) or that they just don’t fit in THIS book?
Anna Journey: My obsessions tend to cluster, so I often have families of poems in which only a couple of them make it to the book. It can be satisfying to banish poems to my “crappy poems” file.
Brian S: Is it difficult to find myth that hasn’t already been worked to death? Obviously you succeeded, but were there times when you found fragments and couldn’t do anything with them? And are there any traditions you tend to pull from more than others?
Anna Journey: Oh, sure. If fragments don’t have a personal resonance or an imaginative verve, then they just remain interesting rather than relevant, in a literary way.
Brian S: Are there any that just frustrated you, that you wanted to work with and just wouldn’t come?
Anna Journey: I tend to gravitate toward the realm of superstition (cures and such) and odd scientific facts (like bioluminescent shrimp and fistulated cows). I like the intimacy that I often find in the grotesque.
Camille D.: Alas, the Friday evening wine and light refreshments fairy beckons so I must leave this convention of poetry fairies. Anna, I’ll look forward to reading more (of this conversation and of your future work).
Brian S: Bye Camille! Thanks for the great questions.
Anna Journey: Bye, Camille! Thanks for chatting.
Rebecca: Bye, Camille! Have fun!
Intimacy in grotesque. I like that. A friend of mine who’s more sensual than any person I’ve ever met confides all the time that she likes these sort of grotesque things, and there’s a sort of intimacy in her confessions to me but also an intimacy in her life that I don’t think I have.
Anna Journey: I think the grotesque can inspire intimacy (it draws us in) as well as awe, like the cabinets of curiosities.
Brian S: Any particular reason why you decided to break the book into sections?
Anna Journey: I like to work with multiple sections because they lend themselves to the structure of the poem: its intensifications and arcs and closures. I feel like working with smaller units feels more natural to the way I write poems.
Rebecca: I was wondering about your titles, but my question comes out this way: Where’d you learn to name things in that way? The titles were so important, and gave me such direction in how to read the poems.
Anna Journey: Titles are important to me. Because I love narrative but am more lyrically inclined, I’ve learned that if I freight titles with narrative information (the who, what, when, where, why of the poem), I can get to my main interest, which is the language, and where it wants to take me. If I can establish the poem’s occasion in the title, then so much the better for my freedom to associate.
One of my favorite poem titles of all time is Beckian Fritz Goldberg’s “Nights in the Constellation of the Tree Stepping from Its Robe.” It’s got a striking image, cinematic action, and a whole lot of mystery.
Brian S: Yeah, that’s one hell of a title.
Rebecca: That makes a lot of sense. And as the reader of the poem, I thank you.
Brian S: It doesn’t work for everyone, but you pull it off nicely.
Anna Journey: It makes me want to throw my hands in the air! Like in a dancy way.
Brian S: Like jazz hands dancy or wave them like you just don’t care dancy?
Anna Journey: Oh, the latter. Definitely.
Rebecca: That word. I can’t stop thinking about Claire Danes’s husband, Hugh. I kind of picture a combination of both kinds of dancy.
Brian S: How are you not defined by that name?
Rebecca: Is that your given name?
Anna Journey: Yes, it’s my given name.
Rebecca: I ask because Cheryl Strayed’s last name was one she adopted, and it suits her perfectly (from what I know of her in her writing).
Brian S: So how much coffee do you drink in an average day? (I’m trying to bring this back to the poem, I swear.)
Anna Journey: Two to three lattes. But my mother drinks two entire pots.
Rebecca: So that part is autobiographical: the two pots?
Anna Journey: Yep!
Anna Journey: She’s a force of nature. I blame—no, thank—her for my interest in the grotesque.
Brian S: That bit about goats in the trees—once in grad school I wrote a poem in the voice of a goat who had been eating marijuana plants. It was based on a news story from the NY Times from the ’20s. It was a sestina. It was really bad.
Anna Journey: That seems like the right choice for a sestina, Brian.
Rebecca: I really want to read that poem, Brian.
Brian S: I used to drink that much coffee, though I’d knocked it down to half-caf in order to keep from having a heart attack. I miss it, though. I’m lying if I say otherwise.
