Interview With Poet Annie Finch

Annie Finch is the author of four books of poetry, including Eve, Calendars, The Encyclopedia of Scotland, and Among the Goddesses: An Epic and Libretto. Her book of poetry Calendars was short-listed for the Foreword Book of the Year Award and in 2009 she was awarded the Robert Fitzgerald Award. She has performed poetry across the U.S. and in England, France, Greece, Ireland, and Spain. She lives in Maine, where she directs Stonecoast, the low-residency MFA program in creative writing at the University of Southern Maine.

What are you currently up to?

I’ve got three projects on the front burner right now, one each in poetry, prose, and drama. I’m putting together a New and Selected Poems for Wesleyan University Press; working hard on American Witch, a prose memoir about my spiritual and poetic life; and about to start rehearsals for a poetic theater piece, Wolf Song. In the poetics department, I’m about to read proofs for my new poetry-writing textbooks, A Poet’s Craft and A Poet’s Ear. In the editing department, I’m working on Poetry in Rhythm: An Anthology with Alexandra Oliver and finishing up The Book of Villanelles with Marie-Elizabeth Mali.

Your first book of poetry appeared in part as a self-published chapbook in 1982. Could you speak a little about why and how you went about self-publishing back then?

I self-published because I was completely unknown, and I wanted
copies to sell at my musical performance of the poem. Producing the book was
very exciting. I was working at the American Museum of Natural History, and I
typed the whole manuscript on an IBM Selectric after-hours in the editorial offices of
Natural History magazine. Alix Baer Bacon made the woodcut illustrations, and I
brought the camera-ready sheets to the printer. It ended up looking exactly how
I wanted.

How much attention do you pay to form and meter when composing your poems?

A lot. I often think about formal issues as a way of entering
into writing the poem. And then I read them aloud constantly as I write.
Sometimes a poem takes years to finish, and then I realize the problem was that
it was in the wrong meter all along, so I adjust that and it works out on the
other levels as well.

Do you have any sort of method to revising your poems?

Some poems I
revise exhaustively, for years or even decades. Others arrive finished and need
virtually no revision.  When I’m revising, I usually reorder parts quite a bit;
I use arrows and numbers to keep track of the order I want. I read aloud a lot,
and carry the poem everywhere with me. When I get stuck, I try to change
something rather than trying the same strategies over and over. Sometimes the
changes are physical: I will pace back and forth contemplating a line, or
dance, or shout, or run around the block, or lie on the floor with my eyes
closed.

While you’ve obviously been writing poetry since at least the 70s, it appears most of your poetry collections and honors have come in the past 10 years or so. What (if anything) do you think has changed since the mid- to late-90s?

There’s
more room for emotion in poetry than there was a decade ago, and more room for
experimentation and irrational uses of syntax and image, and to some extent more
room for poetic form. Case in point: one of my favorite poets who exemplifies
all of these tendencies, Hart Crane, is finally back in fashion. The poems I
wrote in the late 1980s and called the “lost poems,” which combine experimental
and formal elements, are finally finding publishers. Five of them appear in the
most recent issue of Smartish Pace. Overall, I’d say there’s a bit more
room for poetic language to be poetic than there used to be.

You are the Director of the Stonecoast MFA program. What are your responsibilities as the Director of an MFA program?

It’s a low-residency MFA program so a lot of my job is over
e-mail, except during our semiannual residencies. I oversee everything about the
program, from publicity to curriculum to facilities to staff, but in particular
I focus on the academic aspects of the program: classes, students, and faculty.
It’s a fantastic community and an extremely gratifying job.

In another interview, you mentioned that when you teach contemporary poetry you divide it into four tendencies: Formalist, Oral Tradition-Performance, Mainstream Free Verse, and Experimental. Two questions: Do you still feel this way, and is there a tendency you prefer?

Yes,
I still do feel this way, though I would now call it “anecdotal” or “narrative”
free verse.  My poetry tends more towards the Formalist point of the compass,
but it is clearly influenced by all four.

You’ve worked as a translator. Do you feel translation has helped you as a poet?

Translation has helped me grow as a poet, has helped me to
stretch in exciting directions and practice different voices, personae, and
techniques. After translating Louise Labe, my poetry became more explicitly
sensual; after translating Akhmatova’s amphibrachic verse, I was much more
comfortable using that meter.

Could you share some advice for poets who are interested in breaking into poetry translation?

Become familiar with every other translation of your poet;
immerse yourself in your poet’s world; work with native speakers or experts if
you are not familiar with the language; and don’t be shy in asking a scholar of
the language to check it over. My own preference is always to use the
original form, meter, and rhyme scheme, since form is the one part of the poem
it is possible to replicate exactly. If you don’t know how to write in that
meter, this is a great reason to learn how.

Who (or what) are you currently reading?

For poetry, I’m reading a lot of poetry in noniambic meter for
the Poetry in Rhythm book, including Paul Laurence Dunbar and the
Fireside Poets. I’m also revisiting some 18th century poets including my
namesake Anne Finch, and reading Ben Mazer’s wonderful brand-new edition of
Frederick Goddard Tuckerman. I try to keep up with contemporary poets and read
journals including Fulcrum and Prairie Schooner. I just finished
Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids. Lately, I read a lot of mythology,
psychology, and spirituality; I’m currently reading Thou Shalt Not Be
Aware
by the psychologist Alice Miller and Sacred Contracts and
Anatomy of the Spirit by the healer Caroline Myss, and an amazing book on
relationships, Intimacy and Desire by David Schnarch.

If you could only share one piece of advice with fellow poets, what would it be?

Listen!

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Learn more about Annie Finch and read some of her poems by clicking here.

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3 thoughts on “Interview With Poet Annie Finch

  1. Marie Elena

    "I read them aloud constantly as I write."
    "Some poems I revise exhaustively, for years or even decades. Others arrive finished and need virtually no revision."

    Annie, if all I gained from what you’ve shared was packaged in the two quotes above, I’d feel I walked away from this interview with insight into who you are. Thank you.

    … and good to see Marie-Elizabeth Mali’s name here at Poetic Asides once again.

  2. Walt Wojtanik

    Quite an informative interview, Robert and Annie. Having been through the process, I’ve come to appreciate the give and take offered here. Annie’s simple bit of advice is every bit as inspiring. Listening is indeed the key. Thanks for the insight.

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