Wednesday, May 17, 2017
When Anna Journey was a student in the master of fine arts in creative writing program at Virginia Commonwealth University, she attracted international news coverage for her discovery of an unpublished poem by Sylvia Plath in the archives at Indiana University. The poem, “Ennui,” was published in November 2006 in Blackbird, an online literary journal of the VCU Department of English and New Virginia Review Inc.
Today, Journey continues to attract attention, but it is her writing rather than her research that is the source of her renown. Journey is the author of the essay collection “An Arrangement of Skin” (Counterpoint) and three books of poems: “The Atheist Wore Goat Silk” (LSU Press), “Vulgar Remedies” (LSU Press) and “If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting” (University of Georgia Press), which was selected by Thomas Lux for the National Poetry Series. Her poems have drawn praise from such luminaries as the film director David Lynch, who called Journey’s poetry “really magical,” and the poet Erin Belieu, who said Journey “brings me surprise after surprise in language so vivid, peculiar, truthful, and moving, that I gulp the poems down, a glutton for their strange energies and observations.”
Journey holds a B.F.A. in art education from the VCU School of the Arts, an M.F.A. in creative writing from the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences and a Ph.D. in creative writing and literature from the University of Houston. She’s currently an assistant professor of English at the University of Southern California. “An Arrangement of Skin,” which was published in March, is Journey’s latest work. In his praise for the book, Mark Doty, the National Book Award-winning poet, said Journey “might be our first Southern Gothic essayist, and she invigorates the form with both a poet’s lyricism and the distinctive signature of her character: a vulnerable heart wedded to an acute, comic, unsparing eye.”
Each of the essays in “An Arrangement of Skin” holds up on its own, but the pieces also feel linked into a single, unified work. Do you see key themes that run through these essays? Was it important to you that they contained some sort of through line?
If someone had told me early on that I’d title my first nonfiction book after the definition of taxidermy — “an arrangement of skin” — I’d have been surprised. The essays explore a diverse range of subjects (personal, literary, cultural) and embrace all sorts of associative riffs and digressions. In one essay my father buys a trench coat at a Bolivian airport from a possible Nazi in hiding, which leads to my considering the function of “the stranger” in societies. In another piece my mother’s obsession with the macabre opens into a meditation on the cultural importance of American roots music. Elsewhere two versions of the fairy tale “Bluebeard” connect to the metaphor “skeleton in the closet” as well as to my maternal grandfather’s secret identity. And, yes, two essays investigate the taxidermy courses I took at the studio Prey, in Los Angeles, and the art’s relationship to storytelling and representations of lyric time. So the book isn’t “about” taxidermy. I hope that the act of arranging (words, tropes, essays), however, and the image of skin (the bodies of lovers, family, and friends; the hides of animals) operate as metaphors for the ways we attempt to tell stories about ourselves and the many “skins” we inhabit in a life.
A Booklist reviewer said your essays invite readers to “reflect on a life’s many transitions and how they become part of the self,” and the writer Maggie Nelson says, “I kept feeling as though I were riding on a boat, being toured through some beautiful places and some dark places.” Were you cognizant of writing about this “tour” — with its ups and downs — and the way it changed you?
I am, yes. Even when I’m describing a visit to an abandoned Jazz Age zoo or a cosmetic dermatologist who turned his own face into a grotesque mask or a charismatic tattoo artist I once met in a Richmond graveyard, my subject in a personal essay is always (directly or indirectly) the self. I think the word “tour” aptly characterizes the genre’s often meandering arc and unfolding drama. In a personal essay readers get to experience a tour of a particular consciousness at work as it winds its way through multiple layers of a subject, reflecting on the surprises and changes uncovered throughout the process.
In these essays there is often a feeling of you investigating and examining your life from many angles, including by exploring the past and your family history. Did you find that you learned something from working through these essays? Were you surprised by anything you discovered?
I think the personal essay encourages a many-angled approach; it’s a literary mode of inquiry. Circling a subject from various angles gives a subject dimension and depth and keeps the personal essay from being claustrophobically self-involved or narrow in scope. It’s important to move outward as well as inward; to interrogate your own contradictions; to embrace digressions; to keep your sense of humor while remaining both skeptical and candid. Like most people who consider writing and reading ongoing processes of discovery, I enjoy not knowing what shape a draft will take until I’m in the middle of it.
