Nikky Finney sings poetry of history, remembrance

“I am a poet because I know land, I know space,” said poet Nikky Finney. “Land, space, and seeing the end of mountains remind you of the sensory nature of the world.”

The Greenleaf Review and the English Department hosted Finney, a professor of creative writing at the University of Kentucky, for a reading on Sept. 28.

Finney grew up along the rice-growing coast of South Carolina. Her father was a civil-rights lawyer, and her mother was an elementary school teacher. Both were deeply involved in the struggle for social justice and civil rights in the South.

“It’s important when you begin to write to ask yourself, ‘what kind of writer will I be?'” said Finney, who was told many times as a young writer to stay away from political subjects.

For Finney, it was important to be honest on the page, even if that meant writing both personal and political poems. She recalled a Quaker saying that gave her the liberty and courage to be honest as a writer: let your life speak.

Finney also described the importance of mentorships in her development as a writer. Writers Toni Cade Bambara and Nikki Giovanni gave Finney the sense that writers are people who help in the community while mentoring her. Finney shared with the audience a story told by Bambara, who was asked by a man waiting at a bus stop, “Are you that writer lady from Indiana?”

Bambara thought the man wanted an autograph but instead the man asked her if she could help him fill out his application for a house since she was a writer. She invited him to visit her writing workshop where she helped him fill out the application that eventually led to him owning a home.

Finney read from three of her collections, “Rice,” “The World is Round,” and her most recent work, “Head Off & Split.” Poems in “Head Off & Split” navigate the narratives of the political and the personal. The collection focuses on Hurricane Katrina, the narratives of civil rights leaders, love, and family traditions.

“It is indeed rare to encounter a poet who commands an audience with not only her words, but her voice,” Paul McCullough ‘11 said.

For a writer who said, “I never thought I would be a poet, I never thought I would be a writer,” Finney demonstrated an absolute command over language in her poems. For example, in her poem “Left,” from “Head Off & Split,” Finney puts us in the center of Hurricane Katrina where a survivor held a misspelled sign reading, “please help pleas.”

In “Left,” Finney shows us that “the people are dark but not broken. Starving, abandoned, dehydrated, brown and cumulous, but not broken…”

“Finney’s reading was stunning,” said Dana Professor of English Carolyn Beard Whitlow, who is also a poet. “‘Left’ is a mantra of remembrance about the atrocity of Hurricane Katrina. That poem is a haunting reminder of what should never be forgotten. Stunning.”

Finney said that as a beginning writer she wrote “things I wanted to remain beyond me.” She quoted Nobel Prize-winning poet Czeslaw Milosz who describes writing as a place where “you write to save something.” Finney put the same question to the audience: “What would you write to save?”

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