Casting spells: Annie Finch.
This interview with Annie Finch took place on Halloween 2011, her birthday.
ALEX GIARDINO Good morning, Annie, and happy birthday! Our interview today has an unusual premise in that we decided to create a multivocal conversation with other poets, critics, and translators, among them Kazim Ali, Charles Altieri, Tara Betts, Kate Gale, Forrest Gander, Brenda Hillman, Cynthia Hogue, Maxine Kumin, Ethelbert Miller, Patricia Monaghan, Alicia Ostriker, Patricia Smith, and Crystal Williams, as well as your mother, Maggie Finch, who is ninety. It's not only your birthday, but also Halloween and Samhain. In honor of all these occasions, would you share some of your poem "Samhain" with us?
ANNIE FINCH Sure. I'll recite the last two stanzas.
Samhain I turn my hand and feel a touch move with me, and when I brush my young mind across another, I am with my mother's mother. Sure as footsteps in my waiting self, I find her, and she brings arms that have answers for me, intimate; a waiting bounty. "Carry me." She leaves this trail through a shudder of the veil, and leaves, like amber where she stays, a gift for her perpetual gaze.
The poem is a tribute to my grandmother. I wanted toacknowledge that she's an entryway for me into the mysteries ofdeath invoked by the traditions of Samhain. In the theater show where Irecently performed the poem, the director asked my daughter,who's twelve, to play my younger self and an older woman to playthe grandmother/ crone. When my daughter moved from the crone over tome, it seemed like a tangible reminder of the way our maturing as adultsis partly about absorbing the spirits of the dead.
AG That poem reminds me of a spell, and "Spells"is the title of your book of new and selected poems, coming out fromWesleyan University Press. Could you tell us something about putting thebook together, and why you chose that title?
AF The title Spells evokes my sense that poetry is performative language, in the deepestsense--language that we invest with the power to change us and theworld. Spells also brings in the pagan spirituality that underlies my work: the ideaof poems as incantations, heard with our bodies as well as our minds,that link us with the sacredness of nature and each other.
The book gathers a selection of new, and old, previouslyunpublished poems with what I regard as the most important of my poetry,verse plays and translations written from 1970 to 2010. It also includesmany of my "Lost Poems"--poems I wrote in the 1980s,combining meter with experimental language, which remained unpublisheduntil recently. So putting the book together was amazing for me; it feltas if I were integrating the different aspects and styles of my poetry,the different parts of my poetic self, some of which had been deeplyhidden for a long time. As I look at the manuscript, I see thatI've been writing spells all along, sometimes without knowing it.And that understanding gives me a new impetus for my work movingforward.
AG Recently, you started a blog, called American Witch, whichmarks your coming out as a pagan poet, who celebrates an earth-centered,female-centered spiritual path. Patricia Monaghan, the director of theBlack Earth Institute, was wondering what reactions your blog hasreceived from readers, poets, and critics.
AF It was a bit scary to come out of the "broomcloset," but so far I have received positive responses, includingthat my blog was chosen for a Sunshine Award and was named one the fiftybest blogs for Wiccans, by, of all things, a Christian educationalgroup! One gratifying thing is that the blog attracts readers who sharemy spiritual interests, and they seem to enjoy the poems I post. It hasopened up my poetry to a broader audience, outside the Americanuniversity system and the relatively small world of poets.
Often when I give readings or performances, someone comes upafterward and thanks me because they've never met an"out" pagan poet before. I know a couple of young poetswho are pagan--Stacia Fleegal, for example--but it's rare. IlyaKaminsky and Katie Towler have edited an anthology from Tupelo Presscalled A God in the House: Poets Talk About Faith, where I did an interview about pagan spirituality. Maybe all of thiswill help create a further space, and we'll begin to see otherpoets emerge as pagans.
AG Alicia Ostriker wanted to ask about your early religiousupbringing. Were your parents religious?
AF My parents were both deeply involved with a range ofspiritual books and ideas, and my father started the world religionseminars at Columbia. There was constant talk about spiritual matters inthe house, but no religious practice. So I was thrown onto my ownspiritual devices, and when I wasn't tagging along with myfriends to their churches, I was out in nature. At home, I would try tomake sense of all the books around the house--hundreds of books onHinduism and Taoism and Krishnamurti and Gurdjieff and Kabbalah andChristian mysticism and world mythology and Sufism and Confucianism andZen. I tried to absorb all these ideas into a practice on my own. AfterI finally discovered paganism, I influenced my parents, and they bothbecame interested in goddess and female-centered spirituality later intheir lives.
AG How has your poetry and spiritual practice evolved together?Was there an immediate link between them when you first discoveredpaganism?
AF You're right--the poetry and spiritual practicedeveloped together, even before I was conscious that they were differentthings. As a child I loved to hypnotize myself by repeating words andphrases over and over. When I learned about poetry, what I loved aboutit, and found very familiar, was how it could create a new consciousnessinside myself. The spiritual practices of paganism can create that samestate of mind. I suspect that's how poetry first developed, outof the altered consciousness of spiritual practice. It's allabout repetition, which is the root of poetic form. Reflecting back onmy childhood, I now recognize that from the very beginning I understoodpoetry in a pagan way.
