Annie Finch is a renowned poet and meter expert. She is the author of seven books of poetry, the writing guide A Poet’s Craft, an anthology, and verse drama, as well as the founding director of the Poetry Witch Community, where she teaches poetry, meter, scansion, and The Magic of Rhythmically Writing. She also leads numerous classes, workshops, and retreats, and is an advocate of reproductive freedom, feminism, and spirituality. Quite simply, she is our poetess heroine, and we were so excited to chat with her about the confluences of meter, creativity, and the body.
Most students are terrified of meter. How do you make it fun?
I invite them to bring word-rhythms into the body where they originate — to feel their sexy, physical pleasure in ear, mouth, heartbeat. Most of my workshops are only for those who identify as women, which allows for a positive, accepting atmosphere. I give poets permission to play, be silly, not make sense. Maybe most importantly, we explore other meters besides iambic—the whole range of “metrical diversity.” It turns out that most of the fear poets have about meter is actually fear of just one, horribly over-used meter—iambic pentameter.
What is the most important thing to remember when you’re scanning a poem?
Put your mind on hold to allow your body to listen. My favorite way of scanning is designed to support this. It’s called the Three-Step Scansion Method, and there’s a video about it on my YouTube channel.
How can better understanding meter support people in their creative pursuits?
I believe meter is creativity’s super-power, because it activates our primal, non-verbal selves at the exact moment that we are making meaning with words. It supports our unconscious wisdom when we need it most, right when the analytical mind has the most power to squash it down. So in my experience, getting comfortable with meter can help free us from the self-righteous pseudo-objectivity that dominates our culture right now. It invites us to dance with more creatively satisfying aspects of ourselves such as body, heart, and spirit.
Do you have a form that you love? If so, I’d love to hear why.
I love a lot of forms: the sinuous grace of the sapphic stanza, the coy, sideways confidence of the Italian sonnet, the canzone’s over-the-top attitude, the disarming stubbornness of the triolet. I especially love the variations or forms I invented, like the beautiful nonnet, which came to me in a dream.
The form I’ve devoted the most public time to loving, so far, is the villanelle because this form is so efficient, and so surprising, and so efficiently surprising. I never know how it’s going to turn out, not only when I write one, but when I read a good one, like Bishop’s “One Art,” Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle,” Roethke’s “The Waking,” Plath’s “Mad Girl’s Love Song,” or, I hope, my own “A Root.” At its best, a villanelle is a dramatic form like the script of a play; it turns out differently each time you read it because the repeated lines change their tone and meaning based on how you emphasize what’s around them. And it does all this in only nine lines (it has 19, but 10 of them are repeated). It’s efficient like an earthworm; the repeating lines are like pulsating sides that digest the earth of the non-repeating lines as they pass through. It’s a magical, earthy, healing form that comes originally from a folk dance.
Tell us a bit about your background and what got you interested in teaching courses like this?
My mother was quite a serious poet, and my father revered poetry. They grew up hearing poetry recited and loved sharing metrical poems aloud. In college I was lucky enough to build on this background with a great education in poetic meter. Then when I grew up to be a poet, I found that very few poets—especially feminist women poets— had had my opportunities to become “metrically literate.” I got passionate about sharing my knowledge and enthusiasm for poetic form. It’s not just that I find meter uniquely delicious and useful. I also sense that the survival and health of the planet depends, to some extent, on the English language reclaiming poetry’s original connection to the healing rhythms of the earth and nature—as embodied, in every pre-literate, indigenous culture, in meter.
What do most of your students discover during your meter classes?
They discover that scansion is much quicker to learn than they thought. They learn that meter not an abstract dry set of rules as they’ve been taught, but physical and juicy. They discover that it can be addictive, because it massages the brain and body in new ways. They discover that nerding out on scansion can be a fun activity in itself. They often discover that one reason they love their favorite poems or parts of poems in free verse is because of their use of meter, and that meter and form give can far more to the poetry-writing process than they take away.
What are some examples you like to use when talking about meter? Why?
I use examples collected in my textbook A Poet’s Craft: A Comprehensive Guide to Making and Sharing Your Poetry, my anthology Measure for Measure: An Anthology of Poetic Meters, and my poetry collection Calendars (Spiral, my newest poetry collection, will be a still better resource once it’s published). I use my own books because I usually teach how to read, write, and scan in four or five different meters and I don’t know any other books that fully honor the principle I call “metrical diversity.” In my classes we talk about examples from all these books, by poets including Gwendolyn Brooks, Marilyn Hacker, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Sara Teasdale, Emma Lazarus, W.B. Yeats, A.E. Stallings, myself, and more.
Annie Finch is the author of six books of poetry including Eve, Calendars, and most recently Spells: New and Selected Poems from Wesleyan University Press. Her poetry has been published in Poetry, Paris Review, Kenyon Review, Yale Review, and The New York Times and in numerous anthologies including The Norton Anthology of World Poetry, The Penguin Book of the Sonnet, and the Penguin Book of Twentieth-Century American Poetry. Earning her Ph.D from Stanford, she served for a decade as Director of the Stonecoast MFA in Creative Writing and has lectured and taught poetry at universities including Berkeley, Harvard, Toronto, and Oxford. Finch’s books on meter and poetic form include The Body of Poetry, An Exaltation of Forms, Lofty Dogmas: Poets on Poetry, Villanelles, Measure for Measure: An Anthology of Poetic Meters, and A Poet’s Craft: A Comprehensive Guide to Making and Sharing Your Poetry. She the Founding Director of Poetry Witch Community. More information at anniefinch.com