The Beauty And Difficulty Of Poet Nikky Finney
April is National Poetry Month, a time when bookstores proudly display those slim volumes usually hidden in the back.
On display this April is the work of Kentucky poet Nikky Finney, who won the National Book Award last November for her latest collection, Head Off & Split.
Finney's acceptance speech at the awards ceremony was as poetic as anything in her winning book. Finney says she worked on the speech through 39 drafts and she felt good about it, but she's still stunned by the response she's gotten.
"People write me. Strangers. North Dakota, Hawaii," she says. "There's a man in Egypt who said, 'Please send me your book, I can't get it. I heard your acceptance speech.' Hundreds of just overtures that have less to do with the poetry and more to do with that acceptance speech."
The speech begins by evoking South Carolina's 18th century slave codes, which imposed fines and prison time for anyone caught teaching a slave to write. Finney calls out the people in power, "determined to control what can never be controlled: the will of the human heart to speak its own mind."
Finney was raised in coastal South Carolina, the daughter of a schoolteacher and a civil rights attorney. She focused on African-American studies in college and is now, at 54, a professor of creative writing at the University of Kentucky who often finds inspiration at her blackboard.
"Isn't that beautiful, the sound of that," Finney says of soft chalk on a blackboard. "Nothing sounds like that. Nothing."
Finney says the sound reminds her of school, of the handmade words of a lesson written out. Her newest blackboard is a sturdy vintage model, purchased on eBay. She painted the frame bright turquoise.
Her poem "Red Velvet," about civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks, began on a blackboard, and uses numbers to describe a life — 7,844 Sunday sermons, 8,230 skirts hemmed for "nice, well-meaning white women in Montgomery," and tens of thousands of pricked fingers.
The quiet anger of those lines is Finney's trademark; she's described it as "where the beautifully said thing meets the really difficult to say thing."
"As a young poet, I grew up in the '60s and early '70s, when difficult things were being said and shouted and screamed," Finney says. "I remember saying to myself, those things are very, very important to hear, but there must be another way to say them so that they will truly be heard. I mean, that's what art is. Art is about being provocative; art is also about beauty and if you leave the latter out, the former doesn't matter."
Finney's latest book, Head Off & Split, is named in honor of girlhood trips to the fish market. The fishmonger would ask if she wanted the heads cut off and the fish split and cleaned. Her answer was always "yes."
But a few years ago, Finney stopped by the same fish market. This time, her answer was "no," as described in her poem, "Resurrection of the Errand Girl: An Introduction."
"This time she wants what she was once sent for left whole, just as it was pulled from the sea, everything born to it still in place. Not a girl any longer, she is capable of her own knife-work now. She understands sharpness & duty. She knows what a blade can reveal & destroy. She has come to use life's points and edges to uncover life's treasures. She would rather be the one deciding what she keeps and what she throws away."
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. April is National Poetry Month, and your favorite bookstore is likely to have a fine display of the thin, small volumes of poetry that usually live on the back shelves up front this April: the poetry of Nikky Finney, who won the National Book Award last November. In accepting the award, she made a speech that if not award-winning itself, was memorable. NPR's Noah Adams has the story.
NOAH ADAMS, BYLINE: I talked with Nikky Finney in her studio. It's a garage she converted behind her house in Lexington, Kentucky. I asked about the speech that night in New York City. She tells me she felt good about it, she'd done the work, carried an idea through 39 drafts, but still she is stunned by the response.
NIKKY FINNEY: People write me - strangers - North Dakota, Hawaii. There's a man in Egypt who said please send me your book. I can't get it. I heard your acceptance speech. Hundreds of just overtures that have less to do with the poetry and more to do with that acceptance speech.
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)
ADAMS: On YouTube, you can watch Nikky Finney accepting the award. She comes to the lectern, unfolds her pages, puts on her glasses, takes a deep breath.
ADAMS: The speech is four minutes long. We'll listen to some of it now. It's from the part before the thanks yous. This is the story part.