A more conscious pagan practice came to me after I had triedmany other paths, and none of them felt real. I was living in SanFrancisco in my twenties when I first met other pagans, and immediatelyI felt in tune with the drama and beauty of earth-centered spiritualityand how it resonated with my feminist and environmental values.Everything came together for me when I linked being a mother and a poetto paganism, after I moved to the Midwest. I joined a family-centeredearth-spirituality group that was forming and wrote poems for thegroup's rituals (that sequence became the framework forCalendars). I loved doing that--it was in itself a spiritual practice. Poetry andpagan practice have been closely tied together for me ever since.
AG You recently said in your blog, "The ancient thingsare not far away.... In fact, they may be the closest to us of all,because they are the things that arise naturally out of beinghuman." Is there a connection between that thought and how youdraw on ancient poetic forms? Could you give an example of a new poemyou are working on that is in an ancient form?
AF I see poetic forms as markers toward a more organic,rhythmic, tribal kind of existence that has survival value for us nowspiritually and psychically--clues to living more authentically inrelationship to other people and our environment. So I do treasure theancient forms that way, as clues. I also treasure them as a vocabulary.If you go back to the Celtic bards, they had such a wide range of poeticvocabulary to draw on. Poets now, when they write in form, tend to thinkof a highly limited range--a sonnet or iambic pentameter--but forms aremuch more infinite than that. I try to keep learning different forms soI'll always have tools available for whatever I need, so I cankeep challenging myself, keeping the friction or traction that arisesfrom an encounter with the unfamiliar. It's important for me tokeep it fresh and not to use a form for a while, after it starts to feeltoo safe or predictable. That keeps space for surprise and being a bitoff balance with the form.
This morning, I was walking on the beach and I felt the feelingof starting a poem. I listened inside, and the first lines came out inan accentual four-beat line, a rhythm I haven't used inyears:
When I go down to the place of pebbles and footprints, the wet pool, the dry bask, the brittle long wait, and lean on the silence as tall piers are leaning with barnacled mystery from the low tide, it's water I learn from, through smell and through silence.
That rhythm reminds me of the Anglo-Saxon poem "TheSeafarer," a poem I love--four accents holding fast against therushing tide of varying numbers of syllables in each line. It just aroseand felt very fresh to me when it came. It was like, "oh wow,it's you." I guess that's how I like to think ofthe forms. I mine them by first listening for the form that is meant tobe there, without expectations, and then holding that form up instillness, each line of the form waiting to embody itself in the silentmeditative darkness.
AG You used the expression, "felt the feeling ofstarting a poem." Can you say more about your writing process?This makes me think of Ethelbert Miller's question about whetheryou see a connection between a white space on a page and meditation andsilence.
AF I appreciate the depth of Ethelbert's question.It's funny, but the white space isn't something I look atnow--not since I pretty much stopped writing free verse. Now when Iwrite, it's about hearing. There's a space inside me inwhich I hear the words, and I don't think of it as white, I thinkof it as darkness--like the darkness of the night when poems often cometo me, or behind closed eyes when I meditate. That's where I hearthe words coming, into that fertile dark silence. I wait, and sometimesI move, or dance, or talk aloud, but they're all kinds ofwaiting. I wait and offer myself into darkness, allowing myself to befilled with the words. And then the words sink into me and alterme.
AG You have worked with a great variety of forms in yourpoetry, including drawing from other literary traditions. One of yourformer students, Josh Davis, was wondering what particular forms haverequirements that you have yet to satisfy to your liking.
AF There are so many! First, there's a form I'veinvented myself that I'm still trying to get behind, to inhabitfully--the nine-line form I call the "nonnet," which wasgiven to me by a figure from a dream. I've been graduallybuilding my acquaintance with it ever since, for almost a decade.
Then there's the canzone. The only canzone I'veseen that I thought really worked was Agha Shahid Ali's canzoneabout his mother's death. I know that someday I'll write acanzone, but it's going to take a lot out of me, or put a lotinto me, to do it. I knew Shahid and loved him so much, and that poem ofhis is so recent--I've only been reading it for a few years--soit's not like coming to terms with a form that I've knownfor years and had a chance to absorb.
There are Celtic forms I haven't tried yet; I take thoseon slowly because they are so daunting. And there are some formsI'm still feeling my way through culturally because I feel unsureof the ethical or political implications of seeming to appropriate them.Blues is one of these forms, and perhaps somewhat surprisingly, haiku isanother, even though it was one of the earliest forms I used as a child.It could be that I haven't yet found a situation in which I canfeel free and clear to use those forms. The time might come when it willmake sense, and if so, I look forward to that. I'm writing mysecond ghazal now in honor of the Occupy Movement, and I do feelcomfortable with that form, partly because I feel that Shahid gave mehis blessing to write the first one for his anthologyRavishing Disunities.
AG On your blog you scanned in the image of the crumpled pieceof paper on which you had been working through a poem. It looked as ifyou had a mathematical equation or a recipe alongside the word"water."
