A poet’s poet, Annie Finch is known for her original blending of formalist and free verse styles in her poems, and her activism on behalf of other poets, particularly women. With all her degrees from Stanford and Yale, and her rich literary and scholarly ancestry, Finch is far from elitist, promoting the literary voices of a diversity of women poets, supporting alternative teaching models, and even cultivating interests in witchcraft and healing through poetry. She is the author of numerous books on poetics and poetry, and has a new collection of selected poems, Spells. Earlier this year, I spoke with Annie Finch, poet, critic, scholar, educator, translator, and librettist in her home in Falmouth, Maine.
“I see myself as a weaver and a healer.” ––Annie Finch
Zara: Your new and selected poems, Spells, includes work from decades of your writing. Reading this book, I am first struck by your inventive use of traditional forms. You’re obviously doing something original within the mainstream of contemporary poetry. How you see your place in American poetry?
Annie: I see myself as a weaver and a healer. And I feel that in a way, my work is just getting started. I think a lot of people really don’t know what on earth to do with me. People have tried to put me in a box, which I understand because I tried to put myself in boxes for decades, but I finally understood that I really did have to create my own place.
“Poetry has become so separated into these different camps. . . . the commodification, the bifurcation by class, by gender. There’s just been so much wounding of poetry, a loss of belief or loss of recollection of what poetry provides for us.”
Zara: The box being––
Annie: The formalist box, where you’re supposed to be reactionary and conservative. Anybody who looks at my work will figure out that I’m neither of these. But I think that eventually that allows me to weave together different strands of thought. I’ve been very lucky to have this incredible background in poetry: starting with my parents, and going through a classical, formalist education at Yale, and a radical, politicized Ph.D. in English and American Literature at Stanford, and time in New York in the poetry slam scene, and some nasty, tough experiences in New York City in the early 1980s.
Zara: And you went to Stanford after New York?
Annie: From New York City, I went to Houston for my Master’s Degree, and then I went to Stanford. I think of them as four corners: Yale, New York City, Houston, Stanford. At Yale I got the formalism, in New York I got the performance, at Stanford, I got experimental poetry as well as radical feminism, and at Houston, I got the mainstream free verse training. I understand these different schools. I have had the privilege to have so much support from all this education, and so much dedication and devotion to poetry since I was a child, so I also have a lot of a sense of the history of it all. I weave these different threads together in my work.
Zara: That’s what you mean when you say you are a weaver?
Annie: Yes, because poetry has become so separated into these different camps. There’s a lot of history behind how that happened. It was getting out of the body, out of the community, out of the tribe, and onto the page, into the book, the commodification, the bifurcation by class, by gender. There’s just been so much wounding of poetry, a loss of belief or loss of recollection of what poetry provides for us.
“But meter is like yoga–– it helps to have a teacher at the beginning.”
Zara: So you were academia; you were a tenured full professor. Tell us more about your experience in academia.
Annie: When I left Miami University, in Ohio, I was an Associate Professor. I’d been there for ten years, and then I came to Maine to be the director of the Stonecoast MFA program. I was promoted to full professor while I was in Maine.
“Meter integrates the body and the mind by allowing access to your unconscious, your right brain, which is the integration of the body and mind. It allows this direct channel into yourself.”
Zara: How was that experience? Did you find that also boxed you in?
Annie: Stonecoast was wonderful. It was a low-residency program, with non-traditional, passionate, dedicated students. And it gave me a lot of strength. It gave me a deeper conviction and knowledge of what people are really looking for when they study poetry.
Zara: And what are people looking for in poetry?
Annie: I think they are looking for integration, wholeness–– and for a way to do a poet’s traditional job, which is to be the voice of the tribe. It took me years to get the courage to help the best way I can, because I’d been brainwashed by the poetry academy to think that poetry had developed into free verse. And that free verse was more advanced and more free, so that it was restrictive and limiting and disrespectful to try to teach people the traditional tools of poetry. It was through ten years directing a low residency program that I began to develop the courage of my convictions, and to discover that the students in the program wanted desperately to learn the tools, they wanted to learn about meter, they wanted to learn the building blocks of form. Once you learn meter, you can teach yourself. But meter is like yoga–– it helps to have a teacher at the beginning. Even though it’s something you know you can do and it’s something private, it helps to have a teacher to get started if you’re not in the habit of it.
