Friday, October 30, 2009
Anna Journey is the author of the collection, If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting (University of Georgia Press, 2009), selected by Thomas Lux for the National Poetry Series. Her poems are published in a number of journals, including American Poetry Review, FIELD, and Kenyon Review, and her essays appear in Blackbird, Notes on Contemporary Literature, and Parnassus. She’s won the Sycamore Review Wabash Prize for Poetry, the Diner Poetry Contest, fellowships from Yaddo and Bread Loaf, the Catherine and Joan Byrne Poetry Prize from the Academy of American Poets, the J.A. and Isabel Elkins Fellowship from Inprint, a University Presidential Fellowship, and the University of Houston’s Inprint/Barthelme Fellowship in Poetry. She’s currently a PhD candidate in creative writing and literature at the University of Houston. In 2006, Journey discovered the unpublished status of Sylvia Plath’s early sonnet “Ennui” and the influence of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby on it.
THE MIRROR’S LAKE IS FOREVER
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: men smooth
as conchs in softcore seascapes. My mother,
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
the selfishness of portraits—
their shut door splintering the past’s
I 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, recount my
Entire Medical History for,
who I’ll forgive for wearing
tweed and love beads and for hiding
stacks of magazines in the dark, who will press
that silver scope to his ear, who will listen.
When was this poem composed? How did it start?
I’d been reading a lot of Beckian Fritz Goldberg’s poetry at the time—this was during the spring of 2007, I think. That spring was my last in Richmond, Virginia, as I finished up my MFA at Virginia Commonwealth University. I’d received a thesis fellowship, which gave me a semester-long respite from teaching. I’d wake up at noon, caffeinate, maybe stay in my plaid pajamas until four, and then take a stroll around Hollywood Cemetery—named for the thorny ambience of the holly trees and not the movie industry—or cross the arcing footbridge to Belle Isle and dangle my feet in the muddy James. It was a kind of paradise, actually, except that I had to fry my own veggie sausage.
Anyway, I’d been devouring Goldberg’s Lie Awake Lake like a crazed beast. The collection consists mostly of elegies regarding the death of the poet’s father. There’s a strange, incantatory energy to Goldberg’s lines that makes even the frightening or macabre seem irresistible. Her wild images and surprising associations, her lyrical repetitions, and the defiant voice of her poems thrilled me. In Goldberg’s poem, “Sly Sparrow,” in which a sparrow gets shaved for surgery and a new wing grafted on, the bird says:
I began to call up song like a knot.
I became one mean musical
motherfucking sparrow: Call me Nicole. Though
we are a tolerant sort, like therapists
I want to be one mean musical motherfucking sparrow! You know?
Also, the fact that Goldberg’s speakers are occasionally posthumous ones (like the resurrected mutant sparrow, for example) got me thinking about how I might engage these kinds of fabular characters, or ventriloquize them, in my writing.
How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?
Well, it’s been awhile, so my memory isn’t even remotely reliable. But when is it ever? I’d say the poem went through many drafts (which means, for me, probably six to ten), with a year elapsing between the first and final drafts.
The penultimate draft seemed to be motoring along just fine, right up until the ending slammed into a wall. I considered cutting the poem from my first book, actually, because the ending felt so abrupt. That draft stopped when the speaker discovered “the mirror’s lake is forever / dragged for corpses, lily-buoyant // arteries, livers, and cocks.” I thought, “Yeah, ending on ‘cocks’ would sure be a high-volume ending,” but it just felt showy and unearned. I needed something more risky and emotionally resonant, not just a big, profane cymbal-clang. I mean, so the speaker stares into a lake. So what?
A year later, faced with the unpalatable notion of cutting the poem, I decided to tackle the ending. It’s unusual for me to return to a poem after so much time, but I wanted to keep it in the mix if I could. I realized during that final revision that the grandfather must fully materialize from the lake’s floating organs, that the speaker needs to commune more directly with her specterly relative. I needed the speaker to become more exposed.
Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?
I do believe in inspiration. I also believe, however (to paraphrase Randall Jarrell), if you want to be struck by lightning, you have to be there when the rain falls. For me, being there when the rain falls involves reading (poems by my old favorites or by new authors, nonfiction articles in The New Yorker, even some zany local city paper feature on North Carolina’s Kudzu Jesus on a telephone wire, whatever)—with my feelers out searching for triggers. Being there when the rain falls also involves my actively making space and time to write for an uninterrupted period of time. So I plunge in, write with risk, revise with energy, and, hopefully, the poem keeps on getting better and better as I stick with it.