AF Yes, that recipe is the form of the poem! It's anancient Celtic form called the Rionnard Trinard. Lewis Turco asked me ifI would write a poem in this form that had never been done in Englishbefore, for his Book of Forms. Of course, I immediately said yes because I was so excited about thechance to pioneer this new and unfamiliar form. But I had no idea what Iwas getting myself into [laughs].
The structure uses internal rhymes, full rhymes, half-rhymes,and alliteration; it has to begin and end with the same syllable; theends of some lines rhyme with the middles of other lines, and so on. Sothat is the "mathematical" formula you saw. Around thattime, I was hiking with my daughter on the Appalachian Trail for fourdays, and I brought the formula along with me. As we were hiking, Imulled these elaborate forms and schemes over for hours and hours, and Ivery gradually came up with the poem. By the end I felt I had learnedsomething profound about the Celtic bards, what it was like to be a poetin an oral culture, to have these forms as physical talismans in yourbrain, almost like a worry bead in your hand, to roll over and over andover in your mind to get it right. After being on the trail, I stayed ina cabin with no electricity, and in the long darkness of night,remembering the poem in my mind, I felt as if it was keeping me company.I imagined the bards sleeping in their caves over the centuries, and howthe forms kept them company too. So here is the poem,"Rune." It's only four lines long--one line foreach of the four days of walking!
Rune Ring of words, each woken By craft, felt past fearing, Set to sing clear among Us here, held in hearing.
[Repeats the stanza four times.]
AG I'm so glad you repeated it four times. That had avery different effect than reading it once on the screen. It accentuateda cadence, like walking.
AF I surprised myself there too--but I like the way repeatingit turned it into a ring. I wanted each syllable to have the weight ithad that night in the darkness, after having been walked out throughthose thousands of footsteps. That's what repetition can do. Itcan get us beyond our fear, the fear of the conscious mind, and bring usinto a place where we are willing to open ourselves to the words of apoem. Just the way if you were repeating something in three-dimensionalspace you might need to repeat it a certain number of times--stretchingbread dough, or sweeping a floor, you'd need to keep repeatingthat motion--or wiping a table--until you've finished the taskand done the space. That's the process of composing in repetitionas well. It's that physical feeling of reaching forward in timeuntil you've achieved whatever you need to achieve. It'smysterious because you don't see it the way you see the table orthe floor or the bread dough, but I feel it in time in just as tangibleand real a way.
AG Charles Altieri observed that you are "our greatcontemporary poet of the body and touch." Your chants work tolink the body to the poetry. He wondered, does the notion of chant stillsatisfy you?
AF More than ever actually. It's become deeper and evenmore exciting as I've gotten greater facility with a more variedvocabulary of rhythms and chants, as I've come out as a witch andbecome more in touch with the potential of my spiritual practice interms of subject matter and inspiration, and as I've become moreat home being off the page and performing my poetry. I'm workingwith a director now for the first time to perform my poems on stage. Tochant directly to an audience without the page in between opens up morepower in terms of the chant for me. So, in a way, I feel like I'mjust beginning my work with chants.
AG HOW does that feel in connection to a sense of individualego?
AF I guess for me poetry always overrides individual ego, but Ithink it's true that chant overrides it even more becauseit's like being part of a communal body almost. Not even acommunal mind, but a communal body. It's not about theindividual.
AG Along these lines, as Charles was wondering, what happensover time as our bodies decay and the senses dull? I should add that heoffered an apology for the obvious Christian orientation in thequestion.
AF That is a sensitive apology because it is a Christian notionthat you need to transcend the body's temporality. Paganismdoesn't feel threatened by the decay of the body, since itrecognizes death and life as part of a cycle that is at once sacred andphysical. Unlike the idea of a transcendent God, the point of theGoddess is that she is immanent, part of the natural world, and so shedies and lives and changes; she doesn't have to stand outside ofnature to be sacred. And neither do we. The older I grow, the more Itreasure the fact that I have, as my yoga teacher calls it, embodiment.And if anything, I now feel more sensitive than before to the power andenergy of the chant.
AG Do you see a difference between learning metrics and doingwhat Patricia Smith has described as "really taking that skillinto your body"?
AF Patricia was my student in the Stonecoast MFA program, so Iknow she understands that difference! Richard Wilbur once said that agood rhyme rhymes a phrase, not just a word. I think the same could betrue of meter; ideally you want to have phrases or lines or stanzas fallinto meter together, a far more organic process than assembling words. Ihave seen my students develop, sometimes only in a few weeks, from theword level to the phrase level. There's a satisfying surprisewhen meter is involved with your body, almost like a reflex action thathappens, so you simply regroup into the metrical patterns as opposed towhen it's on the level of your brain. Then you are treading theedge between the honesty of knowledge and the honesty of surprise. Ithink that's where true creativity lies.
AG Brenda Hillman wondered if you could speak to how metricalform offers both freedom and constraint.
AF Emerson talked about "the wise restraints that makeus free," and for me the constraint of a form is increasingly adoorway into more freedom. It occupies my brain in a way that invites myunconscious to play a greater role; it keeps my ear satiated in a waythat helps free me from my ego, and it builds a liberating rhythmic linkinto other humans and nature.
