Vulgar Remedies: Transgression and Transformation

Anna Journey

Sean Bishop: Vulgar Remedies is your second collection, after If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting. Most poets I know feel pressured, for that second book, to break the mold—to give their readers something fundamentally different—while at the same time satisfying everyone who loved the first book. It’s a tall order. Did you feel those same constraints, in writing Vulgar Remedies? Do these poems represent a departure, in any way? A continuation? Both?

Anna Journey: As time passes, I think many poets begin to look back on their first books the way they’d revisit old photographs from middle school. There’s an enduring tenderness and a recognition there (“Hey, I can see myself through those cocker-spaniel-ear-bangs my dad trimmed with the kitchen scissors! The same pair he used to cut the wild chives!”), and also, if we’re lucky, an abiding generosity.

Second books can be as different from their predecessors as Plath’s fiery originality of Ariel is distinct from the coolly conventional poise of The Colossus. Or first and second collections can be as similar to one another as are a number of Thomas Lux’s consistent—and consistently excellent—collections. I didn’t feel the particular constraints you’ve mentioned regarding the urge to write a book very different in character from the initial one. I just hoped the collection would be good. 

I’m the least objective witness to my first and second books; but if I had to guess, I’d say that my interest in exploring historical personae that occasionally crops up in If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting seems—I think—to have dropped away in Vulgar Remedies. The lyric speaker in the new book strikes me as less of a shapeshifter than those giddily multiplying speakers in the first collection. Stylistically, the poems in both books seem similar, to me, though they investigate different sets of obsessions.

SB: Less of a shapeshifter, yes! I was going to say that something about this book seems more personal and honest to me than the first, more invested in healing and redemption—redemption of the self and of the world. I see it in the poems themselves, which explore grief and forgiveness toward a deceased family member (in “Elegy Where I Initially Refuse to Eat Sand” and “The Devil’s Apron,” for example) or which juggle the joy of a new love with the loss of an old one (in “Wedding Night: We Share an Heirloom Tomato on Our Hotel Balcony Overlooking the Ocean in Which Natalie Wood Drowned” and “Leaving Texas”). But I also see it in the overall conceit of the collection, compared to the last. The title If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting refers to a cause of insanity, in Appalachian superstition, whereas Vulgar Remedies refers to superstitious cures rather than diseases. Do you view this book as more personal, more honest, more healing or redemptive, or is the “different obsession” you mention something else entirely, for you? And in general, do you think poetry has a responsibility to redeem, or to uplift?

AJ: Well, Wallace Stevens calls poetry the supreme fiction, and I like to think of myself as a supreme liar. (I’m thinking of adding the title “Supreme Liar” to my CV, actually.) I think most poets, including those of us who make use of autobiographical details, develop modes of speaking their emotional or psychological truths through the art of fiction’s lies. A “personal” and “honest” book, if it transformed into a person, is someone I’d probably avoid at a cocktail party. (“Wow, that’s too bad about your breakup. I’m just going to go over there and get another drink…and I’m not coming back!”) I don’t view this new book as more “personal” or “honest” than my first collection because I think of them as being both autobiographical and total liars. I don’t think those two realms are mutually exclusive. Even if we try dutifully to tell the truth, we wind up telling it, as Dickinson suggests, “slant.” So both collections draw upon The Facts and pure invention in more or less equal parts. 

In terms of whether or not I think art has a responsibility to redeem, or to uplift people: I don’t find Francesca Woodman’s subversively erotic self-portraits uplifting. I don’t find Paul Celan’s harrowing, post-Holocaust lyric poems redeeming. But, of course, I return to her photographs and his poems because I find their works deeply compelling, precisely due to the courageous depths of their exquisite darkness. Plus, I live in California, so we tend to leave the healing and uplifting to the health spas and yoga studios in Santa Monica.

You’ve mentioned, however, the implications of the title Vulgar Remedies and its hopeful gestures toward curatives. I think we’re all looking for the right remedy: the belief that if we find that certain alchemic combination of words, we can make something magical happen. That we can conjure, through the medium of language, an experience of beauty, horror, terror, or tenderness. That we can stop time—that great enemy, that dark cosmic joke—if only for a moment, with our lyric wizardry.

Also, you’ve also asked about the different set of obsessions in the second collection. Combining elements of personal or imagined history with fragments of myth, superstition, or freaky fact has remained my abiding obsession. So that overall interest and that particular “braided” architecture is evident in both books, I’d say. The changes, obsession-wise, occur in a more localized way: more taxidermied moose heads, more swampiness, more death-haunted barbecue joints.

