Interview with Wiccan feminist poet Annie Finch

by | March 27, 2016
filed under Books

Cover of Spells by Annie FinchFearless in its lyricism and expansive in its range, Annie Finch’s work spans four decades and encompasses eight books of poetry, a translation, and numerous anthologies, plays, libretti, and books and essays on poetics.

The more I researched her, the more I wondered how our paths had never crossed before. Neither the poetry world nor the pagan world is all that large, and the overlap between them—pagans writing poetry with the depth and seriousness she brings to it—is even smaller.

“As a Wiccan,” Finch writes in the foreword to Spells: New and Selected Poems, “I write poems as incantations to strengthen our connections to each other, to the passage of time, and to the sacred cycles of nature.” Her celebrations of the turning wheel of the year and her goddess invocations connect us with age-old traditions but root us in the present day with economic and unsentimental language. Consider these lines from “A Seed for Spring Equinox:”

…I feel the earth around the place my head has lain
under winter’s touch, and it crumbles…

I felt much the same wading through Spells, a retrospective of Finch’s work that came out in 2013. Not all of her work is overtly pagan, but the ethic of immanent divinity—spirit residing in the physical world—hovers in the background of all her work. She strides through free verse and formalism with equal vigor, and you see the fruits of that formal training in her translations of Louise Labé’s sonnets.

Unlike many collected works, Finch’s book moves backward through time.  The tight lines of her later work give way to the looser, more experimental forms of her work in the 70s and 80s, many of which deal with mythic subjects. It’s a treat to walk through the arc of such a long career in a single book and it makes me wonder what new works we have yet to read from Annie Finch.

Poet Annie Finch and her cat, Merlin

Poet Annie Finch and her cat, Merlin

I was fortunate enough to speak with Finch via email about her work:

What first brought you to poetry?

I inherited poetry on both sides of my family. My parents met at a lecture on Shakespeare by Auden. They both loved to read poetry and recited it aloud a lot, and of their five children, I was the one poetry stuck to. I was a quiet, introspective child who felt the magic of connecting to nature and the universe, and poetry enhanced that feeling. By age seven I was memorizing and performing poems from Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, and I began to write my own poems shortly after. My mother was my first poetry teacher.

How would you describe the development of your own work?

My earliest poems were chants about dreams and visions. After my seventh-grade English teacher told me that real poets write in free verse, I did so for about 15 years—but I still used rhythm as much as I could, because it was like a physical hunger. I’ve always wanted my poetry to create alternate reality, sacred space.

In my 20s I performed incantational free-verse ritual poetry in the performance poetry scene in New York and San Francisco. I earned a Ph.D at Stanford, where I developed two ideas, both of which I have written about at length, that helped me define my adult poetic voice. One, “the metrical code,” explained how meter creates meaning and inspired me to write in a whole range of meters. The other, “poetess poetics,” led me to write within women’s poetic traditions as an alternative to the male Romantic ego. Now that I had my tools and my tradition, I developed my spiritual path in witchcraft and women-centered spirituality and found my subject matter.

My poetry today uses a full range of meters and participates exuberantly in the tradition of women’s poetry while reaching out to contemporary listeners in the service of the matriarchal culture I feel is finally on its way—and just in time to save the earth.

You’ve been writing poetry for 40 years or so. Spells serves as a retrospective of those years—a sort of “best of.” What was it like for you to select and arrange those poems?

Compiling Spells was a moving and healing experience. Like many women, for several decades I stole time to write from the nooks and crannies of a life full of complicated responsibilities to others. In spite of being blessed with great advantages—including a world-class education and a supportive husband—I struggled with internal and external sexism and encountered very few women mentors and even fewer journal or book editors who “got” and supported my work.

So I left many poems in drawers, particularly the 100 or so experimental poems in meter I call the “lost poems,” which remained unpublished for nearly 30 years until I was asked to include some of them in Spells. The process of finally putting those poems into their proper place in the book was deliciously liberating and empowering. So was ordering the poems.

In making Spells, I put the poems from my books in order of composition for the first time and also combed through notebooks, journal publications, and files of typescript poems from the 70s, 80s, and 90s to choose and assemble the rest of the previously unpublished poems in the book. Putting them all together was like putting myself together as a poet for the first time.

Do you have any mentors or communities you credit for your own success?

Yes! Family and friends; my poetry students of all ages and backgrounds; healing and spiritual mentors who helped me grow my voice; and the literary mentors: Penelope Fitzgerald at Yale, who first taught me meter; Ntozake Shange who inspired and supported my verse drama; my Stanford mentors Adrienne Rich, a model of integrity and independence, and Diane Middlebrook, a model of joy and power; wonderful discussions and community on the WOM-PO listserv; Carolyn Kizer, who generously supported my first books; and the lyric fusion poet Lady Zen, who has taught me so much about being on stage.

Tell me about WOM-PO and your role in its founding.

In 1997, I was a young mother, lonely and hungry for conversations with women about poetry. There were only two large online communities devoted to poetry, CAP-L and Poetics, and both of them were extremely male-dominated.

Ongoing duels and feuds between two men were the default mode of communication, and women could hardly get a word in. I had some experience with listservs from my classroom teaching at Miami University, and on December 18 I got so desperate that, pretty much on the spur of the moment, I got permission to use the Miami server and started WOM-PO with an email to a few friends I knew—Marilyn Hacker, Marilyn Nelson, Susan Schultz, and Kathrine Varnes—and some women I didn’t know but had noticed trying in vain to have their intelligent comments heard on the male-dominated listservs—including Rachel Loden and Gwyn McVay. Denise Levertov died just a few days later, and it was moving to be able to honor her in our new space.