AG Could you speak about the dactyl, a form you have worked onfor many years? Brenda Hillman also hoped you could share your thoughtson that particular metrical foot.
AF When I was getting my PhD at Stanford and writingThe Ghost of Meter, I scanned the poetry of Whitman, Dickinson, Ginsberg, Lorde, and otherpoets and discovered that on some probably unconscious level, based ontheir patterns of imagery and meaning, iambic pentameter representedpower and patriarchy to these poets, while the dactylic meter was linkedto intuition and the body and a revolutionary approach to theworld.
After I finished absorbing this idea, I wanted to write indactyls because I realized that they were clearly being used by thepoets in this tradition as a meter of liberation--a rolling, sensual,radical alternative to the established, powerful, conventional beat ofiambic pentameter. So I taught myself dactyls, largely by writingAmong the Goddesses. It was difficult, because there were very few dactylic poems availableas models. But that was the beginning of my journey into chant andincantation and meter. I realized I had turned myself into a completelydifferent kind of poet and person, by training myself to channel thisparticular energy frequency that hadn't been a conscious optionfor me before. It's like meter-yoga. Other meters followed, butdactyls are still one of my favorite meters. They're captivatingand hypnotic, strong, and so laid back.
AG "Encounter," in dactyls, is a poem youconsider an ars poetica. Vitor Alevato do Amaral, your Brazilian translator, observed that thispoem is as much about flying as about landing, that it is aboutexperimenting with form and creating meaning that readers canunderstand. Could you read that poem for us?
AF Encounter Then, in the bus where strange eyes are believed to burn down into separate depths, ours mingled, lured out of the crowd like wings--and as fast, as blurred. We brushed past the others and rose. We had flight to learn, single as wings, till we saw we could merge with a turn, arching our gazing together. We formed one bird, focussed, attentive. Flying in silence, we heard the air past our feathers, the wind through our feet, and the churn of wheels in the dark. Now we have settled. We move calmly, two balanced creatures. Opened child, woman or man, companion with whom I've flown through this remembering, lost, incarnate love, turning away, we will land, growing more wild with solitude, more alone, than we could have known.
AG What do you think about Vitor's observations aboutthe form and the meaning?
AF That's a lovely interpretation of Vitor's. Itmakes sense to me, especially because this poem is a sonnet, probablythe most familiar form, in dactyls, an extremely unfamiliar meter. Idon't know of any other dactylic sonnet. It's interestingin terms of the history of this poem because it took about a decadebefore I realized the poem should be in dactyls, and it was thatmetrical decision that made the meaning and tone finally become clear tome. Experimenting with form allows me to create the difficulty that mycreative self needs, but hopefully without getting in the way ofreaders' understanding, because I really do want to beunderstood. I guess, in this poem, if the flying is the difficulty andthe landing and looking into the eyes of the other person is theunderstanding, then it's a perfect analogy for that: thedifficulty of the form allows the feeling of solitude, and having thatseparateness in solitude is what allows us to connect.
AG Cynthia Hogue wondered if you would talk about therelationship between your later formalist work and your earlier moreexperimental work, such as The Encyclopedia ofScotland.
AF Some people have assumed that my work developed fromformalism to experimentalism because The Encyclopedia ofScotland was published late, twenty years after I wrote it, and also becausemost of us, using twentieth-century history as a model, are taught tothink of exploratory writing as always the later, more advanced state ofthe art. In my case, however, it was the exact opposite. Rather than myformal work acting as a foundation for later experimental work, it wasmy experimental work that became the foundation for later formal work.That's why Ron Silliman remarked on his blog that he thoughtThe Encyclopedia of Scotland would force readers to rethink my formal work.
Like many educated people in the 1970s, after college I feltthat serious contemporary poetry needed to be fragmented. My firsthandful of formal poems had been written as explorations (actually, oneof those early poems was just included in Rita Dove'sPenguin Anthology of Twentieth Century AmericanPoetry). The Encyclopedia of Scotland was my "real" poetry, my manifesto of formal andsyntactic experimentation.
But soon after that, the experimental, metrical poems I nowcall the "lost poems"--the ones that will be collected forthe first time in the new book--came pouring out over a period of aboutfour years. Since then I have come to understand that formalism andpostmodernism are not opposed; we can inhabit form more powerfully whenthe ego is untethered, decentered. Doing critical work in feministtheory and the aesthetics of the "poetess" traditionhelped me to find my way through the relationship between formalism andpostmodernism. That's when I came up with the term"Postmodern Poetess."
In the Bay Area in the 1980s, I was strongly influenced byLanguage poetry, and I think that helped empower me as a formalist. Theability of repetition to defamiliarize language and create alteredstates of consciousness works for me in the context of exploratorypoetry; the only living poet I've met who enjoys Swinburne theway I do is Charles Bernstein. So I don't see the formalist andexperimental approaches to poetry, or the narrative and performanceapproaches, for that matter, to be at odds with each other; each of themis contributing an important aspect of the center, of the whole.
