A Conversation With Annie Finch

Chris Murray

Annie Finch is a North American poet, translator, and librettist, whose widely appealing work has been praised by many contemporary poets and critics of note. Of Finch's latest book of poems, Calendars (Tupelo Press, 2003), John Hollander has written that it "marks an energetic advance, both in strength of mode and depth of representation. The precise ways that form and function intertwine are moving, original and impressive." Marilyn Hacker has said the poems "embody the seductive, treacherous--and redemptive--nature of language itself," while avant-gardist Ron Silliman has described Finch as "an American original, a master of control who shows no fear of excess, and none of quietness either," and Sonia Sanchez adds, "Annie Finch has made form a one-eyed woman looking out at us all, beckoning us to enter into her arena."

Among her many other publications are the book of poetry, Eve (Story Line Press, 1977); the critical collection, An Exultation of Forms: Contemporary Poets Celebrate the Diversity of their Art (Michigan, 2002); as well as the collaboration with composer, Deborah Drattell, and director, Anne Bogart, on the opera trilogy, Three Mothers, from American Opera Projects, which premiered in New York, May 2003. Annie Finch is also an Associate Professor and member of the graduate faculty in the creative writing program at Miami University, Ohio.

(The form of the following interview was conceptualized and conducted by the two participants to be conversational rather than a traditional interview in the form of a Question/Answer session. The two participants are poet Annie Finch, and interviewer Chris Murray, of University of Texas at Arlington. It took place on the telephone, the afternoon of Wednesday, May 28, 2003.)

Chris: Annie, it is a pleasure to talk with you. Just to give a sense of background, here for Znine, let me say first that this conversation is primarily aimed toward an audience of students, as well as a general readership, in order to offer ideas on how successful poets think about their work, as well as about the general relationship between poetry and poetics right now. You had mentioned that you've been thinking quite a bit about that as a relationship between creativity and inspiration, or more specifically, craft and inspiration. What comments do you want to begin with on that?

Annie: Thank you, Chris. I think that sometimes people think of craft as separate from inspiration. I think that's a shame because in other arts--in music and dance, in the visual arts--often we understand craft as a channel for inspiration. That if you hone your craft, the inspiration could come through cleaner and stronger. But with poetry sometimes people think that thorough knowledge of craft is at odds with inspiration. And in my experience, that's really not true.

Chris: I'm interested in poetics--given the western traditional history of rhetoric -- how things have been portrayed, characterized as divisive, or as oppositional--when really there is a lot of affinity, modes can be said to share more than not. As a problem, it as though craft and inspiration share a lot of elements even if commentary from the rhetorical tradition, or poetics, do not confirm it so.

Annie: Yes! It's funny-- I think sometimes people feel a need to make a division where there isn't one--maybe just in order to have something to talk about. (laughs) There was a time (maybe during the fifties or so) when craft had become too narrow--kind of stuck into a corner. And a period of expansion was useful to increase the vocabulary of craft. Meanwhile, craft has a way of coming up with all kinds of new strategies and new techniques--sort of when your back is turned! (laugh)

Chris: Exactly! (laugh)

Annie: It seems like this is an exciting time to be turning to craft because craft is really wild now and full of untried possibilities.

Chris: It really is: as poet and critical thinker, you're an inspiration that way-- you've generated quite a bit interest in looking at craft again. I'm so grateful for that, as one who is very curious about all kinds of poetry.

Annie: Oh that's wonderful. It's just that the excitement is contagious. There are so many new avenues just starting to be explored. For example, I think we have metrical avenues and all kinds of new ways of thinking about syntax.

Chris: That's a very tantalizing direction to take. Care to expand?

Annie: I think a lot of people in the field think that you can't play with syntax and at the same time use crafting devices that have any kind of historical momentum. There's so much interest now in exploring syntax and new ways that poetry can make sense, as opposed to just the plain style, the common speech of syntax. I'm really excited about that, too, because I think that's almost a brand new area to go back to. I mean, for one thing, hardly anyone has really messed with syntax in meter since Milton.

Chris: Yeah, that's a little bit of time warp--fascinating, too, because if you are looking into syntax then by definition you are looking into the deeper grammatical or inherent structures of rhetorical matters.

Annie: Yes. That's right. So that you can--it's so much about metaphysics and about the perception of the world because grammatical structures--as is known, reflect so much. In another fundamental way, they shape so much of how we understand reality.

Chris: Yes! But, contrary to some presumptive ways of teaching English, grammatical structures are fluid. (laugh)

Annie: (laugh) Yes.

