Poet Annie Finch’s chapbook “The Poetry Witch Little Book of Spells” was published by Wesleyan University Press in June 2019. Annie Finch is known for her rhythmic poems, incantatory performances, deep knowledge, and practice of poetic meter and form. Finch’s previous books include “Spells: New and Selected Poems”, “A Poet’s Craft”, “The Body of Poetry”, “Among the Goddesses”, “Calendars”, and “Eve.” Her poetry has appeared in The Paris Review, Poetry, Kenyon Review, Washington Post, The Penguin Book of Twentieth-Century American Poetry, and onstage at Carnegie Hall. Finch earned a bachelor’s from Yale and a Ph.D. from Stanford; she currently lives in Washington, D.C. and teaches in the Creative Writing MFA program at St. Francis College in Brooklyn. The Wesleyan Argus spoke with Annie Finch about her thoughts on writing and ritual.
The Argus: I want to start by asking about a quote from one of your essays on poetry, “A poem is a text structured (not merely decorated) by the repetition of any language element or elements.” What about repetition are you interested in?
Annie Finch: I’ve been moved and excited by repeating language since I first became a poet, and the more I’ve learned and thought about it, the more I’ve realized how central it is on many levels. Repetition has an ancient role as central to spirituality and to a view of humanity’s place in nature. The word “ritual” comes from the same Sanskrit root as the word for menstruation, the idea of marking repetitions is a spiritual practice that connects back to women’s monthly periods and our connection to the moon and the seasons and to Earth. So I’m interested in poetic repetition because it combines an aesthetic perspective, a spiritual perspective, and a feminist perspective. And on a practical level, all of this connects back to poetry’s role as a central cultural tool in human societies long, long before the invention of writing. It was repetition that allowed people to memorize legends and myths, history and epic, and that kept cultures together.
By structural repetition I mean predictable repetition, the architecture structure that makes a poem a poem, whether the free verse line-break, the repeating phrases that structure a chant or a ghazal, the meter and rhyme of a sonnet, or the repeating operation that creates a procedural poem.
TA: Having taken poetry classes at Wesleyan, we really only read free verse and I think that that’s pretty standard in college courses. I’m wondering how that happened, and also how people came to see verse poetry as more oppressive than free-verse poetry.
AF: The two major factors leading to the current dominance of free verse were the invention of the typewriter and the academization of poetry. The line-break is the defining feature of free verse, and since line-breaks are not audible—unlike meter, rhyme, or refrain—you have to look at free verse on the page to appreciate it. The typewriter allowed poets to control the layout of a poem on the page and to develop the line-break into a central poetic tool in the early twentieth century. As the century went on, free verse helped establish the professionalization of poetry in the classroom, because it lends itself to detailed lengthy analysis and discussion, compared to the days when students would simply memorize and recite metrical poems aloud together. Poetry moved away from the ear and the body, and towards the eye and the mind. In just a generation or two, free verse became so dominant that the skills of writing in meter were no longer taught, and there was a break in the transmission of metrical knowledge. When I was in college in the 1970s, for example, there was only a tiny handful of universities where meter was taught. Anyone can learn to write meter with a bit of practice, but it’s kind of like yoga; you could learn it from a book, but it helps to have someone walk you through the poses in person. Without that knowledge transmission, the skill grew more and more mysterious and before long meter and form was treated as elitist, arcane knowledge. This is, of course, a bizarre reversal of reality, because if you go out and ask people on the street, it’s the less-educated people who are likely to say that poetry rhymes, and traditional populist forms of poetry around the world are always formal, so free-verse, born in literacy, printing, and the classroom, is arguably more elitist. Today, as the YouTube video is replacing the typewriter as the new poetry technology, poetry is starting to move back into the body and, not surprisingly, there is a lot of great new energy around repeating, formal poetry, especially among poets of color.
A: I’m curious because your writing is so grounded in speech and reading out loud, how much of your writing do you read aloud as you write?
AF: A lot! Reading aloud is my go-to remedy when I get stuck. Sometimes I’ll get up and dance out the rhythm while speaking the last line I wrote aloud, and that helps me get to the next line. I also love to compose when I’m walking. Ideally I’ll just hear the words arrive in my head, and all I have to do is listen.
A: Do you have a sense of the meter as you write beforehand?
AF: A lot of the time, but not always. Sometimes a line comes to me in a certain rhythm, and I’ll respect that rhythm and honor it by keeping to it. Sometimes I’ll start in one rhythm and then realize (maybe after years of revision!) that it needs to change. But often, I will decide that I want a certain rhythm from the start. For example, in “The Poetry Witch Little Book of Spells,” there are five little poems in the section called “Casting.” Each one of these is in a different meter, and those meters were chosen deliberately ahead of time for the poems dedicated to those five directions.
A: Because the poems in this little book are taken from a larger book, I’m wondering what made you want to create a book of this size and with this specific kind of design sensibility, and how that process came about.