Some of the techniques I developed when I was writingThe Encyclopedia of Scotland would find their way into Calendars. For example, people have pointed out that there's a lot ofheteroglossia in Calendars, poems that have parenthetical voices conversing. It's a quieterkind of experimentalism than The Encyclopedia ofScotland or the "lost poems," but I agree that it'sthere.
AG In your new book Spells, you will publish about thirty of your "Lost Poems."Could you share one of those with us, and clarify what you mean bycalling them lost poems?
AF Between 1985 and 1989, I wrote about one hundred poems thatwere metrical, but not referential, and they played with language andsyntax. Journal editors during that sharply divided time in poetichistory--whether the journals were experimental, mainstream, orformalist--had no place for such work. So I kept them hidden, for almosttwenty-five years. When I first showed the purple folder containing thelost poems to Kazim Ali, I felt as if I had taken some radioactiveskeleton out of the closet. Kazim confirmed my sense that their time hadcome, and now editors are asking to publish them.
AG Would you read one for us?
An Imaginary Companion My blood was wise, my arms were weak, I was a vessel from the inside. I could speak alone, as if to water, that spoke back beside me with no language, never stopped to hear me, but continued, dark on black, and if I'd been that way, I would not have stopped. Two merciless companions, we were clocked on our own time, as "water" and "free clock." If it bit me, it bit me with the cold and I ignored it--I bit back. So cold. We have no hard companions. We are old and warm as wild flowers, touch no ice, have just a toe for one gold-rippled shallow, and never make our conversations count against the time that clocks me since I lost.
AG Forrest Gander observed that your work has shown "anunusual and exemplary suppleness and amplitude." He wondered ifthat has been made possible, in part, by your exposure to and interestin international writing and translation. Could you speak to that?
AF The longer you're a guest in other poets'worlds, across language and culture, the more you understand that theyare writing for all of humanity, and that we all have the right to dothat. That kind of realization can make a quantum change in a poeticvoice. It shakes you down into the core of things, where current poeticdivisions are less intimidating.
As long as I can remember, I've had this openness todifferent poetic traditions and threads. I wouldn't be who I amtoday without the poets who have become part of me throughtranslation--Louise Labe, Akhmatova, Sappho. Translation, ofcourse, is not only about space; it's also about time. Incollege, I was lucky enough to study ancient Greek and Latin, and anearly translation I did then from Anglo-Saxon will be included inSpells.
Perhaps the amplitude can be traced back to when I was sevenand my family spent my father's Sabbatical year camping in aVolkswagen bus throughout Europe and the Middle East. The experience ofsleeping in a car for fifteen months, surrounded by Spanish, Greek,Turkish, Arabic and so many other languages, just as I was learning toread, radically changed my internal language-map. Now it feels as if Ineed that sense of intersecting with other kinds of languages to feelcompletely inhabited. Maybe that helps explain why I sometimes feel likethe only person moving from a Language poetry reading to a Cave Canemreading to a new formalist reading at the AWP conference.
AG You have written an opera libretto based on the life of theRussian poet Marina Tsvetaeva, and the Iranian poet Farideh Hassanzadehhas asked you a question in an interview that I thought was sobeautiful, I hoped that you might answer it again for us. She asked you,"If you could have traveled the time tunnel and to be in thevillage of Yalaboga; arriving to a morning when Marina Tsvetaeva haddecided to commit suicide, what would you have done to make her changeher mind?"
AF The image of the poet that I grew up with, and maybe thatmany of us have, is that a true poet is someone who writes in isolation,perhaps in a garret. But more and more now, for me being a poet is aboutbeing connected with my tribe and being willing to become a voice for mytribe. I would want to remind Tsvetaeva that humans aren't meantto live in isolation. I would start by hugging her; I wonder how long ithad been since she'd had a hug? I would certainly share with her,if the time felt right, the possibility of the female-centeredspirituality that has meant so much to me. But what might help most ofall would be to remind her how much her words are treasured.That's what I meant by using the word "triumph" atthe end of the libretto.
AG In 2010, you participated in a symposium called "TheState of American Poetry," which was published in theHuffington Post. In that article, you said that "American poetry is at a deadend." Maxine Kumin asked if you could you elaborate on that,especially for people who don't agree with your claim.
AF I'll start out by saying that those were not my ownwords. It was a provocative question posed by Anis Shivani, whoorganized that symposium. But I found his wording useful, and I ran withit. In the interview I used the image of a Spirograph painting made withcentrifugal force, spun out by the power of Modernism a hundred yearsago and just now beginning to reach the end of that spurt of energy. Itspun out into experimental poetry, performance poetry, formalist poetry,anecdotal poetry, and various culturally based poetic movements, none ofthem having much to do with each other. A lot of energy is lost in thedistances between those different schools. At the Stonecoast MFAprogram, which I direct, we make a conscious effort to weave thesepoetic approaches together into one conversation, on the model of myanthology An Exaltation of Forms, but that's still a rare thing, to have narrative free-verse,formalist, experimental, and performance poets in the same room. So whatI meant was that a widespread turn in a new direction--a turn towardsone another--is needed if poets are going to do our job for the planetat this crucial time.
