Interviewed by Lisa Panepinto
Annie Finch is the author or editor of fifteen books of poetry, translation, and criticism, including her brand-new Spells: New and Selected Poems, available now for pre-order from Wesleyan University Press. Her other books of poetry include Eve (1997), Calendars (2003), and the long poems The Encyclopedia of Scotland (2002) and Among the Goddesses: An Epic Libretto in Seven Dreams (2009). Calendars was shortlisted for the Foreword Poetry Book of the Year Award, and Eve reissued in the Carnegie Mellon Classic Contemporaries series in 2010. Other honors include the 2009 Robert Fitzgerald Award, the 2012 Sarasvati Award from the Association for the Study of Women and Mythology, and fellowships from the Black Earth Institute and the Wesleyan Writers Conference.
Finch’s music, art, and theater collaborations include the opera Marina (American Opera Projects, 2003). Her work has been translated into numerous languages, and she has performed her poetry across the U.S. and Europe. Her books about poetry include A Formal Feeling Comes (2003), The Ghost of Meter (1994), An Exaltation of Forms (2003), and the poetry –writing guides The Body of Poetry (2004), and A Poet’s Ear (2010). Finch holds degrees from Yale University, The University of Houston, and Stanford University. She currently lives in Maine where she directs Stonecoast, the low-residency MFA program at the University of Southern Maine.Gulf War and Child: A Curse He is sleeping, his fingers curled, his belly pooled open, his legs gathered, still in their bent blossom victory. I couldn’t speak of “war” (though we all do),
if I were still the woman who gave birth
to you soft-footed, with your empty hand and calling heart, that border of new clues. May the hard birth our two heartbeats unfurled
for two nights that lasted as long as this war make all sands rage, until the mouth of war
drops its cup, this bleeding gift we poured. -by Annie Finch, from Eve
The following interview was conducted in April 2012 on a warm breezy day outside the Terry Plunkett Maine Poetry Festival in Augusta, Maine.
Interviewer: Has embracing meter been a form of resistance for you?
Finch: Yes I think that’s accurate. It’s been a way to assert my inner heart against resistance, because for me meter is physical and emotional, and very female, and connected with nature. Meter was difficult for me to embrace because I’m so progressive politically, and it goes against pretty much all the received wisdom about how you’re supposed to write as a progressive. So it’s taken persistence and self-validation for me to continue on that path. It has not always been easy, but it gives me so much joy that I just focus on that.
Interviewer: It’s been going against the grain it seems like.
Finch: Yeah. A lot of people haven’t had the exposure to it that I had pretty young, so I’m coming from a totally different place. I can understand why they feel the way they do about it, because if I were coming from that place I would also feel that way. My mother, who’s a poet, alerted me to it, and then in college I was lucky to study with one of the few people who was bold enough to teach it in the nineteen seventies, so I had an exposure that most people haven’t had. I take that as a kind of charge that I need to carry out to feel that I’ve done right by it, which is to spread the word so that other poets who want to learn about it can. It’s not really natural to me to do a lot of editing and criticism, but I’ve done it because I believe so strongly that this saved my life as a poet and I want other poets to be able to have it if they want it. Now that I’ve put everything that I know into A Poet’s Craft I feel I can kind of relax, because it’s all there pretty much.
Interviewer: I see the Stonecoast MFA program that you direct as a matriarchal society in a way; do you have hopes for a larger scale matriarchal society?
Finch: I totally do, yes. The first matriarchal society that I facilitated was the WOMPO Women’s Poetry Discussion listserv online, which I started in 1997. I remember once several years after I started WOMPO, which was the first poetry listserv that wasn’t male-dominated, maybe it was about seven hundred people at the time, and one of the few male poets said, I can’t believe how this community is just so civilized and kind and wonderful, I wonder why [laughs]. He had no idea that it was a matriarchy and that was why.
