I first met Annie Finch in 2003 through her book of poetry, Calendars. I bought the book because one of the epigraphs was a line by the poet Louise Bogan who I was also reading and loving at the time. That summer I brought Calendars and Bogan’s The Blue Estuaries with me and my 4 young children to my sister’s island cottage in Canada.
To be honest, I found I couldn’t “understand” the work of either of these poets, but this is what returned me to them every afternoon when my toddler napped. I learned quickly that reading Finch or Bogan at night, with my flashlight, my 3 year old tucked into my side, didn’t work.
My sister had a young daughter at the time too. Once all of the kids were in bed, we didn’t want to make any noise that might wake any of them. Our days, weeks, and months, the first of more than a decade of summers there, were cherished but exhausting. And I believe something about the setting – the hundreds of forested acres, the isolation, bathing in the lake, two women and many kids, and the absence of technology, of a hair dryer, of a washing machine, a telephone, an oven, men – opened me to the wild feminine pulsing through the poems.
To read Finch silently was impossible. My lips wanted to move. My ears wanted to hear the poems. The same happened with Bogan. So, afternoons, during nap-time, I took both poets with me out to a large rock by the water where I liked to sit.
One by one, I read the poems aloud to the lake, to the trees, to myself. Over the years, I’ve come back again and again to the following lines by Bogan, from her poem, Betrothed:
What have I thought of love?
I have said, “It is beauty and sorrow.”
I have thought that it would bring me lost delights, and splendor
As a wind out of old time….
But there is only evening here,
And the sound of willows
Now and again dipping their long oval leaves in the water.
The image is breathtaking to me. The sounds heart breaking. I can’t pass a willow now and not think of Bogan, of those lines, of solitude and desire.
The last line of this poem, Summer Solstice, by Finch is another that will always stay with me, that I found myself repeating to my youngest daughter that summer:
The sun, rich and open,
stretches and pours on the bloom of our work.
In the center of the new flowers,
a darker wing of flower
points you like a fire.
Point your fire like a flower.
Point your fire like a flower. Say it. It’s such fun. It sends a ripple of energy through my body.
Through my body, this is how I experience the poetry of Finch and Bogan. I found and still find the music of Bogan to be haunting and solitary. I think of her as a sort of older, more serious sister to Finch, whose music, to me, is vibrant and inviting. It is poetry that celebrates and praises and explores and wonders over the body – human, animal, and earth.
Finch writes in form (if you’re not up on your poetry terms, think sonnet, though there are many more forms than that) as did Bogan, and she has been doing so for most of her writing life despite the criticism by some feminists that such poetry “belongs to the male-dominated literary world of the 1950’s.”
In response, Finch writes:
My own motivation for writing in form is a product of creative innovation. An irresistible attraction towards the inevitably familiar pulls me with wordless single-mindedness towards something older than patriarchal poetics. This is what I consider “the Craft,” to use an ancient term for an embodied devotion so passionate it attains the stature of religion in the service of the Goddess. When I invent a stanza, match a rhyme, ease a meter through, I feel spiritually connected to timeless traditions of crafts worldwide such as embroidery, weaving and pottery; I feel connected not only with pre-Raphaelite artisans or medieval scribes but with the makers of a Turkish carpet or Celtic brooch, expressing the central joy of worship by crafting a worthy object.
Finch’s work celebrates her “Goddess-oriented spirituality,” an earth-centered spirituality, and she calls herself a “witch,” a word that I imagine her scooping up into her arms after finding it misused, misunderstood, exploited, and condemned, hiding in some city alleyway, and gently leading it by the hand back home, back to trees and rivers and sky. In her blog she writes:
The poetess uses poetry to do the work of a witch, calling up and shaping energies to heal and transform society. The poetess, in other words, is a witch and a poet in one. I share in that work.
Finch casts spells and charms. Her poems spiral, sing, and chant us back down to the ground, the physical world, to the essential sweetness, mystery, and depth of the here and now. She is also an essayist, a translator, and librettist – I remember, back in 2003, reading this and searching the cottage for a dictionary: “What the hell’s a librettist?” I said to no one in particular, shifting my daughter from one hip to the other.