The first four or five years, I was very tentative, very hands-off with my students and their writing. I just worked with them where they were, and I love all kinds of poetry, so I was able to help them a lot. But I wasn’t sharing what in my own mind I valued the most and thought most useful to teach, which is working through those traditional tools of poetry. I found that students when they were graduating would come to me in their last semester, and they’d say “I kind of wish I’d learned that meter stuff, you think I could learn it now?” And I’d think “oh, my God, we only have a month left––“
Zara: So what is it that meter and rhythm give in terms of integration of the self?
Annie: Meter integrates the body and the mind by allowing access to your unconscious, your right brain, which is the integration of the body and mind, right? It allows this direct channel into yourself.
“When you teach someone the tools of meter, you’re giving them a way to use language, which we think of in a left-brain way thing, but to do it in a right brain way.” –Annie Finch
Zara: A channel you don’t necessarily access when you write without consciousness of meter?
Annie: I don’t believe that you do. There have been scientific studies that when someone reads or writes in free verse, they are using the left brain, which is the part of the brain we use for prose. When someone is working with poetry and meter, they are using the right brain, which is where we have music, and the visual and spatial and–– just the unconscious. So when you teach someone the tools of meter, you’re giving them a way to use language, which we think of in a left-brain way thing, but to do it in a right brain way. Which is so healing, so harmonizing.
The amazing thing with meter is that there are so many meters available, which have all been hidden from us––part of the lie of the poetry establishment. And of course, the other lie, the basic lie, is that free verse was the be-all and end-all of the modernist poetry revolution. That is just not true. When Pound started the “free verse revolution” over a hundred years ago now he said the first job was to “break the pentameter,” which had taken over. They thought they were clearing the way for new rhythms and new meters besides iambic. And instead, it got stuck with free verse. They never intended free verse to be the meter of the future forever. They really thought they were breaking iambic pentameter’s hegemony. They were creating the way for a new music that never happened. And instead, it got stuck with free verse. I’m actually working now with a variety of meters, I call it metrical diversity, dactyls, and trochees and amphibrachs, and in my experience–
Zara: ––It’s hard to write in dactyls.
Annie: It’s extremely hard, because you haven’t learned it yet. When I started writing in dactyls it was miserably hard––but I believe there is a collective knowledge we share, and it gets easier for us all every time someone else learns it!
Zara: ––Say what a dactyl is. . .
Annie: So a dactyl is a kind of waltz meter. [Quoting]: “THIS is the FORest primEval, the MURmuring PINES and the HEMlocks”. Now I am TALKing in DACtyls and HEAR how they ROLL from me, like water just leading the way through the sounds of the day like amazing companions that can make us whole.
Zara: Can you demonstrate trochees for us, as well?
Annie: YES, [in trochaic rhythm] i CAN, i’ll TALK in TROCHees. [Laugher]
And my students can do this after only just a day or two. Everyone can talk in trochees. It’s our body’s knowledge.
Annie Finch calls her newly minted poetry school PoetCraft Circle, a supportive on-line community for exploring meter and other elements of craft, a little “poet’s Facebook,” where poets share their profiles and join in forum discussions. Says Finch, “I think this is really needed out there in the world now, so I’m very excited about it.” American Witch (Americanwitch.com), a pagan-themed marketplace, is another of Finch’s new ventures. “For the witch who appreciates wonderful things,” it’s intended to be an an artisan marketplace with a line of jeweled pendants as well as beautiful, scented soaps handmade by a Maine artisan and representing the five directions of the sacred circle.
“I’m writing poetry for boxes of tea and soap, for people who will buy these products. Much as I love and appreciate the literary world, I feel now so much more grounded as a poet writing directly for people who might not read poetry otherwise.”