Chris: Along those lines, and to go back to the question of inspiration, if you're working or playing with syntax when you're writing, do you find that inspiration arrives, or accompanies questions of what to do with syntax, too? Say you are in the process of writing. You decide to do something to vary the syntax--how does that become the impetus for more inspiration? When, for example, you happen to be contemplating a given line? How does syntax enter and become a part of your writing process?

Annie: I think it's a way of derailing the logical mind and opening up the more primary process, the way of thinking. So it can kind of open a gate for other possibilities that aren't as logically connected. And sometimes it's a texture issue. If the texture seems too flat, then I'll try to make it more interesting for the reader by changing the logical flow. Then that suggests--that allows--a whole new way for new kinds of images to come in. Whole new attitudes come through the images. And then sometimes it works the other way: that inspiration kind of pushes a change in the syntax. I do a lot of things lately with syntax--bursting poems together, poems that I have written separately.

Chris: Is bursting poems together similar to working with cut-outs and techniques like that?

Annie: Well, kind of--I mean it's not so mechanical as cut outs. More like using my instinct to pick a part from one poem and a part from another and put them together. And I do a lot with, or focused only to, the rhythm and the flow. So, I use a physical sense of rhythm as a way of choosing what would go where. Quite a few of the poems in Calendars are that way, either two different poems intersect-burst or else two different stanzas of one poem that I ended up intersect-bursting. It's easier to do it when I have gotten some distance from work. With distance, it's almost like working with somebody else's work. So, with Calendars I've done that for some of the poems I had written quite a while back.

Chris: They're beautiful poems in Calendars. I have to tell you that it's just an outstanding book. I love it.

Annie: Oh, thank you.

Chris: Thank you so much for writing it.

Annie: It's a real pleasure that people seem to be enjoying it.

Chris: Yes. Truly poems full of wonder for readers and listeners: you've been on a reading tour, right?

Annie: Yes! I have been traveling and reading quite a bit and, yes, I'm very happy because it seems as though people from different poetic schools really like it.

Chris: I think, oh, your poetry is wonderful that way. Your work really combines a lot of poetic elements that could be seem very disparate but you pull them together just so. The ‘poem at the end of the mind,’ as it were, is very successful. There is great beauty--I mean in the traditional sense of a life-affirming subliminal effect of reaching out, desiring to affect others--in that effort, therefore, also, in its achievement.

Annie: Well thank you. I think I got a lot of practice on that in my life. You know how people have different roles in their families, well, my role was always the one to bring people together, to bring together different ways of approaching a given situation.

Chris: Do you mind talking about this?--where were you in your family birth order and all that--do you mind?

Annie: No, I don't mind. That's all right. I'm the fourth out of five children and the youngest girl. It was a family withŠ well, let me explain it this way: I read one time that some of the most interesting breakthroughs in science or thinking happen because of the conjunction of very, very, different cultures. One common example can be found in the conjoining of knowledge from ancient cultures in Babylon and Egypt. When they and their differing ways intersected, one very influential result was what we now have as modern Math, as well as a lot of scientific method. Really, the modern foundations of contemporary science. I used to laugh about that because in my family there were two very, very different aesthetics. Or two varying approaches to life that were very, very widely different. (laugh)

Chris: And so, you were philosophizing even as a child. You're amazing! (laugh)

Annie: Well, my Father was a philosopher, actually-- he was a professor of philosophy. My mother was very, very, artistic and down-to-earth. And, suspicious of anything that was too intellectual-mental. But it was an interesting on-going situation, in that they both loved poetry. Poetry kind of brought things together for them.

Chris: That's wonderful, yes. And so you were the one who could bring those differing ideas or ways of thinking together in the family, too--in a kind of practical way toward working out really big ideas. That is truly a gift. Yes.

Annie: Well it's interesting because I think the contemporary poetry scene reminds me a little bit of my family.

Chris: (laugh)

Annie: Maybe the world always looks like one's family. But it seemed like they were such, you know, so passionate, these feelings and ways of thinking, that they were very far apart from each other. That was always coming up. And, my instinct was to tuck them all in together, sort of, you know, as many of them as I could connect with.

Chris: Oh, so true!. Good thing, too. Because otherwise things could have been threatening to spin out unconnectedly somewhere, sure.

Annie: It does seem that way.

