Mushrooms, Mortality, and the Braided Form: A Conversation with Anna Journey on “The Judas Ear”

March 11, 2022   •   By Maggie Millner

IN “THE JUDAS EAR,” the title poem of a new collection by the poet and essayist Anna Journey, the speaker watches a dried mushroom reconstitute itself in hot oil as she considers its coiled shape, biological history, and biblical namesake. This is often the way a Journey poem takes form: the poetic imagination grabs hold of an object or strange piece of nomenclature, from which it weaves a net of associated images and memories, bits of trivia and scraps of urban legend. With each new detour, the speaker seems genuinely surprised by the divagations of her own mind, which summon delight and alarm in equal measure. “All I’d / bargained for were mushrooms,” she writes at the poem’s exact midpoint, hot on the heels of a crucifixion reference. But almost nothing in this collection is only as it first appears.

While The Judas Ear takes up the Gothic themes and plaited lyrical structures that characterize Journey’s four previous books, its approach is more vigilant, more attuned to the latent dangers of both the body and the household. Journey wrote the book during the pandemic and after a spell of writer’s block following the publication, in 2017, of two previous volumes: The Atheist Wore Goat Silk, a collection of poems, and An Arrangement of Skin, a book of essays. It is difficult not to hear in the kinetic, lucid poems of The Judas Ear a note of triumphal return: the overtone of a poet who has fallen in love all over again with her medium. We corresponded over email in October about Hans Christian Andersen, funny poems, and how to start writing again after a period of creative drought.

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MAGGIE MILLNER: Many of the poems in your new book, The Judas Ear, take their premise from household objects, wildly defamiliarized. (I’m thinking of Viktor Shklovsky’s essay on that concept, in which he writes that “the technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception.”) You have a poem dedicated to a massage gun, an anti-aging pillowcase, rodent repellant, a pair of shoes shaped like hooves. Can you speak about how such an object takes hold of your imagination, and the process by which you transform it into something totemic in your poems?

ANNA JOURNEY: I think all poets nurture a certain attentiveness and receptivity to metaphor. It’s this kind of imaginative openness that can lead us in unexpected directions, open up associative possibilities. For me, a generative image will often tilt toward the visual and pack a narrative charge, as in one poem’s vintage pink couch sourced by an ex-lover from a meningitis clinic or the ear-shaped mushroom of the collection’s title. The Judas ear mushroom appealed to me for its imagery of metamorphosis (the fungus recalls a whorled human ear that sprouts from logs and stumps) as well as for its ecological and mythic resonances (the mushroom grows up the trunks of elders — the same species of tree from the which the apostle Judas hangs himself, in some versions of the narrative). I admired the mushroom for its richness as a metaphor — for the body, for transformation, for mortality. Also, because I love the braided form, I appreciated the various threads — mythic, ecological, literary, personal — I could pull from the Judas ear and weave throughout in the poem. I see the poet Larry Levis as a master of the braided form; more recently, I’ve admired John Murillo’s braided narrative strategies in Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry and Emilia Phillips’s juxtapositional verve in Embouchure.

Although a number of my poems’ generating images tend to be visual ones, perhaps because of my early background in the ceramic arts, I’m also drawn toward odd circumstances or macabre facts, like Hans Christian Andersen’s fear of being buried alive or the late actor Luke Perry’s eco-friendly funeral arrangements. And due to my taking an experimental perfume class on storytelling and scent, more olfactory imagery wafts through this book compared to my other collections — lots of smelliness going on.

I think often of the Zbigniew Herbert idea that poets are either cats or oxen; either they write only when struck by inspiration, or else they write in a daily, structured way. (Your poem, “Cat-Cow,” a stirring, yogic meditation on mortality, harks back to this dichotomy too.) Are you more of a cat poet or an ox poet?

I bet a number of writers can see themselves in both animals. I’ve been each of them at different points in my life. Last year, I had enough free time in which to practice the daily habits of the ox. Right now, I’m a cat.

Relatedly, I know from our correspondence that you were writing fewer poems after your last two books came out in 2017. I’m always interested — selfishly, perhaps — in how other poets experience and escape writer’s block. What do you think accounted for this spell of not-writing, and how did you find your way out of it?

The advice I’d give to writers attempting to dig themselves of out of a hole (of not writing well or regularly) would be to read, read, read, broadly and eclectically. As I emerged from a four-year stretch of feeling estranged from poetry, I read Jackie Wullschlager’s biography of Hans Christian Andersen; I dove into Andreas Johns’s scholarly study Baba Yaga; I immersed myself in a number of books on the cultural history of smell. I also revisited several of Larry Levis’s middle-period poetry collections, including The Dollmaker’s Ghost and Winter Stars. While I favor Levis’s later books — The Widening Spell of the Leaves, Elegy, and The Darkening Trapeze — I learned so much about braiding temporalities and repeating motifs from these earlier collections, too, as I tried out more expansive forms. (I should qualify “expansive”: a three-page poem in a Word file is long for me.) I also listened to recordings of Sylvia Plath reading her work for the BBC.