Many of my poems grow from stories I hear that resonate with my own peculiar obsessions. My interest in the macabre probably comes from my family’s certain oddness of perception. We’re the kind of family who, on Christmas Eve, sits up late on the grey couch flanked by red and green sequined stockings poring over old crime scene photographs on the internet (courtesy of Lizzie Borden and Jack the Ripper). I’m not kidding; my mom, my sister, and I really do that.
When my mother finally revealed her discovery of my grandfather’s telling stash of magazines while cleaning out his house after his death in 1987, I knew instantly that the story would wind up informing a poem. I was surprised, of course, but I also experienced a disorienting sense of loss; I felt like my grandfather had prevented us from fully knowing him. I kept thinking, “If he’d only told us, he would have met with complete acceptance, understanding.” I felt deprived; I felt like my chance at really knowing him was long vanished.
The sexuality of our own parents, or grandparents, however, isn’t something most of us are comfortable with; it’s transgressive; it’s taboo. Especially taboo, too, was my grandfather’s living simultaneously as a closeted bisexual man and the patriarch of a nuclear family, in Mississippi, before the civil rights movement was in full swing. My grandfather was an active member of the community: he shrunk the heads of all sorts of people in town; he founded an Episcopal church; he volunteered his time to work toward advancing integration policies. He was a painter, guitarist, collector of newfangled technologies; he was the first person on the block to purchase a television. In the sixties, the Ku Klux Klan burned crosses in the front yard of his suburban brick home in Jackson. He also got passed over for promotions with some regularity at the hospital, despite his popularity with patients and effectiveness as a psychiatrist.
In this context, then, keeping his bisexuality a secret from his children, as best he could, seems an act of bravery and protection. Surely, though, it must also have been a deeply painful and self-destructive sacrifice to make. The project of the poem is most certainly elegiac and yet one that, in spite of the speaker’s hauntedness, I hope, is also tender and celebratory.
Anyway, when I start to wonder, “Should I really be writing about this?” I know it’s exactly what I ought to be doing. I like to challenge myself; it keeps me off the couch.
How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?
I often choose to write in couplets; perhaps that’s because they’re about as far away as you can get from prose. There’s a cool restraint to couplets, a formal clarity, and a kind of—I don’t know—buoyancy that helps give my speedy, image-packed, lush language room to breathe. So, it’s about balance; it’s my recipe for staving off some sort of baroque implosion.
How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?
About two years after I finished the poem, the online journal Blackbird published it, along with audio clips and five other poems from my first collection, If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting. Click here to read them.
How long do you let a poem “sit” before you send it off into the world? Do you have any rules about this or does your practice vary with every poem?
I don’t have any rules about how long I wait to send out poems. Usually, if I return to a poem after a week or two and still think it’s good, then I go for it.
Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?
Wallace Stevens calls poetry the supreme fiction. After all, why should we poets cede any damn territory to fiction writers? When I make use of factual details, as I do in “The Mirror’s Lake Is Forever,” I also try to allow plenty of room for invention. If I cleave to my autobiography, then the poem falls flat. I suspect one reason I’m drawn to writing about my grandfather is that I never got the chance to know him as an adult; he died when I was seven. Because I have such a limited understanding of him, I suppose I feel freer to make up details—to elaborate, invent, exaggerate, and omit—until I arrive at a poem that speaks the truth through the necessary art of fiction’s lies.
Is this a narrative poem?
The poem contains narrative elements. There’s a story at work here; there are characters; there’s a setting; there’s a discernable plot. I suspect the poem has more in common with the lyric mode, however, in that it emphasizes personal feeling and a single moment rather than a narrative. But that’s the line I constantly walk and upon which I slip and blur the boundaries. I’m happy with that. I love getting way out there in moments of lyric, cosmic drunkenness just as much as I love the vivid stories that weave throughout narrative poetry—Larry Levis and Norman Dubie are gods to me.
Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?
I mentioned before that I’d been excited by Beckian Fritz Goldberg’s approach to elegy in Lie Awake Lake. I’d also been reading Anna Akhmatova’s Selected Poems (Judith Hemschemeyer’s translation). There’s a brilliant poem of Akhmatova’s, “In Tsarskoye Selo,” in which the image of lake as a mirror, in the second section, really stuck in my head:
…And there’s my marble double,
Lying under the ancient maple,
He has given his face to the waters of the lake,
And he’s listening to the green rustling.