What is truly refreshing and exciting about Finch is that she does what all artists must do if they ever hope to claim that title, and that any of us must do if we ever hope to live an authentic life, something that formalist poet Molly Peacock articulated in a lecture I attended recently: “You MUST,” she proclaimed, “COMMIT to your own WEIRD vision.”
How apropos that the etymological origins of the word weird have to do with fate, destiny, and that our modern sense of weird comes from the description of the three fates, the goddesses who controlled human destiny, as the weird sisters.
No gruesome faces and bodies hunched over a cauldron singing riddles though in Finch’s work. Rather, an intelligent, beautiful, courageous, and generous spirit that loves what it must love, what we all must love, our dynamic and vulnerable home.
Open us with a heart to hear every test,
brave to reach everything we will need to say,
strong to hold our silences, find our rest-
wise, to believe love best.
-from A Wedding on Earth
AN INTERVIEW WITH ANNIE FINCH
TBM: What is creativity (& what is the biggest hindrance to creativity)?
Finch: Creativity is a way to play in the timeless state: right brain, unconscious, dreamtime, love, bliss, or whatever we like to call it. It’s a self-sustaining temple, dancefloor, playground, ecosystem for the better parts of our natures, the parts of us that are one with other beings whether human, plant, animal, mineral, or spiritual. Creativity’s biggest hindrance is fear.
TBM: Do you feel a sense of responsibility to a particular community? If so, what responsibility & why?
Finch: I feel three different kinds of responsibility. To those communities who are especially vulnerable to us—plant, animal, air, water, sky, Native and indigenous people, children—though of course we are all vulnerable—I feel a responsiblity to listen, to increase in understanding. To my Muse and community of revered poets, living and dead, I feel a responsibility to honor my voice and keep my poetic standards pure. To those communities I feel I especially speak for — witches, pagans, women and men who are seeking to live in a more spiritually alive way—to these communities, I feel a responsibility to speak out, to write honestly and courageously, to make myself known as the person I most truly am.
TBM: Do you have a ritual that is part of your creative practice?
Finch: I have a vocabulary of rituals that I use depending on the circumstance. I might stretch, do some yoga, breathe a certain way, stand in the sunlight or moonlight with my hands held out, ask for help from the Goddess, chant some words from the piece I’m working on, eat, sing, touch a body of water, or take off my shoes and feel the earth. I choose what will keep me feeling honestly alive in the moment.
TBM: Do you have a different process for each of the kinds of creative work you do? Do you keep, for example, a separate space & prepare yourself differently for poetry as compared to when you compose a libretto, write an essay, translate, or blog?
Finch: Sometimes I move between different projects fairly seamlessly on my computer; for example, while doing this interview I also have a file open for a poem that I’ve been revising for years, and I allow myself to move back and forth as I’m moved to do. That environment works fine for essays, blogging, and for revising creative works. New poems are different. They can track me down almost any time I have a quiet mind—in the middle of the night and early morning are favorite times—but I don’t think I can recall any time when one found me at the computer. I love to work on poems and translations at an electricity-free cabin in the woods, and I wrote most of the libretto “Sylvia and the Moon” in my simple room at the Georgia O’Keefe Ranch while teaching at A Room of Her Own, the women’s writing retreat. If I have a poem I’m thinking about, or even if I just want to be open to write one, I’ll usually take a long walk with a notebook. The beach is a favorite spot, but the Muse has also found me while walking in cities.
TBM: We’re curious about the intentions of the artists we interview. What are you writing for?
Finch: I write for the Muse, who insists on it; for my readers, who make it feel worthwhile; for the earth and its future, as political action; and for the Goddess, as prayer.
Ring of words, each woken
By craft, felt past fearing,
Set to sing clear among
Us here, held in hearing.
