Anna Journey says she’s always had an interest in dark fairy tales and a fascination with the stories her mother told her about her own childhood living on the grounds of a Texas mental asylum while her father, a psychiatrist, did his residency.
“Those were the kinds of stories I grew up hearing,” says the award-winning poet, who is an assistant professor of English at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. “They seemed normal to me as a child, and I didn’t realize there was anything unusually macabre about them until much later.”
Journey’s third collection of poems, The Atheist Wore Goat Silk, was published in February and brims with tales of insects, taxidermy, graveyards and tattoos. But taking a walk on the dark side is nothing new for the poet and writer. Journey’s first book of essays, An Arrangement of Skin, features a piece that examines various versions of the “Bluebeard” story, her mother’s favorite tale, about the wealthy man who murdered his wives. In it, Journey pays tribute to her mother’s gift for the grotesque, writing, “There isn’t an anecdote out there too terrifying or gruesome or scandalous…. There isn’t a forbidden door in the castle that she won’t unlock.”
Describing her poems as closer to fiction than autobiography, Journey warns that we shouldn’t take the extraordinary characters and events they describe too literally. “This sense of risk and wonder is what I try to carry into both my poems and essays,” Journey says. “It’s also what I hope to share in teaching my students— that writing is a continuous process of discovery.” Here are just a few of the macabre motifs that she explores in her work:
The Atheist Wore Goat Silk opens with a poem about a barcode tattoo a character gets as a teenage dare. Asking a supermarket worker to scan her adolescent protest against consumerism, she discovers the vertical lines inked onto her forearm correspond to sweet potatoes.
“I’ve always been sweet but slightly / twisted,” Journey writes. “I’ve always been waiting to disappear like this, / bite by bite, into someone’s mouth.”
The title of An Arrangement of Skin refers to the definition of taxidermy—taxis, an arrangement, and derma, skin—and is a reference to one of the unifying images that echo throughout the book.
“The process of arranging seemed to speak to the art of the storyteller,” Journey says, “while the image of skin suggested a metaphor: for bodies, lovers, family members, the different selves we inhabit in our lives.”
In one essay, Journey compares peeling back the skin of her chosen subject, a starling, to “pushing apart the fuzzy velveteen of a ripe peach.”
The dark humor in two poems is devoted to a novelty item Journey saw advertised by a Kentucky florist: a fried chicken prom corsage.
Journey describes how “The golden-breaded / cluster of drumsticks cinched // in their fuschia ribbons and a wrist- // elastic” finally arouses regret for the missed opportunity to wear one. “You want to see the photographs/ snapped after midnight when the blond prom dates gnaw / their pink-ribboned corsages to the gristle.”
“I’ll often take an odd or peculiar story involving science or animals and braid it with another thread that seems more intimate or personal,” Journey says. In The Atheist Wore Goat Silk, there is a poem about blue honey, made by French bees who feasted on “the sugared waste // that dripped from an M&M’s factory.”
In another poem, a hairdresser gets a tattoo of a pill bug on her elbow, where she can make it contract and disappear into its protective armadillo-like shell simply by straightening her arm. The ink becomes a symbol of the hairdresser’s reclaimed power.