Finch is also starting the Poetry Witch Transformation Coaching series, bringing together a small group of people, probably women, through a process of transformation through the meters, and also through various witch-y skills. The group will meet together in person once at the beginning and once at the end, and the rest in going to be on-line. Says Finch: “The wheel of the five meters is transformative, and if you write about something in these meters in order, it actually can create a full experience of transformation.”
Zara: Talk a little about the title of your collection, Spells. There is something about witchcraft—not in all of the poems but in a significant few. Tell us about the pagan influence. .
Annie: When I got to San Francisco, I met my first witch.
Zara: This is when you were studying at Stanford in the late 1980s?
Annie: Yes. When I arrived in the Bay Area, I lived in Palo Alto for a few years. I worked with Adrienne Rich, and got politicized. The last several years I was there, when I was writing my dissertation, my husband and I moved into North Beach in San Francisco. That’s where I met my first witch. I was immediately transformed, and I felt as if I had come home, because it was such a wonderful approach to spirituality and to the world. I had already been interested in Goddess mythology: my first book, Eve, is organized around nine goddesses—
Zara: Yes, and there are quite a few poems from Eve in Spells.
Annie: Yes. My interest in paganism started quiet early and may have been influenced by my parents. In the late 80’s, they got to know Merlin Stone, the great Goddess scholar. My father invited her to his religious studies seminar at Columbia University. I asked my mother recently, ‘How did you get into the Goddess?’ and she said, ‘It was through you.” And I thought, Oh, really? I think we just discovered them at the same time.
Zara: This might be a good point to ask about your remarkable parents. I know your father was a philosopher, a Wittgenstein scholar, and your mother has also an interesting history. Do you want to say a little about how your upbringing fed your poetry?
Annie: My parents both loved poetry. They met at a lecture by Auden, and they raised me to love poetry. We talked a lot about poetry at the dinner table when I was a child. My father was a philosophy professor and a scholar of Wittgenstein, and my mother is a visual artist, a doll artist, a poet. So I got the mental and the creative from them both.
Zara: And your father was one of the first-generation of Wittgenstein scholars.
Annie: Yes. He was a very independent-thinking person. He was a conscientious objector in World War II, which was also very unusual then. He found Wittgenstein early on. He also studied religion. He started the world religions seminars at Columbia, and he was an early scholar of Dogen, the Buddhist philosopher. He had an amazing library of tens of thousands of books on world religions and literature and a lot of other subjects.
Zara: So you get your independence from your parents. I think of you as an independent thinker.
Annie: I would have to agree with that! My mother comes from a very creative, interesting family that goes back to a lot of artists, including Benjamin West, who was an early American painter in New England. Another part of her family came from Scotland, immigrants to New York, and that particular branch of the family didn’t have any money, but they had very strong women, and had a very creative spark. Her great-aunt ran for governor of New York as a socialist many times—
Zara: When was this?
Annie: In the 30s, but actually in the 20s also, and I think maybe the first time was before women could even vote that she ran as a socialist candidate. My mother’s great-aunt also founded the War Resisters League. She had homeopaths in her family, and single- taxers. So yes, she also taught me to be an independent thinker.
Zara: You knew her, you had a relationship with her?
Annie: I actually did not know the great-aunt, but I grew up on my mother’s knee learning all these stories about the women in her family––generations and generations of stories. She was a great storyteller.
Zara: So your parents had an interest in the Goddess. What about your teacher, Adrienne Rich: She was a feminist, of course, but did she have any part in your interest in the Goddess and witchcraft?
Annie: Yes, an ardent feminist. Adrienne introduced me to the Finnish epic, the Kalevala. I student-taught for a class of hers, and the Kalevala , was an important text for her; she considered it to be an important feminist text put together from feminist oral tales. So that was interesting, but she didn’t make the leap to the Goddess. But there were other women in the Bay Area who influenced me that way: Janine Canan, editor of an early anthology of Goddess poetry, and the great artist Mayumi Oda, who at my request did the cover for the Stanford Literary Magazine when I was the editor. So I had been familiar with Goddess imagery and stories, and to some extent with the idea that the Goddess was alive, and that it was possible to connect with the Goddess.