(SOUNDBITE OF AWARD ACCEPTANCE SPEECH)
FINNEY: We begin with history. The Slave Codes of South Carolina, 1739: A fine of $100 and six months in prison will be imposed for anyone found teaching a slave to read or write, and death is the penalty for circulating any incendiary literature. The ones who longed to read and write but were forbidden, who lost hands and feet, were killed by laws written by men who believed they owned other men. Words devoted to quelling freedom, insurgency, imagination, all hope. What about the possibility of one day making a poem?
Tonight, these forbidden ones move all around the room as they please. They sit at whatever table they want, wear camel-colored field hats and tomato-red kerchiefs. They are bold in the Sunday-go-to-meeting best. Their cotton croker-sack shirts are black wash pot clean and irreverently not tucked in. Some have even come in white Victorian collars and bustiers. Some have just climbed out of the cold wet Atlantic just to be here. We shiver together.
ADAMS: Nikky Finney went on to talk about her parents, her partner, her teachers, the inspiration of other writers. Finney comes from coastal South Carolina. Her mother taught school, her dad was a civil rights attorney. She focused on African-American Studies in college, and is now at 54 is a professor of creative writing at the University of Kentucky.
(SOUNDBITE OF WRITING ON CHALKBOARD)
ADAMS: Soft white chalk on a blackboard, handmade words. A poem could begin this way.
FINNEY: Isn't that beautiful? The sound of that. Nothing sounds like that, nothing.
ADAMS: This is Finney's newest blackboard. It's a vintage real piece of slate. It's from eBay. She painted the frame bright turquoise. She started a Rosa Parks poem on a blackboard. Rosa Parks, the civil rights activist and seamstress, arrested when she refused to leave her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus, said she was tired of giving in. Here's a stanza of the poem called "Red Velvet."
FINNEY: (Reading) By 42, your heart is heavy with slavery, lynching, and the lessons of being good. You have heard 7,844 Sunday sermons on how God made every woman in his image. You do a lot of thinking with a thimble on your thumb. You have hemmed 8,230 skirts for nice, well-meaning white women in Montgomery. You have let the hem out of 18,809 pant legs for growing white boys. You have pricked your finger 45,203 times. You have held your peace.
ADAMS: The quiet anger of these lines about Rosa Parks is within Nikky Finney's style. Where the beautifully said thing meets the really difficult to say thing.
FINNEY: I said that.
ADAMS: Right. What does that mean?
FINNEY: As a young poet, I grew up in the '60s and early '70s when difficult things were being said and shouted and screamed. And I remember saying to myself those things are very, very important to hear, but there must be another way to say them so that they will truly be heard. I mean, that's what art is. Art is about being provocative. Art is also about beauty. And if you leave the latter out, the former doesn't matter.
ADAMS: The title of Finney's latest book, the book that won the award, is "Head Off & Split." Three of the poems are about buying fish at Liberty Street Seafood. In South Carolina, as a girl, her mom would send her there to get the family meal. The fishmonger would ask if she wanted the heads cut off, the fish split open and cleaned. The answer always was yes. Seven years ago, Finney was home for a visit and went to the same market. The answer, this time was no. Here's how she writes about it.
FINNEY: (Reading) This time she wants what she was once sent for left whole, just as it was pulled from the sea. Everything born to it still in place. Not a girl any longer, she is capable of her own knife work now. She understands sharpness and duty. She knows what a blade can reveal and destroy. She has come to use life's points and edges to uncover life's treasures. She would rather be the one deciding what she keeps and what she throws away.
ADAMS: After the National Book Award the invitations started arriving. Get on a plane, come for a reading, a workshop, interviews, you'll love it. Finney's calendar filled up fast.
FINNEY: I, I will never do what I just did. I traveled for two weeks straight. I went from Portland to Pasadena to Denver to South Carolina to the Virginia Festival of the Book and I met so many amazing people. But what was happening to me was not evident to me until I got back. And I realized my breath was short. I can't do it like that. The battery has to get charged. I have to be in control of first me, my health, but also the health of the poem.
ADAMS: Nikky Finney, talking with us in her studio, where the blackboard, the notebooks, her typewriters wait for poetry. Noah Adams, NPR News.
FINNEY: What did you write today, I say, Nikky Finney? I wrote a couplet today. I really like it.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
FINNEY: It's going to be something when it grows up. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.