An interview with Annie Finch
by Ren Powell & Cati Porter
Annie Finch is the author of numerous books of poetry, including Eve, The Encyclopedia of Scotland, and Calendars (for which there is a free study guide); a book of translations of the French Renaissance poet Louise Labé; a book on poetics, The Ghost of Meter; editor of After New Formalism and the anthology, A Formal Feeling Comes: Poems in Form by Contemporary Women; and co-editor (with Kathrine Varnes) of An Exaltation of Forms: Contemporary Poets Celebrate the Diversity of Their Art. Her most recent book is The Body of Poetry: Essays on Women, Form and the Poetic Self. She is currently the director of the Stonecoast Masters of Fine Arts program in creative writing at the University of Southern Maine. To learn more about Annie Finch please visit her website.
When did you begin writing formal verse? What is it about formal verse that appeals to you?
I began writing formal verse as a young child, around age 8, out of the sheer pleasure of it. A few years later I switched to free verse but eventually I returned mostly to form again for the original reason: I like how it feels, physically and mentally.
In writing formal verse, is there always an inherent danger that “form” may be confused with “format”? What sets the two apart?
If format means a kind of predictable or stereotyped quality, so-called free verse can be just as formatted as so-called formal verse—sometimes I think it tends to be more so. Form feels as if it helps me keep my poetry fresh and unformatted, since formal structures make every single word so important.
How do you define “formal verse”, and does your definition of formal poetry differ from that of the common conception of formal poetry? Are the terms “poems in form” and “formal verse” synonymous?
I define formal verse much more inclusively than the common conception. Commonly, people think of formal poetry as rhyming iambic verse. I define formal poetry (or poems in form, since for me they are synonymous) as poetry structured through the repetition of any language element, not just rhyme or the iambic foot. That language element could be an accentual or syllable count, a repeated refrain, a repeated phrase in each line as in an ancient chant, any one of the numerous meters, any rhyme pattern, or even a hidden compositional procedure. As long as a language element repeats in a way that structures the poem, rather than just decorates it, the poem is formal.
In the introduction to the collection of essays you co-edited with Kathrine Varnes, An Exaltation of Forms, you describe your vision as “Multiformalism”. How would you define that, and what role do you think it should play in shaping contemporary poetics?
Multiformalism is my word for the idea of formal poetry I described in the previous question. Multiformalism might play a significant role in shaping contemporary poetics, because it encompasses poetry from many aesthetics, perspectives and cultures, and also provides a link to the possibility of a "sustainable" poetry that shares elements with poetic traditions reaching across millennia and continents.
Included in An Exaltation of Forms is an essay on free verse. What prompted you to include a discussion of free verse in a volume dedicated to form? How do issues of formal poetics impact free verse?
Kathrine Varnes and I made that choice, which I found consistent with the context of the book because I thought of the line break itself as a repeated language element that structures free verse. This steady and predictable repetition of the line break is what gives free verse the “feel” of poetry.
As for the impact of formal poetics on free verse, that varies very much over different times, places, and aesthetic schools. Contemporary free verse seems often to be reaching towards meter, rather than rejecting it as was the more common pattern in the free verse of the early twentieth century. These changes are discussed in my book The Ghost of Meter.
What do you think is the appeal of formal poetry for those writing it today? Is it still relevant? For those who aren’t accustomed to writing in form, would you recommend it?
It is as relevant as ever, and more relevant than it was at mid-century, because the definition of form and the possibilities for form are so much wider now. I would definitely recommend writing in form to any poet, if only for ear-training.
What one book would you recommend to someone with an interest in learning about writing in form? Who are your favorite poets writing in form today?
An Exaltation of Forms: Contemporary Poets Celebrate the Diversity of Their Art, because it contains such breadth of information from sixty poets of such a diverse aesthetic range, from hendecasyllabics to hip hop. A few of my favorite contemporary poets writing in form are Agha Shahid Ali, Marilyn Hacker, and Molly Peacock.
Where do you see your own poetry heading? In an interview with Amy King you stated as one of your goals the merging of high academic poetics with accessibility. How are you accomplishing this? How do you define accessibility, and why is it important that your own poems be “accessible”?
My own poetry has long been heading in a deeply emotional and often spiritual direction. Some of my poems are lyric, some narrative, some dramatic, and some meditative, but all are concerned with the mystery of the embodied sacred, whether in relationships with nature or other people, or with spiritual issues more directly. My lyric poems aim to communicate these experiences through emotion structured like song; that’s how these poems come to me. The dramatic poems play with multiple voices and rhythms and the movement of creative imagination across a stage; the narrative poems use regular meter to move the story along; and the meditative poems tend to use what you are calling “high academic poetics”—ambiguous syntax, multiple speakers and perspectives, and the energy field of the page.
As for accessibility, I think a lot of that is achieved through beauty. Beauty is very important to me in writing each of these kinds of poetry. When I am reading a poem, beauty is what keeps me involved and attracted, and I want to provide that avenue of access to my own readers. That’s why I want my poems to be accessible: so I can offer readers who might not otherwise enjoy poetry the same kind of intense pleasure that poetry gives me. I love so many kinds of poetry so much and with such gratitude that I want to share that wealth as widely as possible, with as many readers as I can.
As the author of numerous critical works, how do you view your own participation in the “postmodern poetic conversation”? What do you think your legacy will be?
My critical work emerged as a scaffolding for the development of my own poetry, and when it falls away I envision that the poetry will remain, and that my most important legacy will end up being as a spiritual poet in the broad sense of that word.