The most ancient and traditional societies worldwide are built around women and their extended families; women are the glue that holds things together. I think that’s a wise way for things to be run. Men are of course essential parts of the activity, but they’re not the central core of everything. I love the matriarchal aspects of Stonecoast, and it just kind of naturally evolved that way. The men who are there are an organic and crucial part of the community, but it’s essentially matriarchal in a low-key and healthy way.
I’d envision the whole culture being like that, the sooner the better, and the whole world, the sooner the better; I think it’s necessary for our economic and environmental and political survival, actually, to return to our matriarchal roots.
Interviewer: How important do you feel music is to revolution?
Finch: It’s everything, because it brings people together on an instinctive level. It reminds us that we’re all part of one body and one soul, and I think that’s what it takes to have revolution, the feeling that we’re all together, so that the actions that you’re taking are not for yourself individually but they’re for the community, the group.
Music is where the meter comes in. Meter in poetry really is the music; it’s the part that doesn’t have to be translated, that every language can hear.
Interviewer: You’ve often worked with other musicians, playwrights, and actors; how important is collaboration to you?
Finch: Collaboration is a survival tool for me. It makes me feel less lonely, and it makes me feel inspired by being part of a large aesthetic community. I need that to keep happy and writing what I want to write, to keep self-validating so I can write in my own way. I don’t necessarily feel part of any poetry movement or any group of poets, and that used to bother me, but since I started collaborating with people from other genres I never worry about it, because I have a very deep kinship with the musicians and the dancers and the composers and the visual artists who I’ve worked with. It feeds me, and it also satisfies all the other creative parts of me.
Interviewer: Your writing addresses women’s rights and the costs of war; would you say your poems have always been tied with issues of justice?
Finch: I think so. One of the first poems I remember writing was in seventh grade, and it was about a bullet. It was called “Joel’s Bullet.” It was only six lines long; I’ll recite it for you:Joel’s Bullet My hand looks transparent holding this thing of metal made by man. It is dead and loves death. It weighs heavily on my hand and my mind.
I don’t think it was a coincidence that I used the word “man” there. It shows that even at twelve, I was already passionate about pacifism and women. Yes, the themes have been there from the beginning: nature, dream and reality, fantasy, myth and peace, and women and feminism. They’ve been my themes all along. And I think they’re all sort of tied together.
Interviewer: How do you keep your spirits up and maintain resolve?
Finch: There’s a Tibetan saying that your heart is a second sun. I can always go inward and feel my heart shining like a sun.
Another saying I like to remember is something that the feminist scholar Merlin Stone said to my mother: I only do what I feel like doing. When I first heard that I was in my twenties, and it sounded radical and ridiculous, but as I’ve tried to follow it I’ve discovered it is very wise. If I’m doing something and it’s not what I want to be doing, it helps me be aware, and then sometimes I can make a micro-adjustment in the way I do it until it becomes something that I want to do, even if I’m not free to change what I’m actually doing.
I try to stay in the heart as much as possible, to live in joy. I do bodywork like Rolfing. I do yoga, I try to eat okay, I’ve started doing Zumba and dance classes, which is really great.
And then there’s seeing friends, being part of communities and circles. I have three different circles I meet with, a writer’s circle, a spiritual circle, and a coven. It helps to keep my spirits up, to recognize that I’m not really an individual person, not an isolated person, but I’m part of a group, a web of kindred spirits. I used to think this was optional; but now I think it’s essential. Especially because I’m solitary in my work and thought, I need to feel that connection.
Finally, it helps me to remember the people of the past, to remember so many wonderful brave heroes I can connect with from the past, whether it’s Emily Dickinson, Emma Goldman, Gandhi, Millay, Langston Hughes, Audre Lorde, so many people, hundreds and thousands of people, I could probably think of hundreds, if I took the time.
Interviewer: Could you talk about your recent efforts to get Rush Limbaugh off Portland radio for his misogynist comments?