In the essay “Birds 101,” for example, titled after my first taxidermy class, I planned to write about taxidermying my European starling in the context of the beast fable, one of our oldest literary genres (think of “Aesop’s Fables” or Chaucer’s “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale”). When I talked to my dad about the in-progress essay, he told me a hilarious, poignant, and delightfully weird story I’d never heard before. The anecdote involved his own foray into tanning a black squirrel’s hide as a teenager and using it to pull a prank on his high school football coach who’d made a joke about the teens being so delicate they might need to wear “fur-lined jock straps.” (This was in 1950s rural Mississippi.) I didn’t plan on my dad appearing in my essay as a wiseass trickster figure who presents his football coach with a fur-lined jock strap, but I welcomed the intrusion. And I especially look forward to these kinds of surprising associations in my writing.
What do you see as the advantage of the essay form to address the particular topics that you’re tackling in this book? Do you believe that the topics that consumed you in these essays overlap with what you confront in your poetry?
There’s some overlap in subject matter, sure: an image, a landscape, a particular figure. There’s also a similar approach to representing time through the braided structure: through woven temporalities and repeated motifs. As a poet I enjoy employing certain narrative strategies in my work, but my poems tend to evoke a single moment rather than narrate a series of events, so they’re often closer to the lyric side of the spectrum. When I want to work with narrative in a more sprawling, expansive way, I write an essay. But I also draw from my background as a poet in terms of patterns of sound, metaphor, imagery and juxtaposition. I’m interested in continuing to explore the ways my poetic sensibility encourages my experimentations within the flexible and hybrid form of the essay. I’m interested in the lyric capacities of prose.
You make it clear that poetry plays an important role in the way you navigate the world. Why has it been such a critical part of your life? Has its role changed for you over time?
I love the music of words.
I think my fundamental orientation toward language is that of a poet. I love the music of words. I love the startling resemblances created through metaphor. I love images that allow poems to become vividly experiential. I love the lyric mode’s capacity to an arrest an instant in time. I won’t say poets tend to be power-trippers (never!), but there’s something beguiling and powerful about the lyric as a transhistorical mode, the way it breaks a moment free from the confines of time.
I recently found a page my mother saved from one of my third-grade homework assignments. My fill-in-the-blank answer to the prompt “I’m happiest when … ” was “I’m reading” — “I’m happiest when I’m reading.” Although I’ve changed over time, my relationship to literature has remained constant.
What sort of influence did your time at VCU — both as an undergraduate and M.F.A. student — have on your development as a writer?
My mentors in art and creative writing at VCU have had lasting influences on my creative and professional life. They modeled, in different ways, how to talk about art, how to develop a rigorous work ethic, how to contribute to a culturally vibrant community, and how to generously mentor other young artists.
Living in Richmond, too, profoundly influenced my development as a writer. I moved from Northern Virginia to Richmond when I was 18 and left for my doctoral studies in Texas just before I turned 27. So I came of age in Richmond, became more of my adult self there. I don’t think I recognized how thoroughly the character of the city shaped my sensibility until I’d moved away. I lived for a number of years in Oregon Hill, just three blocks down from the Sothern Gothic sprawl of Hollywood Cemetery, so that landscape — of mortality, of lavish visual and historical density — lodged itself in my consciousness. I’m also fascinated with the city’s fraught tensions between a certain genteel Southern decorum and glorious punk rock defiance, with VCU’s huge art school and the vibrant museums and the tattooed cyclist giving you the finger as she pedals the wrong direction down a one-way street. I love Richmond in all its contradictions, perhaps especially because of them.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on new poems and essays. One essay explores my learning how to play eerie, supernatural ballads on the Appalachian dulcimer in the haunting wake of the recent U.S. presidential election. Another essay examines an early all-iron prototype of the bicycle called the “boneshaker” in the context of the volcano-related climate emergency of 1816 — “the Year without Summer” — and connects these subjects to various autobiographical, literary and political threads. I’ve just begun a sabbatical from teaching at USC, so I’m looking forward to developing my new projects.
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