Chris: I mean in relation to student perspectives in that. I think ten, twelve years ago, trying to study poetry and the history of it, there was the expectation that poets formed some kind of streamlined group all dedicated together on one goal: making poems people would want to read. Like anthologies that don’t explain why or how their selections and groupings are made. As a student one expects to find a lot of difference between differing individuals and groups now and in history, but we are taught that poetry is this one homogenized stream throughout history: one word, "poetry" says it all. Then, right before our eyes in the contemporary scene, it can suddenly seem like we are watching our parents having a knock-down, drag-out fight. Well, the fighting's--if only to promote one winning side rather than to work out many shared ways of being and writing--is just not good because for one thing, students are disciplined to take sides and to perpetuate the divisiveness, rather than to bridge the differences or to discover new pathways of knowing in poetry.

Annie: Yes! Yes, exactly. At a certain point it seems it's not healthy for the art as a whole.

Chris: Right.

Annie: Or, for the family. Yes.

Chris: Yes, definitely.

Annie: Yeah, not healthy for the art as a whole if people wouldn't--if people couldn't even talk to each other, or wouldn't even agree on poetry: what it is. Sometimes if you actually go and read the poetry, you'll find that separate things are not very different from each other after all. Not as different as those disputing one another think they are. Do you think a lot of people feel that way, from your perspective?

Chris: Yes. I think those who are thinking it over do agree. I mean some of us thrive on divisiveness, often, even at the expense of others. There is an energizing in disputation, but, you know, there's also a lot of angst, sometimes useful angst, maybe. You know the kind--it perpetuates by thriving on being rough with language and being rough with the tradition, and all of that. I think that wears itself out eventually, though often at great cost to community. So I see whatever usefulness it might have in poetics as peripheral, really. In the final analysis, I think people want things to work out better than that, right? And the potential for something far better than that is built in: the western tradition sustains ways to be multi-voiced, even in stridently separatist examples such as the Greek social structures.

Annie: Yes, I think so. I think often there's a goal to the disputing but then it's important to realize when the goal has been attained. And to change direction. Otherwise things can spin out.

Chris: You know, yes, and people have to help one another realize that, too. Sometimes people end up in loops where they can't, or for one or another reason, they just do not have ways to understand. We're talking about poets, but these matters apply generally to people and communities, too, of course. Thus, it's good to have the bridge builders and people who can work with disparate matters and issues--who can help other people see.

Annie: So--if you look back at, you know, poetic history, I think there are always people whose role is to occupy a position that's maybe central between a lot of different people, and a lot of difference that occurs between people by being apart in distance--two differing results--and they will bring things in together. I mean, at times it seems like it's almost an historical movement. I think that it seems a lot of the poets who are coming up now are beginning to feel this same way--I mean there are poets, for instance, LeAnn Brown, who are coming from a language poetry background or an experimental background, and yet are writing ballads, very traditional ballads. And to see that kind of crossover.

Chris: It's good, too, because it can't do anything but enrich the tradition and keep things alive. I think that's the greater goal.

Annie: Yes, yes. I think in general, maybe, a lot of what is at work is thinking of poetry as something that's through the ear. And if you get it away from the page, some of the spinning out just doesn't seem that relevant anymore because when you're performing and communicating poetry to other people, certain very ancient parts of poetry become extremely necessary or extremely valuable: rhythm, and a certain type of, thread--a physical thread running through the poetry.

Chris: Absolutely vital, necessary. I'm thinking, musing on, how recognizing the physical aspects of art--ear, rhythm--go way back into western philosophical traditions. For example, Plato's big beef with everything-- right? (laugh) The split between technique and art. In recognizing these we are reconsidering the relationship between body and art, how craft as techne is both body and mind at work (and play) but not limited only to technique; it is creativity as inspiration. The Platonic split does not hold, as it were. I know I'm making a lot of leaps there but am very intrigued to hear something of your views on all this.

Annie: Oh no, that's fascinating. You're saying that Plato is criticizing the split between technique and form?

Chris: Well I think after he laid the groundwork to do so, he did. He was always, in a way, coming back and fighting with himself. Or, having (reinventing) Socrates to do it. Very crafty stuff, fascinating stuff, but I think this is a long standing way to think about what we do with poetry, for instance, differing elements that we account for in poetry: creativity, craft, and inspiration. Then, as you say, body and rhythm--how to find something whole (as in holistic) there, right?

Annie: For me, that is actually the real goal of craft: to find a vocabulary for the body. People usually think of craft as the opposite, as imposing something intellectual, or intelligent or logical on the true poetic stuff. But to me the true poetic stuff works through rhythm and through craft. I think of craft as very physical. When I'm writing, I often don't even think about what the poem actually means, but I feel like I'm painting or something. I mean--I paint as a hobby--and when I'm painting I just know when something's right or when it needs more of this or more of that and, one is not really thinking, one just does it. And usually that's the way I work with meter and with the sound of lines, also--without really thinking about the meaning. So, it's a very physical process.