Rebecca: What is the limit of how much caffeine you can have in one day before you die?
Brian S: It was an interesting choice to follow that poem with the Ambien poems though.
Anna Journey: A nocturnal segue.
Brian S: Like, I was thinking “if this speaker laid off the coffee some, she wouldn’t need as much Ambien.”
Anna Journey: Wait, why are my life choices so much clearer right now?
Rebecca: I loved that. I loved that.
Brian S: Not yours—the speaker’s. 🙂 I’m working on the assumption that those poems aren’t autobiographical.
Anna Journey: Stimulants before sedatives. That’s the way for my speaker to do it.
Jody Smiling: I noticed the dedication to David St. John. What’s it like to be married to another poet? How much do you influence each other? I am reminded of Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon—soo romantic they were. Is it like that?
Anna Journey: Jody: It’s fabulous! We share drafts and such. It’s such a rewarding partnership, in many, many ways.
Rebecca: So, the poem “Alarm (2).” Am I wrong to read some feminism in that?
Anna Journey: Rebecca, I think feminism should be in everything!
Rebecca: Well, me too!
Anna Journey: Excellent.
Rebecca: But sometimes I see it—and also, usually, faint echoes of the American Dream—in everything. And sometimes I’m not entirely sure it’s not just what I’m bringing to it.
Anna Journey: Rebecca: I feel these things, too. A lot.
Brian S: What are you working on now, if you don’t mind my asking?
Anna Journey: Brian, I’m working on my third manuscript, which is currently titled A Toast to the Unicorn; a collection of lyric and personal essays called In the Blood; and the libretto to an opera based on the life and work of Sylvia Plath, commissioned by the composer Laura Schwendinger. Mixing it up.
Rebecca: Oh god, that’s a lot.
Brian S: Nice! And who are you reading currently?
Anna Journey: I’m currently loving Dexter Booth’s debut collection, Scratching the Ghost, Tarfia Faizullah’s Seam, and Emilia Phillips’ Signaletics.
Brian S: And an inside-book-club question: What do you think of the back cover of your book?
Anna Journey: I’m pleased with the back cover. That red-headed chick looks pretty laid back.
Brian S: For everyone else, when we were talking about doing the book, neither one of us had seen the back cover. Also funny: Anna received her first copy of her book from us. Crazy problems with printing, but it has worked out now.
Rebecca: Printing can be a nightmare! I was a photojournalist for a while, and I’ve worked as a marketing coordinator for a nonprofit, so I have some idea of printing issues, but this one took a while. I’m glad it’s fixed now, though—and I never would’ve known from the book itself.
I also like the front cover quite a bit, because that blur of a girl looks like an angel flapping her wings. In this sort of grotesque way.
Anna Journey: I was thrilled to be able to reprint Francesca Woodman’s photograph; it’s my favorite of hers. She’s an artist with an eye for the grotesque and for mythic transformations that just drive me wild.
Brian S: I don’t know her work. I’ll have to check it out.
Rebecca: I’ll have to check out Francesca Woodman, too.
Brian S: How closely did LSU Press work with you on the editing and layout?
Anna Journey: LSU kindly modeled the layout of my book on my first book, which I was very pleased with. And my copyeditor had eagle-eyes for all my hapless hyphenation problems.
Brian S: Are there any plans to do readings and such?
Anna Journey: Yes, I’ve got a few readings lined up: FSU, NYU, Monmouth, and a few libraries. And some local stuff out here in LA.
Brian S: Well, thanks so much for joining us tonight, and for being a member of the book club as well. You’re the first member that we’ve done a book with.
Anna Journey: Thanks, everyone, for your thoughtful questions and for spending time with my book!
Rebecca: Ohhh! You’re a member! I hadn’t caught that. Thanks for the chat. I feel like I learned a few things about poetry tonight.
Brian S: Thanks for writing it. It’s really amazing. I knew from the first ten poems or so that I was going to choose it if we could make it work.
Anna Journey: I’m looking forward to the next book in the club. Thanks again, folks!
Jody Smiling: Bye!
Brian S: Good night, everyone!
Rebecca: Thanks! And goodnight!
Anna Journey: Bye-bye!
Photo Credit: Stephanie Diani