Maybe it is apt that her most recent book is called Head Off & Split. When she was signing my book, I told her I had many Emily Dickinson moments during the event, the top of my head coming off in such a way. She laughed and said she aimed for the head. (She also asked me what brought me to the event, and I confessed I was in the Loft mentorship program and got my MFA from this institution, and she said, "So you're a poet," and I got to tell her yes, and she said to keep at it. And she said it in the most sincere, non-rote way, and even if she hadn't said it, I knew hearing someone like this is exactly why I write.)
I read her most recent book the night before the reading and copied lines that gave me that shiver:
The people are ... brown & cumulous (13)
But the young / "tom brokaw" has not studied his field guide / to Black women" (19)
relocated / to the peaks of the Rocky Mountains // where she and the Steinway / are the only black people in the room (35)
The tiny kitchen stage / abandoned. (43)
The stars over the Atlantic are dangling / salt crystals (46)
the antique mirror finally caught me / from the heart down (49)
Rather than be the bloody human floret on / yet another southern tree (65)
pulling wooly / heads up into the dark skirts of trees (66)
A Black man stitches himself to earth (79)
I began copying phrases from "The Aureole," and realized I just ought to link to it instead.
While I was reading Head Off & Split, which has that gorgeous, gorgeous cover, my 22-month-old daughter leaned in to me and asked, "Maya eat the fish?" I wish I could have brought Maya to the reading, have her listen to something like this, but I know this will be passed on, that the tadpole in my belly got to listen to, and I'd rub my belly, thinking, "Are you listening, little man?"
One of her specialties seems to be endings. The sort of ending that made me want to leap out of bed (and honestly, I wanted to leap, and I am three months, to the day, from my due date, so I am not in leaping shape) and pump my fists in the air like a shadowboxer.
Alexs Pate, a professor in the African-American Studies department, with whom I took a class called The Poetry of Rap as an undergraduate, did the introduction and interview after, and in his intro he mentioned Finney's use of "past-time" to interrupt and enrich the narrative. He said, "Drenched is how I feel after every poem I read." (Me too.) When Pate read the epigraph that came from a personal postcard from Toni Cade Bambara, the audience recited along, and later, Finney said, "Thank you for making that church sound in my ear." She likened that recitation to someone singing along to a song on the radio, how good that made her feel.
The audience! I couldn't imagine a more ideal audience. It was a great smattering of people--elders from the community, women wearing head scarves and men in plaid scarves, academics, older ladies crinkling through hard candy wrappers, young students, and so often, after a good line, or a truth! moment in the storytelling, you'd hear that wonderful hum: Mmmm and mmm-HM. She also got a standing ovation, which I happily stood for. I think it's fair to say I fell in love with the poet last night.
(Her storytelling was so good. I wanted to move in with her, live in a nook beneath her stairs, sleep under a handstitched quilt and eat her southern food. I want her to write a memoir or publish her diaries, her daily observations, her eyes, she sees the world so magnificently.)
The first thing she did was to walk up to the podium and put her hands in the air and mock walk away, her work done. She came back, laughing, looked around and said, "I have missed you." Turns out, she had come to read at the Loft ten years ago and has not forgotten Minneapolis. She had such a stimulating experience with the audience, all strangers, and was looking forward to continuing the conversation here. She spoke of how she'd fly over Minnesota to and from events and keep wondering, "When are they going to invite me back?" Later, in the Q&A, she revealed she'd been to 47 places since 11/16/11, when she won the National Book Award, and has fifteen more next semester, and she has vowed not to go anywhere from June 2013 to June 2014. Instead, "I will go into a hole with pencils and a roll of paper and remember how to be a poet."
She began by reading from the forward (titled "Following Langston") she wrote for the collected letters of Langston Hughes' mother called My Dear Boy she'd just emailed to the editors. "His love for blackness... situated me." And: "No poet can follow Langston Hughes, but many can come after." (She joked when done, "Lots of typos in there. I'll have to email them. When you read something so quick after it comes out of the oven--") She hadn't known she would read it, but she talked to the audience about not having a set list, so to speak, but to feel out the folks in the room, see what felt right.
She told stories about the poems before reading the poems, and I confess, I am the sort of listener who adores that sort of thing. I much, much prefer a reading with a Q&A, an interview, extra gems of wisdom from the poet. I love listening to her voice (midway through the reading, I wrote in my notebook, after struggling, who she reminded me of when she read certain words: her voice! I finally realized who her register moves into! oh! finally--Sandra Bullock--which seems so strange, but there's also something of a fierce sweetheart in her too, so adored is she by this audience, a reason to feel huge fondness), so hearing her just read poems would have been perfect, gave me those shivers at those lines, but this was even more of a gift.
I wrote phrases as I heard them:
The skin can sew. Remember.
The accidental seam of the eye.
She told of a reading she had in Philadelphia where one woman in coat and snow boots waited until most were gone and approached her to say, "Hey. You write like a black woman who's never been hit before." She told us of how she used this moment as a springboard to imagine, combined with actual fact, the poem "The Girlfriend's Train" (the cuts on her resembling some kind of grotesque wallpaper) (our navels marking out some new equatorial line). She said to us, "I tell my students, sometimes a poem walks in the door; you just have to catch it."
She then explained the springboard of the poem "Hate", which came from an article she read in Jet that reported "Arthur Ravenal, Republican Senator from South Carolina, called the NAACP the "National Association for Retarded People" at a Confederate flag support rally. He later said, "I made a mistake and I feel very badly about it because I said retarded people and I have a retarded son." He added, "that does not mean I'm apologizing to the NAACP." She told her students, "I'm mad. But mad doesn't make a poem. It makes a rant. How do we write a poem that is worthy of reading? You can't go in the front door because the front door is on fire. So I go through the window." And she writes about this man's fatherhood--"How could he forget his son?"--and ends with the last lines, hate stops at nothing / not even / the sacred door / to a son's private room.
