On Compiling a Selected Poems

By Annie Finch

For the last year and a half, I’ve been deep in poems from four decades, piled on table and floor, in folders and binders and notebooks, swirling around me in all possible forms. Quite a few of them date back to before I had a computer: typewritten poems on onionskin paper adorned with erasures and white-out, carbon copies of poems, marked-up drafts, and even handwritten poems, as well as chapbooks, word-processed manuscripts in fat binder clips, and my several published volumes of poetry.

This isn’t exactly how I imagined the process of compiling Spells, my selected poems, would go.  At one point I thought I‘d sit down with my published books and a pad of sticky notes to make the table of contents; later, after having talked with other poets about their experiences, it seemed that I might end up revising and rewriting many poems, trying to arrive at final versions before republishing them.

But it turned out that many of the poems I needed to include had not been published in books.  And it also turned out that the effort I had put into making my poems “click shut like a box,” to use Yeats’ memorable analogy, seemed to have worked, even for poems dating as far back as the 1970s.

Bringing together the wildly different decades of my voice at last felt odd but familiar.  I’ve often imagined the Muse inhabiting a timeless space where nothing ever changes, where I have traveled regularly to visit Her since childhood.  Working with years’ worth of poems confirmed my sense that their words all come from the same place, and that I, therefore, also have a cohesiveness across time that I hadn’t claimed in the same way before.

Spells, by Annie Finch

In an interview I once compared my poetry to an ecosystem like a forest, where the words, images, and inspirations from imagined, started, completed, or published poems rot into the earth and nourish the roots of other poetic writings.  As in an ecosystem, the connections between the various parts of Spells will not always be evident on the surface.  But they are there, interpenetrating voices and styles that grow out of and inform each other, linking poems written at the same time but never before published together, or intimately connected though written far apart. Over the months of making false starts, settling on an organizing structure, choosing and discarding and arranging, creating a literary object for the future out of the fragments and threads of the past, it seems it wasn’t only a book I was creating but something more organic, more like an imagination—or even a self.

Annie Finch’s most recent books are Spells: New and Selected Poems (Wesleyan University Press) and A Poet’s Craft: A Comprehensive Guide to Making and Shaping Your Poems (University of Michigan Press). She is Director of the Stonecoast MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Southern Maine and can be found on Facebook and Twitter.

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8 thoughts on “On Compiling a Selected Poems

  1. Annie, I so like the Yeats analogy!
    Also, like the perspective you give in these words: “Working with years’ worth of poems confirmed my sense that their words all come from the same place, and that I, therefore, also have a cohesiveness across time that I hadn’t claimed in the same way before.” Searching for a common theme or thread has been one of my challenges too. Now, after reading your post here in Ontario, I will take another look at my poems. Thanks!

    • thanks Patricia! Seems to me that if I can find a common thread, any writer can, because this book spans some VERY disparate styles, and modes from drama to translation to narrative to lyric :). Good luck! Annie

  2. Such a beautiful post and so nice to know that poems that don’t end up in published volumes can still have a life outside of that folder stowed away somewhere.

  3. It is reassuring, isn’t it? When you are in the midst of building a literary life, it can feel as if you are completely at the mercy of the publishing world–but in the long run that does not have to be the case. This is one reason that at Stonecoast we make sure students, even in popular fiction, read works from previous centuries as well as contemporary literature—so they will have access to the long view.

  4. Hi Annie and all– Annie, I love the title ‘Spells’ and it’s interesting to hear how you have brought it all together. The ‘collage’ of notebooks on your office floor rings a bell. I like Molly’s comment on finding a ‘life’ for all those poems. Yes, I agree we writers always need to take the ‘long view.’

  5. Annie – Congratulations on the book and all the work that went into it. Your floor looks like many of your post’s readers’, I’m sure – I know it looks familiar to me. I love having the curtain parted to how a collection comes together, thanks for this and for “Spells.”

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