SB: Well, certainly by “honesty” I don’t mean total fidelity to actual lived experience, just as by “uplifting” I don’t mean sunshine and blossoming chakras! Some of the poems in Vulgar Remedies that captivate me most, in fact, involve elements of what Flannery O’Connor would call “the grotesque”—the speaker plunges her arm into a heifer (in “When I Reached into the Stomach of a Fistulated Dairy Cow: Sixth Grade Field Trip to Sonny’s Dairy Barn”) or imagines a jogger’s spontaneous combustion (in “Confessions of a Firestarter”). Yet your interest in the grotesque has very little to do with shock and awe: there’s something more mysterious, or as you say, “magical” at work. I wonder if you could talk about that? What draws you to the grotesque—both in terms of subject matter and as a device, or element of poetic craft?

AJ: During each holiday dinner at my parents’ house, there’s a running joke about which tales of outrageous grotesquery my mother will recount for us around the turkey and stuffing. These tales have included, over time, the exploits of the serial killer Ted Bundy; the woman who got her face chewed off by her friend’s pet chimpanzee; the apocryphal account of Civil War-era soldiers shoving corks of dried corncobs up their asses to remedy dysentery; and various family stories centered around deaths, mental illness, and scandalous secrets. The list goes on: the Elephant Man; the ten-year-old girl who was smothered and left in the woods near our neighborhood in the early 1990s; the blackly comedic WWI-era mishap regarding early feminine hygiene products, in which my great-grandmother—a nurse—informed the confused doctors that the newfangled cotton pads they were using to patch the eyes of wounded soldiers were meant for another anatomical region entirely. My family lovingly refers to my mother’s repeated dinnertime tales as her “greatest hits.” 

So there’s a long history of my basking in the glow of the grotesque. And, although I can’t be sure, perhaps that early saturation inflects my matter-of-fact approach to the macabre. It’s an approach that’s motivated by curiosity and a kind of sly nonchalance rather than revulsion or shock. Additionally, my living for eight years in Richmond, Virginia (where I went to art school as an undergraduate and earned my MFA in creative writing, both at VCU) no doubt nurtured my interest in the grotesque. With its ancient magnolias, Civil War-era cemetery, brown river, fraught history, and worn cobblestone alleys swarmed with wisteria, Richmond makes an ideal capital—not only of Virginia, but of the larger realm of the Southern Gothic. For three years, I lived in a brick row house just two blocks down from Hollywood Cemetery—named for its dark clusters of holly trees and not the movie industry—and nearly every day I’d walk among the mossy headstones, the marble horseshoe-shaped “whispering benches,” and the coppery mausoleums with stained glass windows. Talk about a memento mori! A girl couldn’t ask for a more marvelous one.

In terms of my approach to the grotesque as a device or element of poetic craft: I’d say that I understand the macabre or startling image as an opportunity for transformation—a locus of metamorphosis—that often serves as a mode of braiding strands of time in the lyric. The locus—or locating grotesque image—is a concrete, visually arresting, often portal-like image that allows a poem’s speaker to move through time in a magical way, the way memory often feels vertiginous or time defying. So, this allows a little girl to reach into the stomach of a fistulated cow while on a class field trip to a dairy farm and touch a future scene of her own adolescent sexuality—it’s that quality of movement through time, that freedom to hybridize the lyric moment, that interests me. And it seems I often arrive at that place in a poem through the elastic and defiant weirdness of the grotesque.

SB: Not a lot of poets nowadays would talk about magic in their writing process, or describe metaphors as “portals.” It makes me consider your work in relation to the tradition of “visionary” poetics—the notion that poets are closer to oracles than artisans—which can be traced back through poets like Merrill, Yeats, and Blake. Do you see yourself as part of that lineage, at all? Are there other younger poets you admire, whose relationship to the visionary vs. the real resembles your own?

AJ: I.A. Richards names the components of metaphor the “tenor” and “vehicle”; so whether a poet views her surprising secondary object in the resemblance as a “vehicle” or whether she terms it “portal-like,” the connotation of that description is about movement; it’s about going somewhere. I’ve always felt drawn to imagery of transformation, particularly radical, or even macabre, metamorphoses. As a child, I couldn’t wait for the part in the dark Norwegian fairy tale, Peer Gynt, in which the Troll King tells Peer to drink sour pig’s mead, grow a green tale, and allow his eyes to be gouged out in order to transform himself into an acceptable suitor for the Troll Princess. (And for reasons I still don’t quite understand, I seemed to think that drinking sour pig’s mead was somehow infinitely grosser than having one’s eyes scooped out by a knife-wielding troll.) That attraction to transformation’s never changed, fundamentally, for me, except that I finally moved on from the tales of James Riordan and the Brothers Grimm. 

