Annie Finch, Choice Among the Goddesses, or How I Finally Wrote About My Abortion

3 Apr

My book  Among the Goddesses: An Epic Libretto in Seven Dreams came out recently and now I am doing readings and a blog-tour about the book–(there’s even a Facebook group started by the press where you can share experiences and get updates on readings and performances of ATG).  The book has a unique structure; it intertwines an epic poem and a poetic opera libretto that tell the same story in narrative and dramatic form, spiraling around each other if you read the book straight through.  You can also read one side of the page only as an epic poem, the other only as a poetic libretto.

I am having an unusual time publicizing this book for several reasons. I’m still figuring out how much to sing and how much to speak when I perform, with or without musicians.   Also, the tangled history of writing the book, described briefly below, sometimes makes it feel like I’m living in two or three decades at once.  The main reason, however, is the abortion.

The book’s only review so far (by Jane Galer, in Coreopsis points out that Among the Goddesses “might be the first opera about abortion.”  Even when I first conceived (pun intended) the poem around twenty years ago, I knew that an abortion would constitute  the climax of the action. I had not had an abortion. But I still felt it was the most important theme I could write about.  I wanted to help create, or express, a spiritual basis for reproductive freedom:  not just a tolerance, but a reverence for women’s ability to become pregnant and the consequent power that has always lent us over human life and death while a baby is part of our own body.

When I started writing Among the Goddesses, I had not had an abortion.  But eventually, in fact, I did.  I became pregnant by accident, at age 42 with two carefully-spaced children including a 1-year-old baby, a struggling marriage, financial challenges, and three demanding careers.  I agonized over the choice, and my husband and I finally chose abortion as the best course for our family (afterward, I was interviewed for Jennifer Baumgartner’s wonderful film Speak Out:  I Had An Abortion ; someone has posted a brief excerpt of the interview here.

I am a deeply spiritual person who finds life and death intense and almost unbearable mysteries.  It was impossible for me to think of an abortion as a purely physical act, “just like going to the dentist,” to quote Maude’s daughter on the 1972 TV episodes which seem to be not only the first but possibly the only positive depiction of abortion ever broadcast on U.S. network television.  And it was equally impossible to take the only other choice offered by mainstream culture: to frame my abortion within the values of a male-centered, judgmental religion based on the dualistic denial and transcendence of death.   It was a no-win dilemma.

After the abortion, although the epic poem was finished, I pulled it from its scheduled publisher and began another decade of work on the project.  I wanted to add to the story’s mass without diluting its archetypal force.  Over ten years, I turned the epic poem into an opera libretto, put the two side by side, and finally interwove them, finding, in that new and spiraling shape, the kind of repeating, archetypal oral tradition I had been looking for. Just before the book was published, I added as an appendix the most personally revealing piece of writing I have ever published:  a ritual I wrote for my family to heal ourselves when it became clear that believing in a spiritual context for abortion was not enough.  We needed to act ritually on that belief as well, in order to fully enact the abortion and also to heal from the pain created by the mainstream no-win dilemma.  The ritual had worked, freeing me to move forward in peace with the book and my life, and I wanted to share it with others who might finish reading the book and wonder about a possible next step.

At the launch of Among the Goddesses at the AWP writing conference last spring, given Red Hen Press’s two-hour challenge to sell as many copies as I possibly could because otherwise I’d have to bring the leftovers home in the suitcase I’d already stuffed to overflowing with other people’s books, it was hard to have any doubts about the book’s future. “It’s the feminist epic of the 21st century,” I told anyone who would listen.  “Isn’t the cover gorgeous?”  (it is).  A lot of people listened, and I sold 60 copies in two hours.  People loved the title, and several told me that goddesses are “coming back” now.  They also enjoyed the epic-libretto format.  In fact, in a van on the way to the airport, several writers cooked up a plan for me:  I would travel the country performing benefit performances of the book with local musicians, for birth control clinics and feminist groups.  What a great idea!