AF: The idea for this book happened because of another Wesleyan book, which is what’s so cool! My dear friend Agha Shahid Ali, a wonderful poet, had a tiny book from Wesleyan. I was talking with Suzanna Tamminen [Director of Wesleyan University Press] at a launch event for my book “Spells” and we were looking at it, and I said, “Oh, how wonderful. I’d love to do a little book like that someday,” and that’s how this idea was born. At one point I had my own company called American Witch. It had a great website and all these lovely products: soap, candles, jewelry, and perfumes. I mixed all the perfumes myself, and worked with craftspeople, and I wrote tiny poems to go on the packaging. At first I thought those tiny poems would be the book and there is still one in there, but finally I decided to harvest most of them from the poems in “Spells”, because I wanted to use the most powerful words I could find
As far as the design, I tested out the connections between meters and the five directions when doing ceremonies in my witches’ circle. Each direction has a color, so that’s how the colors came into the book. I told the Press the five colors that I associate with the five directions, and then they found a designer. My only contribution was that I asked them to put colors on the beautiful vine on the cover; originally it was black and white and tan. I love the richness of the colors on the cover.
A: And how do you discover the spell within the poem?
AF: It’s like the way Emily Dickinson described recognizing poetry: when the hairs stuck up on the back of her neck. I scan through them quickly and it’s almost like I can smell it, like a certain intensity of physical reaction.
A: Are the witches you’re performing rituals with also often writers?
AF: I was living in Maine for 12 years, and I was in a circle for most of that time. I was the only writer in the group. We had a therapist, an energy healer, an HR director, an herbalist, a yoga teacher, a nurse. I became sort of the designated writer for the group. I would experiment with different rhythms and we would try them out in ceremony, speaking them aloud to see how they worked.
A: We were talking so much about children reading poetry. What were you like as a kid, and what kind of rituals you were interested in?
AF: I grew up in a big blended family, but I didn’t know it was blended, so that was strange. I was solitary and kind of dreamy and I would hang out outside. There was a huge forsythia bush that made a kind of private cave where I spent a lot of time daydreaming. I had a couple of close friends who were creative. With one I did theater projects and make believe, and with the other I did art projects and crafts. I read a ton of books including a lot of fantasy books, and I published my first poem when I was nine.
When I was in first grade, I drew a picture of a robin and colored it in, with the red breast, and wrote “Robin” on it in big letters. I walked home from school with it in my hand and felt compelled to go straight into the backyard, where I found a dead robin. I dug a grave and buried it and put a stick with my picture there. The whole time I felt an intense vibrating throughout my hands and my body, what I now understand as a bridging of life and death through spirit.
When I was seven, the year after that, my father took our family on a pilgrimage to different spiritual and philosophical sites around the world. We saw all kinds of temples and pyramids and mosques and standing stones and other sites from different traditions. That gave me a sense that spirituality was important and that there are lots of different ways to do it.
A: And how did you first put the name of witchcraft to it?
AF: When I was in my early 30s, I went to Stanford for graduate school, and I met my first witch in San Francisco. I was doing a little poetry reading, and this amazing woman, Francesca De Grandis, introduced herself to me and said “I’m a witch. Do you want to come to my ceremony?” I started going to events at her house and I realized, “Oh my gosh, I am such a witch.”
Then I went to Iowa for my first teaching job, in a tiny little town where everybody went to church. That was the social structure. All the liberals went to the Unitarian church. So, I started going to the Unitarian Church, to an earth-spirituality circle led by a wise woman, Jane Clow. I realized that the circle needed some good poetry, and that I could be helpful. That’s where I began to feel more empowered to make my own ceremonies. I wrote some of the poems that are in “Spells” to be used in rituals by that group.
A: I’m interested in the fact that you wrote a lot of those spells in Iowa. I haven’t spent a lot of time in Iowa, but I’m from Michigan and the Midwest is such a weird landscape, I think.
AF: Yeah. For me it was almost like being an expatriate; it made stronger bonds among the witchy people who were there, and there were some marvelous people. I think it’s easy to write off the Midwest. I’m from the Northeast, but when I realized I was a poet, I wanted to live in different parts of the U.S. It matters a lot to me to get a sense of the whole country.
A: What about the Midwestern landscape was most interesting to you?
AF: The prairie. Oh my gosh. It’s amazing, the original prairie. Roots that go nine feet down into the earth. I wrote a poem about it in “Spells” called “A Dance for the Inland Sea.”
Reading Willa Cather’s work—I love “My Ántonia”—the way she describes the prairie is sublime, and I think the tragedy is that it’s so vulnerable. It’s so easy to just mow it down and build malls over it. It doesn’t resist being destroyed like the ocean or mountain, but it’s just as powerfully sublime.
A: Is there anything else that you want to mention about the “Little Book of Spells?”
AF: I love the size of it and I love the look of it, and I’m so happy that people seem to love having it. Last night I used it to teach my class on how to write spells. I handed out the books so people could read them aloud, to give them a sense of the rhythms together as a group. And then a bunch of people wanted to take one home. It’s almost like when I was a kid, we used to send Christmas cards. It’s like this gift full of love, and it’s small and it’s really just going to make people feel good, and I love that.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Dani Smotrich-Barr can be reached at email@example.com.