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Nikky Finney is an award-winning, southern-born poet, whose critically acclaimed work is imbued with a distinct sense of lyricism and recurring themes of both social justice and communal history. Currently the Provost’s Distinguished Service Professor of English at the University of Kentucky, Finney is the author of four books of poetry and a short story cycle.
She was recently awarded the 2011 National Book Award for her latest collection Head Off & Split (Northwestern University Press); her rousing award acceptance speech went viral and became a literary Internet phenomena.
Finney took some time to talk with Lambda Literary Review about her now famous National Book Award speech, shoe shopping with Condoleezza Rice, and the dividing line between art and rhetoric.
Congratulations on the National Book Award. How has this whole—very public—experience been for you?
William, sometimes my students say to me, “I don’t really have the language.” And I say, “No, I’m sorry. It is your job as a poet and a writer to find the language.” And here I am five weeks out from that electric moment when Elizabeth Alexander called my name and I am still searching for appropriate descriptive language (laughs).
I can tell you this: water tastes different. Air feels different. The mere act of waking and walking through the world is still fully charged with the excitement of that night and also from the various reactions—from both friends and strangers—that have not yet stopped.
I imagine that the response from that speech has been immense….
I still receive so many emails and letters. People who were moved by what happened that evening are still leaving gifts on the porch. Someone sent a poem last week. Someone else sent a box of sacred Blackfeet pencils. It has been really touching. There have been responses from so many people, who occupy so many different points on the map. People who tell me, “I was streaming you that night…I was also crying…Each story has meant so much to me.”
It’s true that they called my name specifically, and that in itself is a wonderful thing, but 10,000 other people rushed through the door with me. At least that’s how it felt… I am still feeling the amazing communal rush of that moment. So many who helped bring Head Off & Split to fruition, so many who historically trusted in the power of words flooded through the tiny opening with the calling of my name.
Well your award acceptance speech went viral; which must be a first for a National Book Award speech. How was that experience?
It’s wild. It’s wonderful. I still wonder, what did people hear? What part of the journey of the words did they attach their own sails to? What did it mean to them? I wish I knew.
For me the speech was very personal. I mentioned the names of people who taught me thirty years ago or taught me ten years ago. I mentioned the history of enslaving Black people in South Carolina. I mentioned the specific law that outlawed reading and writing for those enslaved people. I could not walk up front and accept any award without first remembering those many thousands who were murdered or maimed because they wanted to own their own minds and lives. It is always in the specificity of life that we human beings find one of the universal truths that our collective souls are tethered to.
So it’s all in the details?
There is a great African saying, that I heard many years ago, that the poem is never finished until somebody hears it. I believe this with all my heart. A writer can work for years and years, can work on forty or fifty drafts of something, moving things around on the page, working out how the lines are falling, how the title or epigraph is alerting the rest of the poem, all the things a good poet checks when she is working strong and true. But it’s truly not finished, William, not until another human being hears it.
I could even take that statement a little further and say it’s not really finished until the audience connects with something; until they say, “Oh yes, I know what she’s talking about.” That is precisely my job as a poet—to make sure that I don’t stop working on my words until I feel that the phrase or poem or story that I have been drafting has the potential to matter to somebody listening.
I wanted to get a little background on your trajectory as a writer…
I was born in South Carolina. I loved poetry at a very early age. I grew up in a community that honored our Black literary traditions, a community where we often were instructed to learn poetry by heart. We recited it at church, on Easter Sundays, Black History Month, those kinds of things. As a young girl I became known as the poet in the neighborhood. If somebody needed a poem written for a special occasion, it was always, “Go see Nikky.” I grew to love that responsibility.
I was thirteen or fourteen. This was the late 1960s, early 1970s. My family was involved in different civil rights struggles in our community. My father was a civil rights attorney and my mother was an elementary school teacher. I was a very young witness to good people raising their hands to join critical campaigns for social justice and fairness. Being a witness left a huge impression on me. I understood very early in my life how important it was to do your day job, whether a plumber or lawyer or a teacher, and also get ready for your other job, that of being willing to put your comfort and safety on the line. There were kind, smart, incredibly loving people all around me who refused to sleep until they did something to try and change some of the strictures that were present in our community. If I ever became a writer I promised myself I would never forget this.
I was also a precocious child of the Black Arts movement. The FBI was searching for Angela Y. Davis, James Brown was singing “I’m Black and I’m Proud,” and Romare Bearden and Charles White were painting Black life on their stunning amazing canvases. A new Black renaissance of art and literature was all around me on every airwave during my most impressionable years. On that tiny but powerful black and white RCA Victor TV or that northern scratchy Black radio station, that I could only get the signal of when the wind was blowing right, this is where I caught snatches of Gil Scott Heron or James Baldwin or Nikki Giovanni. I took these new Black artists in like food, like something absolutely necessary to my life.