There was a lot of the Goddess stuff going around in the Bay Area, but the witch stuff was a little more far out. So when I stumbled on it, I was so excited, I loved it immediately, and felt I was coming home. It just really worked for me. Francesca Dubie, the ex-wife of Norman Dubie, was the first witch I met; she brought me into her home for a circle celebrating one of the sabots, one of the witch’s festivals––Then I continued with it when I moved to Iowa for my first teaching job, and I had little kids. I brought my son—my daughter was born later–to all the earth spirituality events, and I started writing poems for that, because we needed poems for our circle, and I was really excited, because, you know, a lot of religions already have plenty of literature, and they don’t need any more. But I really like the feeling of being useful. So I started writing poems to use in our circle, and those were the poems in Calendars, my third book of poetry.
My very first book was The Encyclopedia of Scotland, written when I was in New York in that whole performance scene. I was still struggling with Christianity, and figuring out how I could express myself spiritually within patriarchal religions. If you look at that book, there’s all this stuff about Jesus with a green beard, a yellow face, I was trying to integrate Christianity into my earth sensibility, and it wasn’t working very well. The Encyclopedia of Scotland, was self-published in 1982, but didn’t come out from a real publisher until 2003. Eve was my second, and Calendars, my third, has all the poems I wrote for that ritual circle. I continued connecting with witches and pagans whenever I could on my own, after I left the circle. Now I’m writing a book about how to be a witch called American Witch.
Zara: Is this a prose book?
Annie: Yeah, a self-help book. It has some poetry in it. It’s prose. I’ve been writing about spirituality for the Huffington Post. I really felt the need to share these ideas, and it’s a broader audience than poetry’s.
Zara: Yes! You have written a book on poetic craft, I’m looking at it on your shelf from where I sit. A Poet’s Craft is a huge book—what 500 pages?
Annie: Seven hundred pages.
Zara: Seven hundred! A big book, a manual of every aspect of poetic craft, a book filled with scholarly explications and illustrative quotations, and excerpts and appendixes, footnote, exercises, and discussion topics. How did you come to write it?
Annie: It’s a funny story, really. I was pregnant with my daughter. So that was years ago. I was at the AWP conference, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference, and I came across Eighth Mountain Press, which is a very sweet little feminist press in the Northwest, and they had this series of little books on how to write, and they had one by Ursula Le Guin called Steering the Craft, about how to write fiction, a tiny little book, of ––I don’t know–– 60 pages or something. And I thought to myself, I can write one of those about poetry. So I talked to Ruth Gundle, the owner of Eighth Mountain Press, and I asked if there was one about poetry, and she said, “No. Would you like to write one?” And I said, “Yes, I’d love to.” So I started writing this little book. Ruth was helping me edit it. All of a sudden, I don’t know how it happened, but it started to snowball and snowball and snowball. Oh, well, we can put this in, nobody knows about this, and how about sharing this? It got bigger and bigger. It has a lot of poems in it, and it’s not really quite as much writing as it looks.
Zara: It has a lot of examples, poems illustrating the various elements of craft.
Annie: Yes. It’s sort of a poetry anthology combined with a poetry handbook: advice from a poet on how to be a poet.
Zara: Not only how to write, but how to BE a poet.
Annie: How to be a poet, that’s right. After I started it, I began to realize that this was a chance to share my life-long immersion in poetry and everything that I have been so lucky to be able to learn, and to put it all in one place. So it became a labor of love, kind of my gift back to the art of poetry, because it was maybe a book that I wished I’d had.
Zara: Yes, I could see that. And this is about the same time that you started the Discussion of Women’s Poetry ListServ, WOM-PO?
Annie: Actually, yes, I guess it was.
Zara: So this traces back to your activist roots through your parents. So talk a little about WOM-PO and women’s poetry as a social movement.