Chris: Yes. Do you by chance walk off lines when writing? I have to if trying to write in a specific form--sapphics, for one--though I should also say I find metric forms the most difficult modes in which to write. I'd have to walk along with the line. That would be the body thing, that would be the point of entry, I guess, for me. I don't know, do you know people who do that?

Annie: Yes--I do that with a new meter, especially. Or when I'm trying to work in a new rhythm. I use my hands and I'll just walk it or step it or just kind of talk aloud as I'm writing. I do a lot of reading aloud and reciting aloud.

Chris: Oh, isn't that wonderful? I love that. I do that with my students.

Annie: Well it's amazing how your body really knows things that your mind just doesn't know, and to me, you know, rhythm or patterns of craft are a way to connect with that. There's such wisdom to it. I just noticed recently that when you hum a tune, sometimes the tune is connected to something going on in your life. Even if you're not even singing the words--even if the tune just comes into your head! You can trace the words back.

Chris: Right! Yes, there's a logic to it, even though it seems random.

Annie: Exactly. And I think with poetry often it's the same way. For example, a poem will come in a certain tune, and that tune has a wisdom to it. So, I just try to let the tune do the leading at times, and that's where I think it helps to, to be conversant, to be able to dance with the rhythm and allow the words to follow.

Chris: Wow. Hearing you describe this, well, you're absolutely right, I think, to make this connection between how memory stores the rhythms and tunes of song and then it becomes a way that consciousness can create new poems. Very nice.

Annie: It feels right to you? Well, it's exciting because I've been thinking about these things for so long, and now it feels like they're coming together--starting to sprout out into the world.

Chris: These ideas will be a part of the new book on craft, then?

Annie: Yes, I'm in the middle of writing a "how to write poetry" book for Eighth Mountain Press-which is a Feminist press in Oregon. I had promised to do it for them years ago and now I'm knocking it out as we speak. It's been a fun project because I'm putting in a lot of the things I've learned over all the years that I've been teaching and thinking about poetry. It will have exercises and poems. Then, too, I have a book of essays coming out, from University of Michigan. And then I've got another book of poems that I'm publishing.

Chris: You write a lot, and in several genres! I'm curious about your process, especially for the poetry.

Annie: Well, I have been writing for quite a while. I mean, I started when I was nine and published my first poem. I'm now forty-seven, and or forty-six, I'm forty-six. And along the way I just wrote tons and tons of poems: I've just always written. I'm finding all the poems I've stored are very fertile--I don't really have a linear model of my writing where I discard stuff and move on to other stuff. I think of the whole thing like a big fertile field. So, I feel like there's a wealth of stuff that I've just done over the years.

Chris: Organic then, and continually growing.

Annie: Yes. I think there was a long time where I was judgmental and very hypercritical. Now I feel like I've been through that and come out the other end. At present I just feel like I want to find places for all of the work to flourish in its own way. So, it helps--when there's not a lot of time to write new things--to be able to find little sprouts from earlier and help them to grow.

Chris: What a generous way to sort through the inevitable conflicts of being a productive writer.

Annie: And then at times I write things where some of it will take me up to ten years to finish. For instance, some of the poems in Calendars I just worked on for ten years. But then at other times, some of the poems do come really, really, quickly. So I am also interested in writing for occasions in my community or for other arrangements and rituals among groups of people. In Calendars, there's the wedding poem, an elegy, and some ritual poems. I am continuing to write that kind of poetry and sometimes having that--a real role for the poems--helps the poems into the world. It helps me to keep producing meaningful work even when I encounter times with a lot of pressures in my life.

Chris: I like that idea, too. That there is often a reason, a ritualizing, community-based reason for the poem. I admire your recognition of and effort on that.

Annie: I like the idea that poets have a use in society. I really do. I don't think there's any problem with that: being useful. After all, society needs all the help it can get. For my part, I try to do my bit through my art.

Chris: Yes. There's sort of a sense of the sacred to the work, in some ways a social reason for poetry invokes that historical sense of the sacred with which poetry bound communities together--a connection through poetics and rituals.

Annie: That's it exactly. I think the social can be very sacred. I mean that's coming from the roots, from my roots in the pagan community or the Wiccan community where the sacred pertains to human relationships. They are very, very, sacred. And there's nothing evil about them. So, I think that makes one good foundation from which poetry can reach out into the society.

Chris: It certainly does. I have to say I'm so pleased to talk with you about all this. I just love hearing how you think on these significant topics for poetry.