Did you stay in South Carolina?
I could not have stayed in South Carolina and become the writer that I have become; a writer who relishes exploring themes that are as beautiful as they are taboo. I was always my mother’s most curious child, the one also with the hardest head. I wanted to see the rest of the country and the rest of the globe. I loved to be on the move. I had to see what was down the road and over the hill. South Carolina is a state steeped in conservative values and traditions. There’s a lot about the state that does not like change. As a teenager I knew I would break away from some of those traditions. As much as I loved my family, I knew I would step away from home and make my own way in the world. I had to. I had to leave home, the church, and all the people who loved and protected me. I had to explore all the things that I needed to explore. I knew that I had to leave the southern landscape that I had been born into in order to find out exactly who I was in the world.
Where did you go next?
I went further South (laughs).
You went further South?
I went to Alabama. I enrolled as an undergraduate at an amazing school, Talladega College.
How was your experience at Talladega?
I loved libraries. I had spent a lot of time in then as a girl and understood their power over me. Talladega College had a wonderful library; Savery Library. The Amistad murals by Hale Woodruff greeted me when I first entered. I knew Talladega was where I could become a poet. For four years I sat under those murals, as an eccentric young student, and read all of the Black poetry books on the shelves. I found Margaret Walker there and Gwendolyn Brooks too. My becoming a poet was a very autodidactic journey. I didn’t know how to exactly become a poet, so I aligned myself with people whom I thought could teach me. I read Toni Morrison, Zora Neal Hurston, and so many others while sitting beneath those amazing murals that depicted the desire of human beings to be free and sail home.
While at Talladega College, I met Nikki Giovanni. She came to campus for our annual arts festival. I slipped a folder of my poems to her before she left. When she got back home she and her mother took their red pens to my young immature poetry. She red marked up those poems so badly that I could not even see the poems for her comments. She sent it back to me just like that and she wrote this one thing I will never forget. She said, “Nikky, underneath all of these red marks there is something beautiful really trying to happen.”
I thought, “Wow. This is exactly what I need to keep going! This is all I need to keep learning exactly how to do this!” (laughs)
What were your professors like?
The most important teacher of my life was there at Talladega College, Dr. Gloria Wade Gayles, whom I referenced in the National Book Award acceptance speech. She had such a huge influence on me. She was beautiful and brilliant, funny and precise. She knew her stuff. She worked me harder than any teacher had ever worked me – except my own mother. She didn’t allow me to make up or lean on any excuses. Her expectations of me were huge and I wanted to meet them in every way. That day and moment that I referenced in the acceptance speech, when she asked had I read all of the books in the library, changed my life. My friends who were sitting there started laughing. They thought she was trying to embarrass me. I knew she was not. Something in me understood that I had to follow her. So I stood up and I got my little school bag and followed Dr. Gayles into the library. It was in that moment, that I separated myself from frivolity and attached myself to the incredibly serious notion of becoming a writer.
I want to talk about your writing. While your work does contain a high level of lyricism, it is also infused with the political and ideas of social justice.
I wanted to ask you if you had a dividing line between something that is art versus work that is rhetoric?
My first book was published when I was twenty-six—a really young age for a writer. My teacher at the time was the great American short story writer Toni Cade Bambara. Bambara lived in Atlanta. I left Talladega and went to Atlanta and became part of her Pamoja writing workshop. Toni taught me everything about social justice and what it meant to be a writer in the world.
What did Toni teach you about social justice and writing?
One day after our workshop Toni and I went walking out on the streets of Atlanta A man approached us and stopped us asking Toni Cade if he could have a minute of her time. “You’re that writer woman, aren’t you?” Toni said, “Yes I am.”
Here I am standing there all green and naïve. I’m thinking he’s going to ask her for her autograph. Isn’t that what people do in America when they meet well known writers?
Instead he pulls these long papers out of his pocket and stretches them toward Toni Cade. “Well, if you are a writer, he says, I need you. Because I don’t write very well. And I need help filling out these mortgage papers. My wife and I are trying to buy our first house.”
I’m standing there thinking, “This is Toni Cade Bambara, one of the greatest short story writers in the world. She doesn’t have time for this! And that’s precisely when Toni Cade reaches for the papers and says, “Okay, come to my house around 4 on Saturday. We’ll figure it out.
So that moment served as a real touchstone for you?