From the beginning I moderated the list largely through facilitating the group towards consensus; one of our early conversations was about whether we should allow men to join, for example, and I remember that it took a while, but we were able to work it out so that everyone was comfortable with our decision to do so. And there were many other decisions of course.

For the next 4-5 years I tended WOM-PO almost like a child; I thought about it every day when I woke up and before I went to sleep, wondering what I could have done better to build the community. After about 5 years it took on a wonderful life and culture of its own, which I feel still remains today. When I left Miami in 2004 I brought it to my new university in Maine, but that was not a good home for it so I started looking for another home.

When Amy King invited me to speak at Nassau Community College, it seemed like that could be a great solution. By that time I needed a break and was delighted when Amy agreed to become the moderator and facilitator. By the time Amy took over, it had grown from the original 11 to over 11,000 subscribers.

WOM-PO isn’t the only community you’ve helped to create. Tell me about the others.

The second significant community I shaped was the Stonecoast MFA program at the University of Southern Maine, for which I served as Director from 2004 to 2013. As with the founding of WOM-PO, I poured my heart and soul into that program and grew it to the fourth-ranked low-residency program in the United States. I’ve been told it is the most diverse and inclusive creative writing MFA program of any kind in the country. As with WOM-PO, I developed that community through listening—-listening and making space for all voices, empowering those I was listening to, and focusing people’s energies on the highest quality discussion of issues and topics of substance.

Now, I’m happy to say that I’ve just launched a third community: Poetry Witches Community & Magazine. Poetry Witches is dear to my heart because it brings together my life’s passions: poetry and magic. I believe it will help poets around the world reclaim poetry’s central place in human culture?

How have your beliefs about spirituality and gender impacted your work?

From the beginning, I have been a spiritual poet—a mystic, I guess one would say. Over the course of my adult life, as I’ve developed my spiritual path increasingly in the direction of goddess-centered, pagan spirituality, I’ve found myself inspired by the imagery, language, and metaphorical structures that earth-centered ritual and the path of the witch provide. Today, these beliefs are all over my work. I think that a large part of what inspires me about paganism is that it provides a truly female-centered approach to spirituality. Not only do I find this kind of belief personally enthralling—I also believe that it offers the strongest hope for the survival of our species and our planet.

Do you consider yourself a feminist? What does the word mean to you?

My definition of feminism has evolved. As a 6-year-old, it meant wondering why my 3-year old brother was taught to pee standing up and I wasn’t allowed to (and decades later, I saw women in the Sudan as a matter of custom peeing standing up, finally proving my parents’ idea wrong that it isn’t possible). As a 12 year old, it meant arguing with my father about whether women should be allowed in combat (and I’m happy to say that herstory has finally come down on my side of the debate). These two early examples both involved believing women should have equality with men, but now it’s about more than that for me.

Feminism means to me now that I cultivate constant awareness of how to best nurture and express mine and other women’s identity in a still-patriarchal world, and that I work actively to enable women to attain, not only equality with men—since that implies that men are still setting the terms of what the level of power is—but our own unique level of fully expressed female power. I am now becoming so interested in the great scholar Heide Goettner-Abendroth’s work on matriarchal cultures that I may be getting to the point where I prefer to call myself a matriarchist rather than a feminist.

Like many successful poets, you’re also a professor. Do you think teaching helps or hinders your work as a poet?

I am no longer a professor, but I do continue to teach in several ways: I provide private lessons and consultations in poetry through my website anniefinch.com; I offer workshops and class visits around the country and the world; and I will probably be developing some online courses. I love teaching and, in general, I think it inspires me as a poet. I learned so much from working with my students that helped me to write the sections on prosody in my book A Poet’s Craft: A Comprehensive Guide to Making and Sharing Your Poetry, for example. It’s a truism, but a true one, that we learn so much from our students. It’s a very different experience to teach independently from teaching as a university employee. Being independent provides a sense of freedom that I think may well manifest in a more courageous writing voice and a more direct connection with readers.

What does your writing practice look like today?

I love my Muse, and I try to keep my mind open to scribble down new poems as inspiration strikes. Some of my favorite ways this happens are when I wake in the morning or when I’m outside, in the woods or by the shore near my home in Maine.

Inspiration also strikes when I’m revising: I have a big basket of unfinished poems to revise (while some poems come to me perfectly formed, I can work on some poems for many years before I’m ready to finish them). I keep different kinds of journals to record my life in various ways; I use these for clearing my mind and straightening my thoughts and starting to settle towards the “real” writing. Today I’m in the middle of assembling a new manuscript of poems, finishing one nonfiction book and starting another, writing several prose pieces for editors, cooking up a translation project, and trying to bring a theater piece back to the top of the pile.

Of course there is usually an overwhelming amount of literary business and just life business to take care of as well. I try to do poetry first, some days more successfully than others. But I have a kind of built-in backup alarm: if I put poetry off for too long, I get so miserable that I have to get back to it again.

What advice would you give to new or emerging poets?

I have three piece of advice for emerging poets. The first is to read poetry really widely, without preconceptions or judgments. The second is to revise more, and harder, than you ever imagined you could possibly revise. The third, perhaps the most important, is to read your poems aloud as you write. Just about all the wisdom I have to share about poetry, including more information about these three pieces of advice, can be found in A Poet’s Craft: A Comprehensive Guide to Making and Sharing Your Poetry. If anyone reading would like to have a personally inscribed, signed copy of A Poet’s Craft, you can order one from me directly at anniefinch.com.

Originally posted at gardenofwords.com.


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