She read my favorite part of the Condoleezza Suite, told us she wrote nine of these poems, but only kept four, because it threatened taking over the whole book, and her last question from the audience was how she came to write about a Republican figure. She cited a Midwestern writer who said everything we know about life, we've learned by the time we are seven--about love, everything. And CR was taken out of "Bombingham" and transplanted to Denver by her parents, and she wasn't judging, but there CR was, playing Mozart, the only black woman in that auditorium, "as if everything she needed to learn was there." She was a great student of what her parents taught her.
What amazed me so much was how much these poems can live and spark on the page and when she reads them out loud, they boil and pop and are perfectly at home in either venue. I keep gushing, I know, but I honestly mean it when I say she's one of the best readers I've ever heard.
She told the story of the above acceptance speech, when Pate teasingly asked her if there was a blackout. She said her mother was there, all proud, introducing herself to every table and telling of her daughter ("who nobody knew, but she didn't care"), and the table she was at was way in the back, as a university press tends to get scooted to the rear, and when her name was called, her mother was so thrilled, she put her into a World Wrestling headlock (see last photo above of her illustrating in the story) and her father, with his cane, kept insisting to let her go up. (Watch the video. It's phe-nom-e-nal.) She quipped of how people who come to see her read haven't heard of her poetry, but know her from this acceptance speech, how she went to Finland and a woman came up to her after saying something about the speech to her in Finnish, tears streaming down her face.
She backed up a week and told us also of how she was talking to a friend and he asked if she'd written her acceptance speech and she said no and he said, "What, you don't take yourself seriously?" She tried to explain southern modesty and then--she had to let him go so she could work on that speech. And she did this by spending a day reading thirty acceptance speeches and realizing the best speeches talked about something larger than the work. And when she closed that internet window, she found herself looking at the South Carolina race codes, the laws that dictated slaves could not learn to read or write, or they would be fined or even killed, and how she'd gathered that information for an eighteen-year-old (student? relative?), and she knew, if you left yourself open, that those topics would come at the right time. We just have to be ready for them, and open, and not busying ourselves going to rich events and coming home to "watch MTV."
Another story she told was of Dr. Gails (sp?), an instructor of hers, who spotted her and her friends socializing on a wall, waiting for a dance and the teacher asked, "Nikky, have you read every book in the library?" No, she told her. "That library is open until midnight," she pointedly told her, and Finney went and read until midnight and she's spent her life still trying to read every book in the library. This teacher also sent her, writing the address down on a 3x5 card, to Toni Cade Bambara's house, saying "I was passed on," and when she arrived TCB said, "Oh, good, you're Nikky. I need a ride." And her mentorship began. There was a time when she was walking to the bus stop with Bambara and a man approached her saying, "You the writer lady?" Yes. "Well, can you help me and my wife?" They couldn't read, it turns out, and they wanted to apply to buy a house. Bambara said to come to her house on Saturday at four and she'd help them. And they got that house. And these were the lessons Bambara imparted on the young Finney who had "just wanted to write pretty."
She was asked about visual art's influence on her work, and she told how when she was 11/12 years old, she found a trunk of camera equipment in the family barn her uncle brought back from Viet Nam. She told of how she'd zoom in on the inside of a cow's ear or across a field to see her grandmother walking. And the lens she loves to use with her poetry is the fish eye because it blurs the edges and sharpens the subject. (Oh!)
She was asked by Pate about going home, and said she "became a woman in California, became a writer in Kentucky" (where she now teaches and has lived for 16, 18 years) "but South Carolina is home."
One question I really loved had to do with the politics of her book (asked by an audience member), because I thought the same thing when I read her book, how it was sharply political, taking from the abuses during Katrina and the oil spill, writing about Rosa Parks and Condoleezza Rice, and what she said surprised me, that she doesn't look at the book as (primarily) political, but is about what's been on her mind. She said it took her years to write the poem she read about her brother's wedding and Strom Thurmond arriving and dancing with all the women ("Dancing With Strom"), and brought us back to writing that speech, how she was present--reading a book about black inventions and how Africans brought the porch to North America, how that wove into the poem, and so many other things.
She prefers the process to the end result, she likes slow cooked poetry (as opposed to "microwave poetry," as Pate put it). She said it will take six, seven years to finish a book. She cited Milocz: "Poetry should save something." She said Milocz wrote a poem where he wanted to save the memory of his teacher's beehive hairdo. She had read a poem about a woman in New Orleans and told us, "I wanted to save Miss Mayree's voice." Here, she is, doing so and talking about it:
I look to my daughter, as I finish this post, and I think about what I want to save. My own work has slowly begun to turn outwards (See: "Two Women in Turquoise" another called "Getting the Daughter" about a transgender beauty pageant contestant coming out in So to Speak, another poem about the famine last summer in the Cape of Africa, these poems exploding and colliding in my mind), but very specifically with Maya in mind. And soon, with him, that sweet tadpole swishing around in my uterus. About the world we are bringing our children into, about what lessons I want to preserve and pass on. Because when your work turns public, as Finney's has, in such a big way, we are blessed to be witnesses to the events through her sharpened eyes. She is preserving the culture. I thought about that a lot on the drive home. I felt awfully lucky to have gone.
More information on:
The Givens Foundation | NOMMO | African-American & African Studies at the U of MN | Nikky Finney