Vulgar Remedies Ambien, and Eros:
An Interview with Anna Journey, by Anna Claire Hodge
1) I had the pleasure of seeing you read years ago alongside the dashing Thomas Lux (who chose your first book, If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting, for the National Poetry Series) and was struck by an image (“men smooth // as conchs in softcore seascapes”) from your poem “The Mirror’s Lake Is Forever.” In fact, I’ve been fascinated by that line to this day, and am extremely jealous I didn’t write it! Can you share an image or line from a poet you admire that you’d like to steal?
What should we call this covetous place, where we drool over certain poets’ lines and wish we could steal them—a kleptography? There are many lines I’d love to lift, and which I probably have lifted, albeit indirectly, through an indebted cadence, similar rhetoric, related subject, or imagistic riff. Or why not just steal the line outright, and make it a poem’s title (with a nod to the author in an epigraph), which can be a pain-free way of drumming up a title as well as a mode of acknowledging—and perhaps conversing with—your favorite authors.
One moment that especially resonates with my imagination is the following stanza from the middle of Beckian Fritz Goldberg’s “Prologue as Part of the Body,” the initial poem in her fourth collection, Lie Awake Lake:
But it was summer trying to enter, swoon its way into the skull, the Parfum Fatale collapsing on the organ of Corti
I love the hypnotic force of Goldberg’s music; her language’s lush yet subtle assonance; her lines’ dizzying and dazzling enjambments. I also admire her inventive coinage of the proper noun “Parfum Fatale” to evoke the encroaching presence of summer as a kind of sinister femme fatale that destroys a delicate part of the inner ear: the organ of Corti. Goldberg’s use of synesthetic imagery, too, seduces readers to continue into what becomes a rather foreboding elegy—or a “prologue” to a death, rather—through a fusion and scrambling of senses, a disorienting transformation which is perhaps mimetic of the onset of death.
In Goldberg’s synesthetic burlesque or sensory-conflating danse macabre, the scent of “Parfum Fatale” becomes tangible, capable of “swooning” and “collapsing,” like a stereotypical character from a romance novel. But like a darkly erotic and potent femme fatale, Goldberg’s weather system brings not only summer’s seductive perfume, it triggers the collapse of the mortal body, beginning with the vulnerable and interior locus of hearing. This imagistic conflation enacts the bewildering approach of death: it’s not supposed to happen to us, we think. It’s wrong—like scent entering an auditory organ; it’s a corporeal violation. It’s the body confused and confounded by a dire scent. And Goldberg achieves all this within three lines! I mean, goddamn.
2) Your second collection of poems, Vulgar Remedies, comes out from Louisiana State University Press this August. How was the process different, this go around?
Psychologically, having one’s second book solicited by the director of a reputable press is very different from sending one’s debut through the contest circuit, otherwise known as the Hyena Circus of Humiliation and Dread. I was surprised and grateful to have my first collection emerge, via the National Poetry Series. The reality of the contest circuit, however, is that many presses aren’t in the position, financially, to take on second collections or acquisitions outside of their contest books, as they’ve come to rely on those external subsidies. I feel so fortunate that LSU Press has a robust and enduring poetry series and that—most important—they’re loyal to their authors; they invest in a poet, not a single book.
3) Your poems are imbued with images of the natural world that are so unexpected and rendered in a way that makes them startlingly beautiful, yet they sometimes feel sinister. Tell me about your relationship with nature and how/why it pervades your work?
Adam Gopnik, in his recent article about Florida crime fiction, from this year’s noir issue of The New Yorker, references a writer (whose name Gopnik doesn’t specify) in a passage that particularly resonated with my own feelings toward place. To paraphrase and revise the quotation, I often get the feeling that, when I write a poem about a woman and a man, there end up being three characters: the woman, the man, and the weather. (Or you could replace the noun “man” with “Ambien” or “bioluminescent shrimp” or “fistulated dairy cow…”) Each place has its own particular ecosystem and inhospitable clime, but I think there’s a uniquely persecutory quality to the South, a physical and psychological weather that seems to permeate everything in sight. It’s aggressive; it’s all encompassing: the weight of your sheets; the humid scurry from your AC’d apartment to your AC’d car; the summers that drag on for six months. The weather seems to permeate everything out of sight, too: the longing to escape; the craving for bodies of water without algae and alligators; the corrosive sense of history that lingers, complicating your relationship to the place you wish would love you back. For me, to write poems linked to the South is to write in the tradition of the jilted lover. It’s unrequited.