TBM: In your essay “The Body of Poetry,” you lay out a fundamental difference between mainstream poetics (which strives to transcend the body) & what you call a goddess poetics (which says dirt, blood, sex, soul, earth, death, animal are not meant to be transcended, which seems to be all about sensuality)…As I read your essay I was reminded of the work of David Abram–immanent spirituality being a central idea. What he’s saying about the earth, the nature we inhabit (that we must inhabit), you seem to be saying about the poem, that sustainability begins by returning to the physical, to form, & communicating with it, celebrating it, living in it.
Is this poetics of form/earth/sensuality in some way a direct response to the devastation of our natural world?
Finch: You’ve understood a profound connection. A poetics based on the transcendence of poetry’s physical nature would feel dangerous to me at such a time; we can no longer take nature and the physical world for granted. We need to remember how to listen, as deeply and as soon as possible, to the physical heartbeat of the earth. Poetic form is a channel to full rhythmic engagement with ourselves and the rest of nature.
TBM: Is our relationship with the body of a poem a mirror of our relationship with the human body & with the natural world, &, if so, is there a call to action for poets in there? Is the poem in as vulnerable a position as our natural, physical world?
Finch: We lost contact with the body of the poem during the exact same time period that we were losing our connection with the human body and the natural world. In both cases, technology, over-thinking, and arrogance led us astray. In both cases, the United States provided a dangerous model that much of the rest of the world followed during the twentieth century. In both cases, we have approached the brink of near-total loss. I do think they mirror each other—and it’s impossible to say which came first. The good news is that in both cases the inherent power of the vulnerable, betrayed force —in spite of our conscious, egotistical resistance— calls persistently to and in our hearts.
The church is in me, the church of the tall trees.
- from Churching
TBM: Where do we begin? If I want to practice a “goddess-oriented spirituality” as a woman & a writer where/how do I begin? How do YOU define “goddess”?
Finch: The beauty of the situation is that we, even here in the over-developed world, are as human as ever. I travelled in the Congo recently and felt an immediate deep connection with the marvellous people there that reminded me how everything native to all humans is still in our immediate reach. The beginning is as close as our next dream, our next laugh, our next moment of gratitude. That’s where spirituality is, in our humanness. So where to begin, for you, needs to be about hearing what’s close. That goddess-oriented spirituality is already all there and ready to go, in you, in you with nature, in you with food and music, and perhaps especially in you with other women: writers or just friends, a small group that makes you feel happy. It’s a fundamental mistake to think that writers, especially women writers, need to write in isolation. My definition of “goddess” is the sacredness of everything in the physical world, including humans. . . I’m now writing a memoir that will go into quite a bit of depth on these questions.
TBM: Who is one of your favorite poets writing today & why?
Finch: Joy Harjo is one. She is generous and courageous, willing to speak about the most important things in our lives, to use her art as a channel for the most sacred energies. I respect her greatly, and I’m thrilled that she is teaching with me at the Stonecoast low-residency MFA program.
Annie Finch is a poet, translator, editor, and playwright. She has published many books of poetry, including Calendars, The Encyclopedia of Scotland, Among the Goddesses, and Eve (recently reissued in Carnegie Mellon’s Classic Contemporaries Poetry Series). Her selected poems, entitled Spells: New and Selected Poems, is forthcoming from Wesleyan University Press. Finch’s poetic collaborations with music, visual art, opera, and theater have been produced at Poets House, Chicago Art Institute, Carnegie Hall, American Opera Projects, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Her books about poetry include The Body of Poetry, An Exaltation of Forms, and, most recently, the anthology Villanelles and the poetry-writing textbook A Poet’s Craft: A Comprehensive Guide to Making and Sharing Your Poetry. Educated at Yale University, University of Houston, and Stanford University, she is the recipient of the 2009 Robert Fitzgerald Award and fellowships from Black Earth Institute and the Stanford Humanities Center. She currently serves as Director of the Stonecoast MFA program at the University of Southern Maine.
To learn more about Annie Finch & to follow her blog, The American Witch Blog, click HERE.
For a delicious, earthy, and healthy recipe that Annie has shared with The Best Me, click HERE.