Annie: Oh, it's a real pleasure for me too. It's been a great conversation. It's been a lot of fun to talk with you.

Chris: Thank you. I want to ask you something about a poem from Calendars.

Annie: Yes, that's okay.

Chris: Right off the top of my head, there are three favorites of mine, but my preferences may change, too, since all the poems are so appealing and well done! Presently I have "Chain of Women," "The Ghazal for a Poetess," and "Earth Goddess and Sky God."

Annie: Oh, okay. Those are great choices.

Chris: I keep returning to "Earth Goddess and Sky God" because I just love what you did with them: there is a dialogue in there and it is a wonder to hear. Will you comment about it--from the perspective of poetry and dialogue?

Annie: Yes, well that's actually an interesting choice to ask that question about because, originally I wrote it as two stanzas and the italicized lines were all one stanza. So, it really was a dialogue with one voice speaking and then the other responding. I had at least ten years distance from it when I decided to intersperse the two voices. I like it much better with the interspersing and although I made some other changes too, basically, interspersed dialogue is what happens with that poem. I like the interspersing because of the way it makes the poem keep shimmering back and forth between the sky and the Earth. Because there is a constant interaction and they need each other. So that was really important for me to do that--to mix them up like that.

Chris: I find the interspersing gives a beautiful result, that "shimmering" back and forth--lovely.

Annie: Yes, although the sky and Earth are not speaking logically, but yet, they just seem to be communicating with each other pretty clearly. (laugh)

Chris: Oh yes! (laugh) Quite clearly. And the "Ghazal for a Poetess" is a lovely, evocative ghazal, just beautifully done, as are all of the poems in this book.

Annie: Thank you. I wonder if the ghazal form actually helped me to do the technique of "Earth Goddess and Sky God," that I think of it.

Chris: Yes?

Annie: There's something about the couplets in the ghazal and the way the refrain echoes back--echoes back onto a different first line, each time. I think I probably did the dispersing after writing the ghazal and I wonder if that wasn't part of the meaningful background of that poem, too.

Chris: So this relates back, then, to where we began our conversation: where we were talking about craft and inspiration. This poem is a place where inspiration and craft come together very nicely, isn't?

Annie: Oh yes--that's right--I mean if you have instinct and the inspiration to do something, and yet you don't have the craft to do it, then that inspiration could just be lost, or the risk is that it couldn't come out as eloquently.

Chris: That's quite an argument for inclusive rather than exclusive ways of thinking about the process.

Annie: Yes.

Chris: And you know, if we were only limited to what logic tells us we're supposed to do (laugh), we'd be very sorry humans and poets, indeed!

Annie: Yes-yes. Exactly. That's why, in the book that I'm just writing right now called A Poet's Craft, there is some pretty thorough stuff about craft, about meter and how to write in meter, and how to scan. And about inspiration, voice, and imagery. We--Eighth Mountain Press and I--are pretty excited about it because the editor believes people are ready to learn this, not imposed in some kind of hierarchical way, but actually just presented as a way to enable your inspiration, to be more eloquent. She's a great editor to work with-Eighth Mountain is a great publisher.

Annie: The last of the poems you mentioned a while ago was "Chain of Women." I'm so happy that you mentioned that one because that was one of the poems that just came out--it just came out the exact way that you see it on the page. I told my husband recently that I was so grateful to him because I was really grumpy one day. (laugh) He just--well, I was sitting outside and knew I was grumpy because I needed to write, and he just went inside and got me a pad of, a little pad of paper and a pencil, and said, "Here, write something." And he kept the kids away from me for twenty minutes. And that poem just came out.

Chris: Lovely partner, then, your husband.

Annie: And to my poetic sensibility, that's one of the nicest things he's ever done for me. But the poem?--it just came out and I revised it and changed it. Then, you I know tried to improve it: and it didn't work at all! So I ended up putting it in exactly the way it was.

Chris: It's very powerful as an alternative to, or more so as it revises the myth of Demeter and Persephone. It makes Demeter's daughter, Persephone, into someone very, very, different. She is more delightful, I think. (laugh)

Annie: Yes, and stronger, exactly. I think there's a lot more to be done with Persephone. (laugh)

Chris: Oh, certainly! For now, though, and unfortunately, our time here is up. I hope in future we can pick this thread back up--it is truly at the heart of many gender issues in poetry. So, I will look forward to that continued conversation. Annie, you have been so gracious and patient; thank you.

Annie: Yes, we can certainly pick up this thread and continue another time. I've enjoyed our talk--it has been so much more like a dialogue than the usual interview--thank you very much.

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