Annie: Interestingly enough, it was about the same time. And I should say about A Poet’s Craft that during the ten years that I was directing the Stonecoast MFA program, I was teaching and writing that book. After I got over my initial fears about teaching meter, we made it a required class for all the students coming in, so they had to take Rhythms of Poetry, and I learned a lot about teaching meter that went into the book, and it helped me to finish A Poet’s Craft. The book owes a lot to the students at Stonecoast.
Yes, I started WOM-PO around the same time, about a year before my daughter was born. I was just fed up with the on-line poetry scene. At that time, there were only two poetry discussion list serves: One was SUNY Buffalo, which was devoted to experimental poetics, and the other was called CAP-L, I don’t know if it’s still around– Contemporary American Poetry List Serve. These were the only places that you could discuss poetry and they were both totally male-dominated and sexist. You’d get on these discussions, and I just got so frustrated over and over. I’d see women trying to say things, and men would just take over, turn it into a duel; every single conversation, no matter who started it or what it was about, would turn into a duel between two men. Maybe not every single one, but it sure felt like that. I got really sick of seeing these smart women being ignored, and their threads and conversations going nowhere.
So I started my own, and I called it WOM-PO, the Discussion of Women’s Poetry Listserv, rather than Women Poets Listserv, because I didn’t want it to be explicitly ONLY for women poets. That seemed like a mistake. Then the first year or two we had a lot of discussion—Should men be allowed, and thank goodness, we decided that men should be, because there were some wonderful men involved in WOM-PO, like David Graham and Jeffrey Levine and others.
I started out by sending invitations to eleven women, including Marilyn Hacker, Marilyn Nelson, Molly Peacock, Kathrine Varnes, Gwyn McVay, Rachel Loden, and Susan Schultz. It’s really great to look at the WOMPO archives. You go back to the archive, it’s like, Wow! Here we are, we’re a listserv. And now it must be12,000 women and men all around the world.
Zara: Twelve thousand!
Annie: Yes. It grew! I handed it off to Amy King, after I nourished and nurtured that listserv for about ten years. I was a very active, very hands on facilitator during the formative years of building the culture of the listserv, for probably the first five or six years.
It was a LOT of time and a LOT of work, and it was also very satisfying. But I wanted to create a community that would be respectful, and also stimulating and challenging—just a really good balance where women and men would be free to say what they wanted to say, and diversity would be embraced. I feel that it was really successful. We created a lot of innovative kinds of things. For example, a lot of other list serves deteriorate into stupid little one-sentence posts like, Oh, I won an award, Oh, congratulations, followed by twelve more congratulations. So we came up with these ingenious ways to avoid this kind of chit-chat––you know, sometimes when we’re together we com dup with great solutions––so WOM-PO has different kinds of newsletters and forms as solutions to these problems. Amy brought it to Nassau Community College, and it is still going strong. There was someone who was going to do a book of the best posts from the WOMP-PO Archives, and I hope that project happens. The archive is amazing, full of intelligent discussions, really like mini-essays and panel discussions, about women’s poetry from a diversity of brilliant and often well-known women poets. . .
Zara: And then there’s the WOMPO Anthology, Letters to the World. Another beautiful book.
Annie: Yes! That was a wonderful project that come out of WOM-PO.
Zara: Tell me more about your current books in progress. Are you writing a new poetry book?
Annie: Yes, three new books, actually.
Zara: Three! These are collections of poems from what period? Talk about that.
Annie: Most of the poems are new. Well, a lot of them are new. I’ve been writing a lot since leaving Stonecoast, which is really fun.
Zara: You have the time that you probably didn’t have before.
Annie: Yes, and the psychic freedom. And I think all the years of practice–-I hope I’m not deluding myself––all the years of practice, and all the psychological clearing that I’ve done have made it easier for me to write more directly. I used to revise laboriously: every single word in Calendars was revised dozens of times. But now I feel like poems come easily. I‘ve always had some poems that just came that way. In Calendars, the poem “Chain of Women” is an example of one that just came [Annie snaps her fingers].
Annie: I know that’s sometimes hard to understand, so I sometimes read it twice. When I recited the poem to you just now, I made a revision, which I really like.