Landscape can be a home or a haunted vista—or both, as in the cinematic peculiarity of C.D. Wright’s Ozarks or the mortality-infused Blue Ridge of Charles Wright’s Appalachia. I’ve lived a number of places, having spent the first seven years of my life in Dhaka, Bangladesh and New Delhi, India, before moving to the suburbs of Fairfax, Virginia. The landscape of Richmond, Virginia, however (where I lived for eight years as I earned my BFA in art and MFA in creative writing, both from VCU), dominates my first collection, whereas Houston, Texas (where I lived for three and a half years as I earned my Ph.D., from UH) inflects my second book. I loved living in Richmond. I loved the funky tangle of cobblestone alleys; the slow-moving and lukewarm James River; the magnolia-and-ivy-dense cemetery, from the 1840s, just two blocks from my brick row house. I spent hours outside, nearly everyday, walking to the cemetery or the river, “to get the cool,” as C.D. Wright would say. Houston’s a different place entirely. It’s diabolical. It’s extreme. It’s relentless. I could barely go outside for the heat. I had to hike the swamplands with a “spider stick,” which I’d swish between close-canopied live oaks to clear the spider webs, which grew as thick as angel hair spaghetti between branches because, you know, no one else really hiked there. Why would they? So we all have our muses. Mine are sometimes persecutory landscapes that want to smother or strangle me and then hide my body. It’s a complicated dynamic.
4) I would read Vulgar Remedies based on the poems’ titles alone! For example, “Elegy Where I Initially Refuse to Eat Sand” and “Wedding Night: We Share an Heirloom Tomato on Our Hotel Balcony Overlooking the Ocean in Which Natalie Wood Drowned.” Many of your titles are lengthy, but some, like “Alarm” and “Mercy,” are spare. Please share some insights on your titling choices.
I like a long title. As a poet who loves narrative but writes in the lyric mode, I find I can get a lot of potentially burdensome “scene setting”—the who, what, when, where, why of the poem—out of the way by freighting a title with information. Doing so swiftly grounds a reader and establishes a framework for the dramatic context. Also, when titling a poem, I like to imagine the title printed in a hypothetical table of contents: “Would I flip to that poem?” I ask myself. Many times the answer is: “Nope.” So I go back to work until I arrive at a title that feels vivid and compelling enough to satisfy my demands for clarity, surprise, strong imagery, and an orienting context.
Titling, for me, is like writing a miniature poem. How much can I do? What can happen in this space? Just look, for example, to Thomas Lux’s deadpan and eerily fabular approach to evoking the absurdist heights of war’s inhumanity in “Plague Victims Catapulted Over Walls Into Besieged City;” or Beckian Fritz Goldberg’s sensual and mythically charged imagery in “Nights in the Constellation of the Tree Stepping from Its Robe;” or Larry Levis’s phantasmagoric and slyly self-referential metaphor in “The Poem Returning as an Invisible Wren to the World.” Conversely, there are times when I’ll gravitate toward a simpler, more succinct title, especially if the poem itself is short or if it’s comparatively quieter or starker in tone. I don’t want the structure of each title to become predictable, which would bore me, and probably other people.
5) As a fellow insomniac, I have a great affinity for your “Sonnets to Ambien.” I’ve always been too frightened to try the sleep aid myself, mostly because of the horror stories I’ve heard. Can you tell me about your experiences with Ambien and how insomnia informs your work?
Insomnia and stress are linked for me. While I was a stressed-out Ph.D. student in creative writing and literature in Houston, I experienced some pretty freaky Ambien-induced hallucinations. They’d occur if I stayed awake too long on the drug and began to see objects appear in my bedroom. I’ve hallucinated some outrageous creatures: a phosphorescent lynx; a goblin orgy; a faceless woman wearing her hair in a black bun; a pile of people with their arms sawed-off at the shoulder sprawled on the rug next to my bed. I’ve had auditory hallucinations in which I hear the scratchy whispering of multiple voices but can’t follow the narrative threads. I once thought my cat looked like a demon and cried. Let me tell you: they weren’t cheerful apparitions.