I find I feel the closest to poets who enact patterns of metamorphosis in their work. I love Ovid’s version of the myth of Daphne and Apollo, in his Metamorphoses, for instance, and the weird, erotic lushness of her turning into a laurel—the physicality of that godly protection gone awry. I also find similarly metamorphic transformations in the poems of Sylvia Plath, Beckian Fritz Goldberg, and Larry Levis. Just look to Goldberg’s “The Absolute,” in which the speaker turns into a mutant cyclops-rose, a metaphor for an encompassing and grandly altering desire: “Finally I gave up and became the rose, / all those treacherous peaks of my sleep / around me and only one eye / in the fold.” And there’s Plath’s formidable persona in “Elm” in which the branching tendrils of the mythic tree embody the awful reverberations of electroshock therapy: “My red filaments burn and stand, a hand of wires”; or Levis’s ars poetica, “The Two Trees,” in which the speaker imagines a Daphne-like muse who beckons from a tree: “Her white flesh just underneath the slowly peeling bark.”

More recently, I’ve found myself drawing closer to the work of C.D. Wright than I have in past years, particularly her books Terrorism and String Light. Additionally, you’ve asked about younger poets I admire, whose names are too numerous to list in full and who don’t necessarily write the way I do. (A fellow at a conference once said to me: “Poets want everyone else to write exactly like them, only slightly worse.” I take his point, though I’d actually prefer to have more distinct voices in poetry, not fewer.) Several debut collections I especially admire are Dexter Booth’s Scratching the Ghost, Kara Candito’s Taste of Cherry, Ashley Capps’s Mistaking the Sea for Green Fields, Eduardo C. Corral’s Slow Lightning, Tarfia Faizullah’s Seam, and Emilia Phillips’s Signaletics. Also, I’m looking forward to reading Saeed Jones’s first full-length collection of poems, Prelude to Bruise, coming out from Coffee House Press.

Concerning matters of the grand visionary sort: While I do like the idea of being known hereafter as the Red Oracle of Venice Beach, I’d choose the words “revelatory” or “inquiring” rather than “visionary,” to describe how I hope my poems operate. “Visionary” suggests a capacity to see beyond the world, whereas I tend to feel closer to Paul Éluard’s notion that “[t]here is another world, but it is in this one.” And perhaps because of my background as a potter, I’d say that most of my writing process involves an artisanal—to use your word—approach and that I feel closer to a craftsperson than an oracle. There’s a materiality in language—a muscularity to its music—which obsesses me and which lends itself to formal experimentations: with rhyme, with rhythm, with a shaping rhetoric. 

As Linda Gregerson writes in her collection of essays, Negative Capability, “one must learn something new in the course of writing a poem. That is to say, the medium itself must be mined for its insights, the language used in all its material reality as an instrument for inquiry.” Often, when I follow a pattern of sound and shape it with intent, I’ll wind up somewhere surprising. In “Confessions of a Firestarter,” for instance, I’ll use an image of Poe playing as a child outside an old hotel in Richmond. Then I’ll need vowel sounds to appear—like those found in the words “chrome,” “throat,” and “spokes”—somewhere in the next few tercets to echo the long “o” in “Poe”; and all of a sudden a couple’s having an S&M encounter in one of the rooms, the man wrapping his black belt around the speaker’s throat. And the implications of Poe whipping a chrome wheel with a birch stick take on a kind of violence, especially when the stick snaps between the spokes. I welcome the many surprising associations that can arise from the music of the language and the way a poet, as a craftsperson, makes it her own “instrument for inquiry.”  

Also, I wonder if “oracular” suggests a privileged sort of knowledge, whereas “magical” aspects are perhaps more modest and intimately accessible. More “this one”—this world. And as Stevens says, we live in a world of resemblances in which metaphor is “the creation of resemblance by the imagination.” So I think there is a magical aspect in that imaginative mediation, in those resemblances. But, at any point, I reserve the right, after a couple of margaritas, to issue grand Rilkean proclamations to the cooler-carrying beach tourists walking past my front porch.


(Author photo credit: Stephanie Diani.)