But even if I do a traveling musical tour, even if the book bears on a living moment and a contemporary controversy, it remains timeless in the same way as my other poetry.  In the final analysis, isn’t it in the timeless realm that I want it to live? This is the way I’m used to thinking about my poems.  A poet for as long as I can remember, I’ve given readings for many hundreds of people, and I’ve read to a dozen.  I’ve published in magazines with huge circulations, and magazines with the teeniest of circulations.  And it’s all been fine to me; it hasn’t really mattered.  All my poetry has been written for the eyes of the Muse and the future.

Greek Goddess Demeter

But this book is turning out differently.  I never anticipated, when I added my personal post-abortion ritual as an appendix at the last moment, that because of that action, the whole thrust of the book could change.  All along I had known there was a lot at stake for me. As a woman, I wanted to create a spiritual context in which the deep, free, and responsible choice for my own abortion in my own body could be recognized as part of a greater sacred whole.  As a citizen, I wanted to feel I was helping tip the culture out of that no-win dilemma which undermines female-centered spirituality and, thus, ultimately, women’s capacity for full self-empowerment.  And as a poet, I needed to ground the most dramatic theme I could imagine in the most charged imagery I could conjure.

But now that the book is out, I’m beginning to learn more about what’s at stake for others.  At a party last week, I met a women’s studies professor who told me that two students had come to see her the previous week in agony because they felt they needed abortions, knew that was the right thing to do, yet had no spiritual context in which to conceive of doing so. She said she would share Among the Goddesses with them, not only for the poem (these were girls who don’t normally read poetry) but also, or maybe even more, for the appendix at the end.

Sumerian Goddess Ianna

The more I notice the rollback of women’s reproductive rights and freedoms (like today’s news of the closing of a so-called loophole for rape victims in Indiana, or the shocking attempt to defund Planned Parenthood as part of the federal budget agreement) and the closer my own daughter and her friends get to the age of sexual activity, the more it matters to me that this ritual is out there, that people have a concrete, physical model for a new approach to abortion.  (I’d also like to mention, and thank, and recommend, a very wise and useful book that helped me get to the point of realizing I needed a ritual: Peace After Abortion by Ava Torre-Bueno.

In the final version of the poem, the poem’s heroine, Marie/Lily, receives guidance and company from the goddesses Demeter, Kali, and Inanna—all balancers of life and death, as goddesses tend to be— as part of her journey of self-determination, which takes her through a symbolic mythic abortion and out the other side.  Only many years after that experience does she finally have her baby, and when she does, the baby is welcomed into a community she has helped to build and never could never have dreamed of, the first time she became pregnant.

Hindu Goddess Kali

After twenty years of gestating this odd and fully-formed newborn young adult, I need to acknowledge that it’s here, it’s come out, it’s been born—and like any newborn, it has a life utterly its own ahead. I find myself mystified and surprised when I think about the future of my creation and the new world into which it has emerged.  I’m surprised at how central that abortion ritual feels to me, like a seed, or a baby, cast out on huge, dark, unknown water in the boat of this strange book, Among the Goddesses.  And I’m mystified as I wonder what their fate will be.

Annie Finch is a poet, critic, editor, translator, and librettist, author or editor of numerous volumes of poetry, translation, and criticism.  Her books of poetry include Eve, Calendars (released in a new edition with 40-page download-able Readers’ Companion and Audio CD), the long poems The Encyclopedia of Scotland and Among the Goddesses: An Epic Libretto in Seven Dreams, and the forthcoming Spells: New and Selected Poems. Her other works include several influential books of poetics, including The Body of Poetry: Essays on Women, Form, and the Poetic Self and the forthcoming A Poet’s Craft: A Comprehensive Guide to Making and Sharing Your Poems and A Poet’s Ear: A Handbook of Meter and Form. Her music, art, theater, and opera collaborations have shown at such venues as American Opera Projects, Carnegie Hall, Chicago Art Institute, Poets House, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Finch’s book of poetry Calendars was shortlisted for the Foreword Poetry Book of the Year Award and in 2009 she was awarded the Robert Fitzgerald Award. She holds degrees from Yale University, the University of Houston, and Stanford University, and currently directs the Stonecoast MFA program in creative writing at the University of Southern Maine.  She blogs as  American Witch.
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