Zara: What did you do?
Annie: I changed “finding the footsteps” to “blessing the footsteps.” I knew there was a reason I wanted to recite that one.
Zara: Lovely. Thank you. “Chain of Women” is in your new collected poems, as well.
Annie: Yes, that was one poem that came easily.
Zara: So you feel you’re being more spontaneous now?
Annie: Now it seems that I write without as much need to revise, maybe since the tools are now fully there. A lot of the poems in these books are new, but a lot of them go back 20 or 30 years, as well, that didn’t make it into my other books. I haven’t been doing a lot of publishing for the last five or ten years for some reason. I was just busy with other things. I’ve been cruising on my reputation. People ask me for poems, and I’ll send them, but I haven’t really made efforts to publish, and I miss that kind of engagement.
SIDEBAR: Finch’s Philosophy of Metrical Diversity
When Finch discovered a correlation between the five basic meters and the five directions, she began to organize a schemata of metrical diversity around the five sacred directions of the Witch’s Circle—East, North, West, South, and Center. In her Poetry Witch workshops, the participants, under Finch’s leadership, activate different parts of the sacred circle by writing in the different meters. The Center, which is spirit and intuition, is amphibrachs, the meter that, says Finch, “people didn’t even think existed in English until recently.” Finch explains the correlation as follows (wand and cup are her terminology for stressed and unstressed syllables): North is the direction of the earth. It’s grounding, nurturing, strengthening, returning to the roots, so the meter is trochaic, which is “wand-cup, wand-cup, wand-cup”: “Tiger, tiger, burning bright.” South is the meter of fire; that’s passionate, that’s will, change through the will, and the meter for that is Iambic, “cup-wand,” a driving, forceful meter, the basic meter of English poetry since Chaucer. East is the direction of air, which is vision and clarity, understanding and wisdom, and so this meter is Anapest. It’s light and rising and kind of optimistic. It goes “Unstressed-Unstressed-Stressed,” or as I call them, “cup-cup-wand.” anapests. And West is the direction of water, the emotions, compassion and unity beyond the individual self, so it’s a falling meter, the Dactyl––“wand-cup-cup.” As Finch says, “It all makes sense, doesn’t it?”
Zara: Tell us about the collections of poems you are putting together now.
Annie: I recently unearthed this huge haul of poems that I’ve been collecting and amassing, and I realize there’s enough for two or three books. One is going to be a book of love poems, and one’s going to be a book that I actually started writing before I put together Spells, called The Witch in the Moon. I had taken some of those poems out it to put in Spells in the “New Poems” section. So I went back and put that together, and it turned into a book called Invocations to the Five Directions. I’ve now made the decision that Invocations to the Five Directions––the book organized to focus on metrical diversity–– has to be a separate book.
Metrical diversity seems inevitable. But it’s actually taken me a long, long time. In Calendars, which was—what year was that? in 2003, so over ten years ago, in the poem “Imbolc Dance,” I first played with this idea. I had the idea to use the five directions in a poem. But in 1982, when I was finishing my Master’s degree at the University of Houston and worked with Ntozake Shange as my thesis adviser on verse drama, I got the idea to have different characters speaking in different meters, and I also felt that the characters represented different parts of myself. So I was kind of playing with this idea way back then. In “Imbolc Dance,” for the first time, I tried to actually assign a different meter to each direction, making the poem a sacred circle. But I had it really different. I had dactyls in the north. I guess the anapests and the iambs were the same, but the dactyls and the trochees were reversed. I didn’t really understand about amphibrachs yet, so –
Zara: Give us an example of an amphibrach.
Annie: It’s a limerick meter with the stress in the center. It has three syllables, two unaccented syllables. So—(quoting):
There was a young lady from France
who thought that she knew how to dance.
Amazingly enough, even though limericks are so popular, there’s very little amphibrachic poetry in English. There’s very little poetry in any of these meters, except iambic, which is why I now need to plug my very latest publication. It’s called Measure for Measure: An Anthology of Poetic Meters, A Random House book from Everyman’s Library.