In that moment I knew what kind of writer I wanted to be in the world. Yes, I wanted to write about beautiful things, but I also wanted to hand something over to the reader that was more than beautiful words, something that might have the power and presence to make them stronger, better and wiser. I did not want to be the writer who was simply waiting for applause. I wanted to be smack dab in the middle—doing something foundational, something that might be helpful to another human being. I don’t like poetry that hits me over the head trying to convince me of something. I do not like poetry that is not concerned with empathy or matters of the heart.
I am absolutely politically charged in my life, but I’m also trying to take those things that might be seen as rhetorical, as polemical, and send them through my body and my spirit, and my artistic net, so that when that particular idea comes out through the other side of me it has shape of something both beautiful and impactful, and the high imaginative notes of something, hopefully, you have never seen or heard before.
In your latest book you inhabit the voices of Condoleezza Rice and George Bush. Did you learn anything about them by taking on their voices?
Once someone who had just finished reading Head Off & Split, said to me, “Wow, You really take Bush and Condeleezza! You were really mad!” This was such a disappointing reaction.
These poems were not about me throwing stones. This was about me pulling the individual I was writing about close to my intellectual and emotional self. I did quite a bit of research on both Bush and Rice. My goal was to pull some of the truth that I found and mix it with what I was feeling about their well known public places in the world. I did learn a lot factually—especially about Condoleezza.
In your latest collection there is also a poem about Condoleezza Rice buying Ferragamo shoes—based on the infamous story about someone yelling at Rice in New York while she was shopping during Hurricane Katrina…
When I was writing these Condoleezza concertos—that’s what I poetically call them—I became energized. At the same time there was this rumor mill moving through the Internet that she had been shopping during the catastrophe of Katrina, but I could not find any documentation of this so I actually considered pulling this particular poem out of the book. But then I decided that there was actually something powerful about honoring the existence of so many rumors.
Recently, Dr. Rice’s new book was released documenting her time in the Bush White House. She says in this new book that one of her most regretful moments was when she went shopping for shoes during Katrina. When I read this the rumor mill was unfortunately, but absolutely, verified.
Do you have more empathy for Rice after writing those poems?
I find Condoleezza Rice to be a very complicated human being. She and I have such different political alliances— as two Black women in the world. And that’s OK. I don’t know if I can say that I have empathy for what she did or did not do. I feel very strongly about what she did or did not do. What I do have empathy for is her human self. Her being out there in the world, a southern girl, a black girl just like me. I have empathy for where she came from, for how hard she worked in her life, and her dedication to excellence. But I believe we stand on very different shores with regard to what is right in this world and what is wrong.
Since we move through so many different literary movements—whether it be theoretical based work or postmodernism—do you ever feel that there is some push back from the poetry community about producing work that is so political and socially focused?
When I was a younger poet I felt that very strongly. I don’t feel much of that anymore. I don’t pay a lot of attention to what someone wants or doesn’t want me to write about. I write what moves me and try to write it with great attention to beauty and music. I lean into my page and don’t worry about the rest. There are so many ways to label poetry and people. I threw my hands up about that long ago.
So do you think about the canon? Is that an overreaching goal—to be included?
I’m not writing to be included in the canon. I’m writing to save something precious. I’m writing to get my pencil dimensionally around my little idea and work it out. Waiting for somebody to invite me to belong to something or be included in something was never my idea of being a part of this thing amazing journey called life. I just want to continue being a creative thinker and doer. I want to keep saving things and making history more inclusive by way of my particular alphabets and word arrangements.
How do you feel about the whole Rita Dove and Helen Vendler dust-up?
I was stunned. I have read and respected Helen Vendler for many years. Her response to Rita Dove’s beautiful and stunning new collection of American poetry made me feel that we have not come as far as I thought we had. The proof is always in the pudding and I believe Dove’s new anthology will eloquently stand the test of time.
What are you working on now? Any new poems in the works?
I want to keep writing long into the night; I want to keep telling the truth as best I can. There are these two long poems that have my full attention right now. One is about a young man named Arthur Warren, a young black gay man, who was killed in West Virginia in 2006. I’ve been working on a poem for him for a long time. He has been with me since the moment I read about the horrors of his death. He had this sweet face, these eyes full of great joy and sadness.
The second thing I am working on is poem about an 18 year-old black army servicewoman named LaVena Johnson who was raped and murdered on a military base in Iraq. When they discovered her body the report states that someone poured lye on her hands, evidently so no fingerprints could be found. The army classified LaVena’s death a suicide, even though she was clearly raped and murdered. I listened to her passionate persistent father and mother speak about this horrible cover-up in an interview. I think writing a good poem for LaVena is the least I can do for her.
I feel a fiery responsibility, as a particular type of citizen of the world, one with a pencil balanced on her ear, to ensure that at least some part of their life story be put to paper.
Photograph by Rachel Eliza Griffiths