AG In that same symposium, you also said, "Thedisembowelment of [poetry] was, of course, facilitated by thetwentieth-century technologies of the typewriter and computer screen,which kept poetry away from its own center by severing it from itswriters' and readers' mouths, ears, and bodies."Yet you have been tweeting, you have a Facebook page, and you have yourblog. Could you clarify what you meant and tell us about yourexperiences with technology and writing?
AF Twentieth-century literary technology was page-based andtextual. The typewriter and word processor screen severed poems fromtheir physical presence in the ear, the mouth, the body, in favor of asilent, isolated communion. The habit of letting the sound of poetryresonate in the musical part of your brain as you read was largely lost;we learned to read on the page, for meaning, with the logical part ofour brains instead.
But twenty-first century technology is different: it'snetworks, multimedia, interactive, crowd-sourced. Poetry performancescan be distributed as easily as texts. Video and audio bring poetry backto the voice, the community; it's no coincidence that there is arenewed hunger now for a poem's rhythm, its heartbeat. LeonardShlain's book The Alphabet and the Goddess connects contemporary technology's appeal to the right brainwith a return to a more ancient, intuitive kind of spiritual experience,and with nonhierarchical weblike structure and the instinct forsynchronicity and transparency--which are aspects of social media aswell. The time and technology are now ripe for experiencing poems in ourears. One reason I wrote A Poet's Craft/A Poet'sEar is to help complete the link between the diversity of 21st-centurypoetics and the formal roots of the craft.
AG Crystal Williams wondered what your thoughts are on the waveof formalism emanating from contemporary writers of color. She wonderedwhat you understand that formalism to be doing, if anything, differentlythan the new formalism you've written about.
AF I think that "emanating wave" is literallyawesome. The poets of color I see coming through Stonecoast, oftenbringing a slam or performance background to formalism, are doingincredible work in form. Some of the most exciting contributions inVillanelles, a collection I just finished editing with Marie-Elizabeth Mali, cameout of the Cave Canem workshops. Now I'm advising Tara Betts on anew anthology of Black formalist poetry.
Diversity has been central to my understanding of NewFormalism--a key part of what makes it "new"--ever since Ipublished the anthology A Formal Feeling Comes in 1993. At that time, it seemed to me that just as women and people ofcolor were getting power and education and access to venues ofpublication so that we could begin to make our mark as poets, meter andform, some of the potentially most powerful tools of poetry, had beenyanked away from us. I always felt that by reclaiming these tools wecould have access to a great reserve of poetic impact, and that seems tobe happening now. The formal poetry coming from younger poets of colornow feels to me as if it is taking deep breaths of fresh air andspeaking powerful, long-pent-up truths; it is exactly what I had hopedand expected and wanted from New Formalism.
AG Given the dominance of free verse, do you think, as the poetGeorgia Popoff was wondering, that there is a "lostgeneration" of formalists?
AF There are many fine poets who were lost for a while becausethey worked in form. Hart Crane took longer for the mainstream toconnect with than the free-verse modernists; then there's WilliamStanley Braithwaite; Paul Lawrence Dunbar; Sara Teasdale; Eleanor Wylie;Owen Dodson; William Meredith; and many others. Going further back,Longfellow, for example, is a poet deserving of a lot moreappreciation.
AG A Poet's Craft is a comprehensive book on poetry, and A Poet's Ear is a meterhandbook excerpted from it. I understand that these books on craftemerged from your teaching.
AF Yes. I worked on A Poet's Craft for thirteen years. It's quite a tome, and it feels as if itcontains just about everything I've learned from a lifetime ofbeing a poet, including decades of teaching. My students at Stonecoasthad a big effect on it, especially on the sections about meter and formthat are excerpted under the title A Poet'sEar. A lot of the insights and ideas and exercises about meter in thesebooks involve uncharted metrical territory that has never been codifiedor published before, so we were developing the ideas and figuring outhow these meters work together. It was profoundly exciting teaching. Iwould sit there in class, and when people would say smart things or askgood questions, I would scribble them down and incorporate much of whatwe were doing in class into the books. The acknowledgments section ishuge; I am indebted to all my students for what they gave to those booksand how they improved them.
AG What has changed in the climate of contemporary Americanpoetry for formal poetry since you first started publishing in the1980s?
AF My "lost poems" are a good example of how thegap between postmodern experimental writing and formal writing no longerapplies the way it did then.
And overall, there's a much more open attitude towardsform. I've been able to see the change in attitude up closebecause I've been teaching meter all that time, and over thedecades, I've seen students move from being hostile to bemused tocurious and finally now enthusiastic about it. Now, we actually requirea course in the basics of meter for all entering poets at Stonecoast.Without meter, I don't think I could have been happy as a poet,so I'm glad to see interest in this area growing, and I'mhoping that A Poet's Craft will be helpful in introducing more poets to writing in form along witheverything else it covers.
In terms of publishing, formalist poems can now be publishedanywhere, which was certainly not the case in the '80s and'90s. The magazine climate has changed more than the anthologyclimate or the critical climate. But even there now, more women andpoets of color are taking on the power of editing and writing criticism,and that should result in more widespread understanding of formalism,because the cutting edge of excitement about formalism seems to be withus.
