Nodding while reading Nikky Finney’s interview.

Water riffling off Montezuma Road.

Nikky Finney grew up in the South, and graduated from Talladega College in Alabama. She was “always trying to say the really hard thing in as beautiful a way” as she could.

As a child, Nikky thought art should consist of “the hard to say things and the beautiful things.” In a seamless recent interview with AWP’s magazine, she describes the influence of a 7th-grade teacher who required students to memorize poems, and the intimacy she developed with language after learning “poems by heart”:

I think of the phrase “to learn by heart”, and how, over time, it becomes becomes “to know by heart.” The words become a form of deep, inner knowledge, their significance imprinted on our hearts and minds.

The words a form of power or currency with the spirit. Words we can use as rhythms while walking. Words we can imagine while folding laundry. Words we can sing in the Birmingham city jail. Words we can use to encourage and resuscitate broken spirits (the verses of We Shall Overcome, for example). Words we can revive as lullabies to chase distant sleep. Words no one can take from us or discredit. Words that become treasures.

Watching the anglers upstream at Montezuma.

Nikky uses poetry as a vehicle for historical reconsolidation and self-discovery. Why, for example, she cannot reconcile polite manners and convention with integrity, and how she learned this. She refuses to dance with Strom Thurmond, in her words:

An excerpt from the poem, “Dancing With Strom,”:

History does not keep books on thehandiwork of slaves. But the enslavedwho built this Big House, long beforeI arrived for this big wedding, knewthe power of a porch.This native necessity of nailing downa place, for the cooling off of air,in order to lift the friendly, the kindly,the so politely, the in-love-ly, jubilant,into the arms of the grand peculiar,for the greater good ofthe public spectacular:usgiving usaway.

What we see is limpid motion.

She cites Toni Cade Bambara as a seminal influence on her writing life. Toni’s house was a wreck of stacked dishes and clutter- no counter space, books piled into towers along the wall and floor- but her desk was absolutely bare- “meticulous”- apart from what she was writing at the moment.

This example of how a female rearranged her life to invite writing, living to write rather than to clean or decorate, encouraged Nikky. Toni warned, “You’ll never have time to write…So therefore you must make time.”

Nikky is/was child who does not resent her view from the margins because she doesn’t believe (or much care) what others make of her. The limits other people impose on her as a black female are limits Nikky does not accept or take seriously. She always felt like an “outlier”- and preferred it:

In a sense, it also gives her a place from which to fall. Leaving the South after college was terrifying, Nikky says, until she began to grow out of her “terror” and into her “curiosity”.

Unlike other American poets, Nikky believes history cannot be silenced. She is a witness to the voices of the present- and this emerges as a thread between lines and pieces. She engages inexplicably tragic characters- those stunted by history from moving forward- including a suite inspired by the ontological quandary that is Condoleezza Rice. (Steve Earle’s “Condi, Condi” comes to mind.)

For Nikky, history is the story some people get to tell about what happened. Her poems challenge the received wisdom and “historical truth” by enlarging the lens through we envision what happened. In a Zinnian fashion, she adds the overlooked voices to enrich the history we tell and sell to one another. I love her for that.

As the child of political defectors raised on white-bread southern patriotism, I find my political and poetic commitments do not reside in separate spheres, and though I admire writers fortunate enough to compartmentalize, we must acknowledge the ability to write outside politics is a specious sort of privilege. Perhaps, even, a fashionable muzzle.

NIKKY FINNEY, THE PERSONThe Beauty and Difficulty of Nikky Finney (NPR)
Excerpts and readings from Head Off and Split(National Poetry Foundation)
“Questions of Faith”, an interview (Poetry Society of America)
“So I Became A Witness” interview (Sampsonia Way)”Heart, Truth, and Justice” interview (Lambda Literary)
National Book Award Acceptance Speech (YouTube)HER POETRY “He Never Had It Made” (US Library of Congress)
“The Girlfriend’s Train” (Soul Incites)”The Blackened Alphabet” (The Bottom of Heaven)”Making Foots” (The Poetry Center at Smith College)”The Aureole” (Feministing)”Red Velvet” (Except In Dreams)”The Greatest Show On Earth” (Punch-In-The-Face Poetry)”Sign Language” (The Poetry Center at Smith College)”A New Day Dawns” (Moving Poems)”Sam I Am” (Huffington Post)”Hate” (Project Muse)”The Clitoris” (Structure and Style)”Heirloom” (Academy of American Poets)”Sex” (The Poetry Center at Smith College)