My other advice to folks struggling with their writing would be to offer themselves some compassion (no one ever berated themselves back into feeling inspired) and to actively seek out other poets with whom they feel a literary kinship. When I was getting back in touch with my poems, I wrote to a few poets — friends and former classmates and you, Maggie! — and asked them what they were working on, if they’d send me some poems for my reading pleasure. I wrote a pile of poems in response to reading the work they sent.

I think my focus on nonfiction for a period of time accounted for my extreme spell of not writing poetry. I assumed that my poems could wait, that they’d be there after I completed a second essay collection. In the past, I’ve moved between genres with a certain degree of fluidity and ease, mostly writing poems and occasionally writing an essay, which is my more natural inclination and (for me) a better balance. Turns out not regularly flexing my poetry muscles makes for one gnarly charley horse.

The essays in An Arrangement of Skin take on similar subjects to those of your poems: intimate relationships, metamorphoses, the resonances between the fraught present and the Gothic past. Like your poems, these essays are often braided in structure, narrated by a consistent feminine speaker, and animated by incisive (and often deliciously grotesque) details. I wonder how you knew the pieces collected in The Judas Ear wanted to be poems and not essays.

I’m not sure how other authors decide “poem or essay?” but for me it’s easy, instinctual. Occasionally, I’ll revisit a subject in one genre that I’ve previously explored in the other, as when I returned to my interest in mushrooms a year after my essay — also titled “The Judas Ear” — appeared in print. I wasn’t done with mushrooms, apparently. In the case of the title poem, I hoped to focus on the mythic resonances of the mushroom rather than make an explicit ecological argument, the latter of which better characterizes one aim of the prose piece. Additionally, I learned some months after the essay’s publication that the actor Luke Perry chose to be buried in a biodegradable funeral suit infused with mushroom mycelia. Since I discuss this same MycoTechnology in my nonfiction piece (and have an identical mushroom burial suit hanging in my closet), I decided to write an elegy for Perry, imagining his afterlife as a scattering of mushrooms.

Sometimes I’ll think of a subject for an essay and end up writing a poem instead, as in “Experimental Perfume Class in Which I ‘Scent’ the Folkloric Witch Baba Yaga.” A couple of summers ago, I took a perfume class on storytelling and scent from the artist Saskia Wilson-Brown, at the Institute for Art and Olfaction, in Los Angeles, thinking I’d draw from the experience for an essay on olfaction and transgressive femininities. Although the essay never took off, I returned to my notes several years later and wrote a poem based on my experiences “scenting” the witch of Slavic folktales, Baba Yaga. And I have to credit my perfume teacher Saskia for her sage advice about how to “reset” your nose if it becomes overwhelmed from sniffing so many different scents: “Smell your armpits — you are your own white noise.” Armpit aroma can really ground a person!

On that note, bodily conditions, broadly construed, are another major thread running through this book. You explore cherry angiomas, flatback syndrome, inverted eyelashes, and — in a particularly stunning poem — ciguatera fish poisoning, which results in the speaker’s sensory confusion between heat and cold. Your poetry has always been somewhat flesh-obsessed, but the subject took on a different, darker, and more personal valence in this collection, I thought. How do you think about this trend in your recent work?

Well, I never thought my experience with a rare type of fish poisoning would occasion a poem, that’s for sure. But I think the pandemic made all of us feel vulnerable in ways we hadn’t experienced before, or at least not as acutely. This heightened sense of vulnerability had me thinking a lot about being in a body, specifically a body in pain. When we all went into quarantine, I had to stop going to physical therapy for my chronic back condition. I had to give up massage. Even though the poem about my ciguatera fish poisoning, “Altos de Chavón,” draws on the deeper past and not the pandemic, I think my sense of feeling out of control of my own body prompted me to look back on the radical neurological derangement I experienced from ciguatera in which my hot and cold sensations got reversed for three months. (Try waiting tables when a glass of ice water burns your palms!) And I suspect that turning 40 during the pandemic moved me to consider aspects of bodily transformations from a newly urgent perspective. I hope, though, that some of the poems’ evocations of embodiment are more celebratory than grim, like the cherry angiomas that bloom from skin or Luke Perry’s shape-shifting into a mushroom. I try to maintain my sense of humor, in poetry and in life.

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Maggie Millner is the author of COUPLETS (FSG, 2023). Her poems appear in The New Yorker, POETRY, The Paris Review, and elsewhere.