I blogged about this role of criticism and editing during thecontroversy over Rita Dove's Penguin Anthology ofTwentieth Century American Poetry. So many people were upset about Helen Vendler's treatment ofthat anthology, and I posted my letter to a young poet fromThe Body of Poetry, called "How to Start a Poetic Tradition," to help remindpoets how such oppressive critical structures come about in the firstplace.
AG Now you publish with leading presses, but you have alsoself-published. Yolanda Nieves was wondering what your thoughts are onself-publishing, as well as on underground poets and arts funding thatis unequally distributed among white artists.
AF I'm a big fan of self-publishing, which I think is agreat strategy for any poet who's not feeling part of themainstream. I got profound satisfaction from designing andself-publishing the original edition of my first book TheEncyclopedia of Scotland in 1982. For anyone interested in making a place for themselves, Irecommend June Jordan's book Poetry for thePeople, an eloquent, practical, and inspiring book on self-publishing and manyrelated topics.
Being forced underground for aesthetic reasons can give youfreedom to go your own way. I stayed underground for a long time--deepunderground, with my "lost poems" and Among theGoddesses staying unpublished for decades. It's like I spent years in anaesthetic incubator. But being underground for race or class reasons isdifferent. It's wrong, and Jordan's book has greatstrategies to develop alternative structures and make sure that beingunderground doesn't happen against your will.
AG Throughout your life, starting with having a mother who is apoet, you have been close to many women poets and scholars. Maxine Kuminwondered if you could speak to your relationship to one of the mostformative women scholars in your life, Diane Middlebrook. Could you tellus about your experiences working with her when you were a graduatestudent at Stanford?
AF Diane Middlebrook, who was Anne Sexton's biographer,was uniquely energetic and generous and an inspiring feminist. I choseStanford in large part because I could feel her genuine interest in mywork. I often feel that she is still with me, although she died a fewyears ago. Diane believed in me and stood by me through my originaldissertation idea, to reclaim and explore the work of the"poetesses," which was too radical at the time for most ofthe Stanford faculty, and also when I switched to writing TheGhost of Meter. She would reach out to me in a way that women mentors rarely do,inviting me to lunch at the faculty club, and I think she played thatrole for many women. She gave us a huge gift.
I've had other women mentors, including the greatmedievalist and translator Marie Borroff, the only woman full professorat Yale when I was there; my wonderful Masters thesis advisor NtozakeShange, who modeled a deeply artistic life for me; and my mother, poetMargaret Rockwell Finch. It seems that relatively few women poets of mygeneration were mentored by older women; Maxine told me a few years agothat she has been mentoring women older than herself, which I understandcompletely. I know it is rare to have had my experiences, and I'mvery grateful.
AG Speaking of your long-held interest in a poetess poetics,I'd like to ask you about a transition you recently made inthinking about yourself as a poetess. In the 1999 essay, "Confessions of a PostmodernPoetess," you declared, "I am a poetess. It's arelief at last to admit it." Very recently, on your blog,American Witch, you modified that, saying, "After a furtherdecade spent absorbing and meditating on the implications of the name, Iwill say it again somewhat differently, here on American Witch:'I am a poetess. It's an honor at last to admitit.'" Can you address that shift from"relief" to "honor"?
AF In graduate school, I studied with the late Americanist layFliegelman and did archival research on forgotten American poetesses,discovering much of their lost writing on microfiche. I found I wassympathetic to their earth-centered worldview and the way they used folkand oral meters. At that time, it was a relief to me to find a traditionof women poets that included long-lived, healthy, happy mothers, membersof female-honoring communities. Now it's more than a relief.I've spent years learning to understand their aesthetic, to ownmy spiritual and literary contexts--and to feel how my literary andspiritual traditions inform each other. In the course of this process ofpoetic self-acceptance, I have dignified their traditions for myself tothe point that a relief has become an honor. And I love thinking ofmyself as a poet of a female lineage.
AG Who lives in that lineage of poetesses?
AF The most famous poetess, of course, is Emily Dickinson; shelocated herself in this tradition. She shares with the others anattitude of being part of nature, of not being alienated from it in theway of the poetry of the romantic ego. I have also written about PhillisWheatley as a poetess, and Lydia Sigourney. Frances Osgood, Helen HuntJackson, and Alice Cary are some of my other nineteenth-centuryfavorites. More recent poetesses include Millay, Alice Dunbar-Nelson,and Teasdale. Teasdale's posthumously published poems arewonderful.
AG What about your relationship with the work of a good friendof Maxine's, Carolyn Kizer? Maxine asked you to tell us moreabout that project.
AF Kizer is a delicious poet, a pioneering feminist poet,funny, skillful, controlled, with an inimitable voice. I saw that shewas not getting the attention she deserved, so I got the book going andfound some coeditors to help me. Kizer is a poet of the intellect, butalso of the heart. I place her in the poetess tradition, in theclassical line as opposed to the romantic, and I've written anessay about her in those terms, in The Body ofPoetry. Kizer taps us back into a whole lineage of women poets, and she--likeMaxine herself--is an essential link in that lineage.