And bright rainwater washes
His clotted wound…
Cold one, white one, wait,
I’ll become marble too.
I borrowed Akhmatova’s line, “He has given his face to the waters of the lake,” for the title of another poem I wrote during that time. Although I don’t remember which poem came first, both “The Mirror’s Lake Is Forever” and “He has given his face to the waters of the lake” are sister poems of sorts; they’re closely related in that they both sprang from the lake image as a kind of haunted psychic landscape.
Do you have any particular audience in mind when you write, an ideal reader?
Although I don’t have a particular audience in mind when I sit down to write, I do think a lot about clarity: clarity of image, dramatic circumstance, syntax, etc… I often recall a dear mentor’s simple mantra: “Clarity is never a vice.” This isn’t to say that you can’t have both clarity and mystery in a poem; because you can. Leaving room for mystery is important, but it’s not the same thing as being vague or imprecise.
Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?
I wrote the poem during my MFA at VCU, so my teachers Gregory Donovan and David Wojahn read it and advised me. At that point, however, I was no longer taking a formal workshop; I met with them each one on one. Both Greg and David worked tirelessly and generously with me, for three years, on most of the poems in If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting. I couldn’t have done it without their devoted mentorship.
A little later in the book’s evolution, after I moved from Richmond to Houston (to begin my PhD at UH), Mark Doty helped me immensely. He said, “You should try a seduction poem,” so I wrote a whole series of devil/eros poems that wound up going in the manuscript. Those poems with a sharp sexual edge added new textures and tones to the collection, which excited me quite a lot; they helped tip the scales away from an onslaught of total gravitas.
My boyfriend, Patrick Turner, reads most of my drafts. He’s an upright bass player, but he trained early on in creative writing, so he offers me all kinds of valuable insights. He also brings me little snippets of stories he reads or hears that might be poem-worthy. (I wonder if he does this to make up for all the basses, banjos, fiddles, singing saws, etc, that sit around our apartment like they own this place…)
How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?
“The Mirror’s Lake Is Forever” is more directly autobiographical than many of my poems in If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting. The poem’s setting, though, is perhaps more slippery and oblique than others in the book. A good number of the poems in my collection are anchored in highly specific, if strange, concrete settings: a costume ball in a basement, an artificial limb factory, a Confederate cemetery, the garden section of a suburban hardware shop, a city bayou. The landscape of “The Mirror’s Lake Is Forever” is more of a psychological projection.
What is American about this poem?
I’m an inheritor of confessional verse, which is, I think, a particularly American mode of writing. Sylvia Plath, especially, is a great heroine of mine. Much of my poetry is highly personal, like “The Mirror’s Lake Is Forever.” I refuse to be boxed in, however, by What Really Happened, or “paralyzed by fact,” as Robert Lowell says of the trappings of confessional verse in his poem, “Epilogue.” I’m loyal to poems, not facts.
What’s also American about this poem is probably the setting—however in flux and bizarre it may be—which is the cicada-inflected, fraught American South. Some of the images and associative leaps, though, pull not from the stars and stripes but from European surrealism.
Was this poem finished or abandoned?
For me, it’s both. I don’t give up on a poem until I’ve reached an ending that has certain qualities; it has to make some kind of unexpected, exciting turn. The rhythms have to be emphatic; the last image or phrase has to be resonant, strange, and precise. Charles Wright says somewhere that you’ve got to “hit the right notes hard,” and that’s what I always try to do, but especially when I gear up to end a poem.
I know when to stop revising when I keep making the same changes over and over again, like a little OCD worker bee; I’ll change an “a” to “the,” for example, or I’ll delete a conjunction and pat myself on the back, sipping my coffee. Even when I reach an ending that I feel good about I do still find myself scratching my head, wondering if there’s a better one out there. At that point, though, I just try to keep my fingers away from the keyboard!
In “The Mirror’s Lake Is Forever,” I surprised myself when, toward the end of the poem, my speaker sits before her dead psychiatrist-grandfather as a patient. I surprised myself even more when she started unbuttoning her shirt, exposed and ready to recount her “Entire Medical History” for him. I thought, “Whoa, this is kind of disturbing! Should I be doing this?” That’s when I knew I had to follow through with it and hit the right last note, when the grandfather reaches out and, even posthumously, listens. I had to balance the shock of the floating cock imagery and the weirdly sexual undressing with a note that laid bare the speaker’s own vulnerability and need.