Finch: When I get involved in political campaigns I tend to get very involved, I treat them like poems and give them my all, go overboard really. So I’m very careful which ones I take on and I set firm limits, because otherwise I’ll put too much into them and the rest of my work will suffer. In this case I took a central role with a very specific goal, to gather signatures to pressure the Portland radio station to take Limbaugh off the air after his misogynist comments. We delivered over 5,000 signatures at the rally.
It was about language; that’s one reason I took it so seriously. It was about nature and language and women all at once. It was about using language in a way that I thought was harmful, that felt bad to me physically. It was damaging to the cause of women and also damaging to the air. I kept thinking about the air that we breathe, which is sacred to me as a Wiccan—the breath of the Goddess. I just hated that those hateful sentiments were being broadcast through the air.
A writer has such valuable skills for politics because we understand about organizing and communicating and we can write, and we know how relatively little energy it can take to motivate people when you communicate truthfully—which is one reason that writers tend to be political targets in repressive regimes.
Interviewer: Can you talk about poetry as healing?
Finch: I think poetry is healing on a physical level because of the meter, and on a spiritual level because of the way it connects us with other people in the moment.
This is a theme that keeps coming in: I think it’s so important for us to remember that we’re not isolated. Even though our architecture and our cars and our city planning and our TVs and our entertainment and our screens all conspire to make us feel as if we’re separate, we’re not separate. The Internet is a way of beginning to change that, but even physically we’re not alone, and telepathically we’re not alone.
We are a tribal species, meant to live in tribes. At this point, anything that reminds us of our connection with each other is healing, and poetry can do that, through the meter and through the language and through the imagery. The combination of those three things is literally magical, I think. It can change energy, it can change reality.
Interviewer: Can you share a vision for the future?
Finch: Here’s my ideal: people would live in communities built with a human-scaled architecture, sort of along the lines of Christopher Alexander’s work. We’d live in mixed-use residential communities, with public transportation, with shared green spaces and also wilderness spaces accessible to everyone through public transportation. There would be sustainable energy generated within the space [a bird sings happily], within the community, local organic food pretty much, but not entirely, maybe about 80% local organic food. The whole world wouldn’t necessarily have to be this way, but the idea is that anybody who wanted to live this way easily could.
I think humans really want awareness of each other as a global community and a global village, so that would be part of my vision. The communication and means of dispersal of goods and services and information would evolve as quickly as possible to where things are pretty equally shared and nobody has to feel like there’s somebody who’s miserably suffering anywhere. There would be a balance on the globe between all the nations so we wouldn’t have these ridiculous disparities. I was just in the Congo, and it’s clear to me that they need a third to a half of what we have in terms of material goods and we need a third to a half of what they have in terms of spiritual goods.
Women, and men too, would be free to express and enjoy and be proud of the feminine energy, and no one would feel ashamed of it or feel that they had to hide it or translate it into something else. Women would really be accepted as full human beings and female energy would be able to take its natural course in whatever systems and structures arose out of that, and be celebrated and enjoyed by everyone.
The arts would be honored, important. I went to the museum in Heraklion in Crete and the art was so amazing. That’s by far the largest and most thorough collection of art we have from a matriarchal culture. It was amazing, it was decorated in spirals, beautifully sophisticated, simple shapes, and the pottery was unlike anything I’d ever seen in any other museum or gallery. It felt so unfamiliar, like visiting another planet, that it made me feel in my gut how every museum I’d ever seen in the world before has been a museum of patriarchal culture. Minoan art looks a lot like where our contemporary design could be going, actually: sophisticated yet organic. I would like to live surrounded by design that has that sensibility to it.
In my ideal world, when you turned on the radio to listen to music half the time it would be by a woman composer, and by composers of a diversity of backgrounds; same thing with movies, everything. I think classical music is one of the last holdouts of absurd sexism.
All religions would be completely embraced and tolerated, and everyone would be able to respect any path including Paganism and Wicca and atheism.
Of course, the planet would be in healthy shape. The planet and the animals would be natural participants in any decision that was made by humans. The impact on the environment would be the first or second thing we would think of.
To learn more about Annie Finch, please visit her website: http://www.americanwitch.net