And as far as I know it’s the first anthology ever to collect poems arranged by meter. It represents decades of collecting, including poems I coaxed from my students for other projects, and a lot of rediscovered poems from the past, so it’s really fun. And in this book, you can actually read a whole selection of amphibrachs.
Zara: When did the Everyman Library book come out?
Annie: A few months ago.
Zara: The Everyman Library series is a nice series. Congratulations! Let’s continue exploring the three books you are working on now.
“I’ve had some amazing experiences by the graves of poets.” –Annie Finch
Annie: There’s Invocations to the Five Directions, invoking the five directions through the elements and through imagery and all the rest of it, with each section in the appropriate meter. Then there is The Witch in the Moon, a collection of poems about being a woman and about earth spirituality, and, thirdly, a love poetry book, which will be published later.
Zara: Do you see yourself developing your own books and programs and projects, and not really paying too much attention to the rest of the contemporary poetry scene? Do you write critically about other poets? Or what’s going on in the poetry scene from your point of view? Or is it just like another world?
Annie: That’s a good question. I certainly used to be very involved in it for a long time. I was writing reviews. I was writing essays. In the last five or 10 years, I’ve become less engaged in it, because I’m taking more of a long view. I’ve become much more aware of my mortality. I actually have my memorial picked out for my grave site. I have a spot picked out.
Zara: Golly! [Both women laugh.] You aren’t ill, are you?
Annie: When I called up the cemetery, I was not ill that I knew of, but actually, a year or two later, I was diagnosed with early breast cancer. So maybe on some level I knew that then.
Zara: But you’re fine now?
Annie: Totally. I did the healing holistically through diet and life style changes. I’m writing an article about that, too. I think that’s important for people to know. But I’m fine now. It’s been three or four years since I’ve started this, and I’ve gotten used to the idea. But it is a little weird at first, right?
Zara: You’ve become aware of your mortality?
Annie: Yes. And, well, I’ve always loved poets’ graves.
Zara: Oh, yes, your poems about the graves of Longfellow and Frost.
“When poets are writing in free verse, by noticing the metrical patterns and the meanings of the phrases of those metrical patterns, you can uncover their attitude toward different meters. That provides a blueprint of how they can develop formally in the direction that’s most powerful and authentic to them.” –Annie Finch
Annie: I’ve had some amazing experiences by the graves of poets. Three years ago I had a strong impulse one day to call up Evergreen Cemetery, which is a beautiful cemetery here in Portland.
I called them up and I said, “I want to have a memorial so I’m looking for several plots adjacent in the old part of the cemetery,” and they said, “Sorry, but the old part of the cemetery is full, and we never have two plots next to each other anyway. Sorry, you’re out of luck.” And I said, “Oh, okay.” And then he goes, “Oh, wait a second, actually this morning I got a phone call from a place for aged women that has a whole lots of plots next to each other in the old part of the cemetery, and they’ve just decided to sell.” It was like “Wow!” This must be really meant to happen. And my friend Walter Skold, who is an expert on poets’ graves, helped me think about the design.
Zara: So have you written your epitaph?
Annie: The designer and I are going to use my poem called “Walk with Me” from Eve.
Zara: That’s in your new collection, as well. It’s a beautiful poem.
Annie: It seems appropriate. So unless something more appropriate turns up in the next ––what I hope will be many decades–– that’s what it will be. The grave site is right at the edge of the forest. It’s going to be really beautiful, with a bench to look at the woods, and a spiral in the ground. So I have been thinking about mortality, about what I want–
Zara: Your legacy.
Annie: Yes, so that leaves less time to engage with the contemporary scene. I do care about the contemporary scene. However, I’m more interested now in my relation with readers, and finding ways of directly connecting with readers. Because one of the issues contemporary poetry has is that it’s so insulated from regular readers.
Zara: You mean it’s poets reading other poets, not ordinary folk reading poetry?
Annie: Exactly. So I feel one of the ways I can address that is simply to be a model for engaging with readers who are not poets.