AG You work closely with younger women poets. One of them isTara Betts, who wondered if you could talk a little bit about your roleas a mentor to emerging poets.
AF I've tried to pass on the power of mentoring toyounger poets, through teaching, directing Stonecoast, and through myexperiences editing anthologies not only with Tara, but also withKathrine Varnes, Marie-Elizabeth Mali, and Alexandra Oliver. Coeditinganthologies empowers poets because editing is one of the best ways Iknow to attain an early sense of agency in the literary world; it putsyou immediately on the other side of the submission process. When youinvite someone to join that conversation, you know it can help empowertheir career from then on. I've also found it especially helpfulto guide women who want to have families because there stillaren't a lot of models for that. I've had young women ask,"how did you do it?" meaning, how did I raise children and also build a career.It's sad that they have to ask, but it makes it clear that beinga role model is still helpful.
AG Your comments about being a mother and mentoring youngerwomen make me think of Kazim Ali's question for you about how thestages of women's lives are celebrated in the pagan tradition asvarious faces of the Goddess. How has that been reflected in yourpoetry?
AF In a narrative poem like Among theGoddesses, the connection is obvious. But those archetypes shape my poetry inother ways too, as I first discovered when I was assemblingEve and found such a wide range of poems coalescing around the idea ofAphrodite, Kali, Coatlique, Inanna, or Changing Woman. Each face of thegoddess reaches deep and wide. Writing the poems about birth, nursing,and mothering in Eve and the "Two Bodies" section ofCalendars, I rode the pattern of the Mother-Goddess like an underlying, shapingforce that was moving the poems forward through the impetus of my ownexperience.
AG Kate Gale, who edited Among theGoddesses for Red Hen Press, has observed that while you most certainly live inthe contemporary world, your poetry exists in another realm, that ofmeditation, dawn, goddesses. How do you negotiate those two"worlds," if you will?
AF I grew up with the imperative to build my life around poetryand the spiritual realm that poetry opens for me. Building such a lifehas been a complex journey including many kinds of therapy and otherhealing, which is in part the subject of the memoir I'm writing.The Wiccan idea of correspondences has been a profound help because itorganizes the physical world in tune with the energies of the spiritualworld. Poets get a lot of practice in that kind of metaphorical andmetaphysical thinking. As to how I manage to do it, I try to follow theWiccan rule, "Harm none and do what you will." I spend asmuch time as I can in the magical realm and do my best to keep otherthings uncluttered.
AG You are currently working on a spiritual memoir, and also ona poetry project called Weathering, which you have described as adopting an ecopoetic method that intendsto "speak on behalf of a historical moment." Cynthia Hogueasked if you could clarify what you mean by that, and if you have donefieldwork in conjunction with this project. Is it connected in some waywith the memoir?
AF The historical moment now is one of crisis for our planet,our species, for all of us as individuals. In many ways we are in themiddle of wonderful changes, but how quickly can we empower ourselves tochange our energy sources to sustainable ones? How soon can we changeour attitude toward the planet and each other to one of respect andbalance, rather than exploitation and abuse? In that sense,Weathering is connected with the spiritual memoir, one of whose themes is thehuman relationship to nature. Weathering is about climate change, and I'm writing it because of a womanwho stood up at a reading and asked me to write about the subject, and Ipromised her that I would. Some of the fieldwork I have been doing iswhat I would be doing anyway as a writer and pagan who needs to spendtime outside! But I am also reading and making observations. Myhusband's an environmental activist, which helps withresearch.
AG Your mother said that she and your father met through apacifist organization, the War Resisters League, of which your fatherlater became director. Looking at your poetry, your mother observed that"your poetry so far is rarely explicitly political." Shewondered if her and your father's social activism influenced yourpoetry.
AF My great-aunt Jessie Wallace Hughan, one of my lifelong rolemodels, founded the War Resisters League. That political legacy fromher, my parents, and the many pacifists I met through the WRL as a childtaught me that not only can people change the world; it's ourjob, our obligation, to change it. But growing up surrounded by activismalso taught me to understand the depth of the roots of change. Writers,perhaps poets most of all, have the power to seed the thought-patternsthat will show up later in the political realm. In the '80s whenI was writing the lost poems, which altered the role of poetic subjectand object, I used to say that I wanted to change brain chemistry. Thatwas a political thing that I wanted to do, to change the planet, forgreater justice and balance.
I want to change the root, not the branches, and from where Isit, the root is the feminism and earth-centered spirituality in everyword of my poetry. The political implications of actually manifestingthese attitudes in the world would be gigantic.
AG Would you close for us with a few lines of a poem thatspeaks to that, maybe something from the Weathering project?
AF Here's a stanza from a poem in theWeathering project, which will be included in the new anthology of"bops" edited by Tara Betts and Afaa Michael Weaver:
As I went walking by the side of the sea, I found the waves understanding. They roiled with pollution and anger and love, And the currents of freedom kept rolling.
ALEX GIARDINO is a writer and translator.
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|Publication:||The American Poetry Review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2013|
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