Because I love Rilke’s poems, including The Sonnets to Orpheus, I decided to write my own “Sonnets to Ambien” to see if I could conjure the mythic textures of that slippery liminal space: of insomnia and the desire for rest, of affliction and its elusive remedy. Also, I liked the idea of insomnia being a place, a country, and Ambien being some sort of eerie “nocturnal angel,” who my speaker could address. So she and Ambien could have it out, I guess. I decided to write a brief sonnet sequence because I find the form inherently obsessive—like an insomniac’s urgency—and I hoped that giving some structure to the speaker’s defiantly unstructured predicament would provide tension in the poem and an assurance to its shape. The sequence that comes later in the book, “Sonnets to the Egyptian Chamomile Farmers,” is the companion poem to “Sonnets to Ambien.” Alas, that fair-trade chamomile tea didn’t work out so well for the speaker, either. What’s next, anyway, horse tranquilizers?
6) I’ve often thought that the love poem or erotic poem is the most difficult to write, or rather, write well. You handle both iterations deftly, though. How do you manage to illuminate such tender physical moments or declarations of love without falling prey to the sentimental or trite?
Anne Carson reminds us, in her erudite and lyrical book about romantic love, Eros the Bittersweet, that it was Sappho who first termed eros “bittersweet.” So every time we think of a bittersweet parting or memory (or chocolate?) we recall the wisdom of the
ancient Greek lyric poet. The erotic situation, then, combines both pleasure and pain, love and hate, which makes the dynamic a fundamentally paradoxical one. There’s an acute tension to that opposition that interests me. (By the way, I love that, as I glance at my copy of Carson’s book, next to her passage about most love ending badly in poems, my old marginal notes contain the highbrow literary observation: “Ha! True that.”)
The event of eros—an emotional and psychological event—creates a paradox, so there’s a tension to that disorienting and seemingly impossible simultaneity. Desire isn’t satisfied; it’s all about lack. It’s about wanting something out of reach. That’s where the tension comes from. So, necessarily, tropes about desire are often conflicted, contradictory, paradoxical. Desire “splits” the mind or soul into antithetical states (the sweet and the bitter), and so a poem must enact that drama, which Carson terms “a dilemma of sensation, action, or value.” It’s when “love and hate converge within erotic desire.”
In honor of my elopement several years ago, I sat down to write an epithalamium. I typed its initial title: “Wedding Night: We Share an Heirloom Tomato on Our Hotel Balcony.” I couldn’t abide the sweetness of the scenario, its lack of tension, its sentimentality (even with the weird tomato), so I completed the title: “Wedding Night: We Share an Heirloom Tomato on Our Hotel Balcony Overlooking the Ocean in Which Natalie Wood Drowned.” Hey, look: the sweet and the bitter! Thanks, Sappho. I think, when we sit down to write the erotic, it’s important to dramatize the full dilemma of eros, in all its rich complexity and psychological darkness. If we ignore the latter state, we often wind up with a poem of sentimentality. After my poem took its dark turn, I asked my husband, somewhat sheepishly, “Should I still dedicate this poem to you?” He said, “Absolutely.”
Also, I should clarify that by “dark,” I don’t mean to suggest that a poet can achieve gravitas through being merely gloomy or grim. I mean that a poem—even a poem celebrating the intricacies and excitement of a romantic partnership—takes on fuller dimensions and expands its psychological or emotional depth through acknowledging mutability: an awareness of time, impermanence, imperfection, and our mortal circumstance. It’s what makes us the complicated creatures that we are. I, for one, intend to celebrate (in this poem’s case, a wedding), even as those waves, which once drowned the actress Natalie Wood, keep rolling in.
Anna Claire Hodge is a PhD student in Florida State University’s creative writing program. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Journal, Copper Nickel, The Collagist, Bellingham Review, A Poetry Congeries, and others. Her work has been anthologized in Best New Poets 2013 and Myrrh, Mothwing, Smoke: Erotic Poems (Tupelo, 2013).
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 or is forthcoming in At Length, Better, The Southern Review, and elsewhere. She’s received fellowships in poetry from Yaddo and the National Endowment for the Arts, and she teaches creative writing in Pacific University’s Master of Fine Arts in Writing program.