And I’ve done a lot of occasional poetry. I wrote a poem on 9-11 that’s installed in the Cathedral of St John of the Divine in New York City. I have a poem on the wall of a café in Cincinnati. I do like to do that, so that’s one way.
I do miss the poetry world; I mean I’m very deeply connected to it in my heart after so many years of paying such close attention, and I guess I always will be. I think this process of putting the new books together brings me closer to it again; also, I’m going to be sending poems out to magazines again––which I haven’t done in I don’t know how long––instead of waiting for people to come to me. So I’m looking forward to getting back into it a bit more. But much as I love and appreciate the literary world, I feel now so much more grounded as a poet writing directly for people, who might not necessarily read poetry otherwise.
There are still a couple of things that I really want to communicate to the poetry world. The most important thing is about what I call the metrical code, which is the subject of my PhD dissertation at Stanford. And I’ve done some writing about it, but––
Zara: What is the metrical code? Is that different from your idea of metrical diversity?
Annie: Yes. The metrical code says that when poets are writing in free verse, by noticing the metrical patterns and the meanings of the phrases of those metrical patterns, you can uncover their attitude toward different meters. That provides a blueprint of how they can develop formally in the direction that’s most powerful and authentic to them.
I’ve taught some many hundreds of students meter and I’ve discovered this over and over. When they come in with their free verse––it’s different for different poets––a typical iambic pentameter line for one poet might be “a frozen, dead, dark pond where I would die.” And you want to say to them, stay away from iambic pentameter! And they might have troches that are “power, joy, and everything I need”, and so you say, okay, go with that meter. And for another poet it might be very different.
Zara: Your idea about free verse poets often using meters, even if unconsciously, is so perceptive. That they just may not be aware of it, but when you pay attention to it, you can see how the mood of the poem changes, at a closure, say, when the meter changes very appropriately.
Annie: Exactly. It’s good to make it conscious if you can, because then there’s more control. The scholarly book I wrote on this is called The Ghost of Meter. I’d like to write about it in a more accessible way for people teaching workshops. I want to approach AWP Chronicle about that, but yeah, in terms of reviews and things, I’m not so engaged or interested. I feel that my online poets community, the PoetCraft Circles Community, is going to be my way of engaging with contemporary poets by offering the space. We have discussions, forums, workshops, classes, and we’re probably going to have interviews with people who are writing in form and meter nowadays.
Zara: You were recently a part of Kim Bridgford’s conference––
Annie: Yes, Poetry by the Sea––
Zara: Talk a little about that.
“I used to be identified as a formalist, and that was isolating, and now I’m much happier not even thinking of myself in those terms.” –Annie Finch
Annie: Poetry by the Sea took place at the end of May. It’s based on the West Chester Poetry Conference, a formalist conference that for a long time was the only place I knew where I could talk with other poets about meter!. But the history of that conference is kind of fraught for me as a feminist, and anyway it seems it’s now kind of over. So under Kim’s direction, this new conference, Poetry by the Sea, has arisen with a much more inclusive aesthetic, and it’s much more open to women and people of color. I’m really excited about it. I taught a class––
Zara: What was your class?
Annie: It was called “How to Reclaim Poetry’s Metrical Magic.” So we were outside in nature, working with the five different meters, and reading and writing in meter.
Zara: It sounds wonderful.
Annie: It really was! So but, yeah, your question is such an interesting one. I used to be identified as a formalist, and that was isolating, and now I’m much happier not even thinking of myself in those terms.
Zara: But there’s A.E. Stalling. She’s a formalist; she doesn’t seem to balk at it.
Annie: Yeah, she doesn’t balk at it at all. Exactly. She lives out of the country, and I think that may have something to do with that. But as for me, I don’t feel like a formalist any more. I’ve gotten to the point where I see myself as a poet. A poet. This was hard to say when I was part of the academy, but I feel it’s what poets do, working in music and rhythm and language. I feel no division now, fundamentally. I’m claiming it.
Zara: I hope there will be more new poems for us to read, and soon. Thank you so much for speaking with me today.