Nikky Finney was born in South Carolina, within listening distance of the sea. A child of activists, she came of age during the civil rights and Black Arts Movements. At Talladega College, nurtured by Hale Woodruff's Amistad murals, Finney began to understand the powerful synergy between art and history. Finney has authored four books of poetry: Head Off & Split (2011); The World Is Round (2003); Rice (1995); and On Wings Made of Gauze (1985). Professor of English and creative writing at the University of Kentucky, Finney also authored Heartwood (1997) edited The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South (2007), and co-founded the Affrilachian Poets. Finney's fourth book of poetry, Head Off & Split was awarded the 2011 National Book Award for poetry.
This interview with Nikky Finney about Head Off & Split was conducted during the summer of 2012 by five poets: Aaron Delee, Dan Fliegel, Dane Hamann, Anthony Opal, and C. Russell Price.
Q: As I was reading your collection of poems in Head Off & Split, I was struck by the image and sensation of bodies in motion. There was, of course, the motions of workers and customers at the fishmonger's market and dancers at the wedding, but there were also many instances of the act of running. These can be found in the Condoleezza poems, the poems mentioning Olympians Wilma Rudolph and Jesse Owens, in an epigraph to a poem, as well as many other examples of the narrator or other people running. Can you please address why running figures so strongly in many of these poems?
Nikky Finney: What a wonderful close observation. I've never been asked this before. I've never thought about this before. This is what I know. I have always paid very close attention to the human body. When I was a girl my mother would always say to me, "Don't be rude. Stop staring." But I couldn't help myself. I stared at people everywhere. Walking. Running. On bicycles. Leaning at the bus stop. Dancing. Preaching. I love the human body. I love how it works. I stare even when it doesn't work so well. It's beautiful then too. I love how the bones and muscles reset and work in new ways when it has to. I remember my first ever anatomy class in college and how I couldn't put my anatomy book down. On this very day there is a hardback Gray's Anatomy on my writing desk. Running is one of the most beautiful acts the body can achieve. I have no idea why so many people in this book are running. I can only tell you this: nothing is more beautiful than to see the human body this close to flight.
Nikky Finney: I don't call myself a minority writer. I call myself a Black woman writer. I always capitalize Black. I don't allow myself to be called a minority writer. I believe calling myself this or allowing myself to be called this is a part of the design that those in power have structured to always keep people - who have been marginalized in and by history - over there. I am not "over there." I am right here. I am full throttle. I am not a minority anything.
I am not small or minor. I am major. I will not be minimized or downsized or slipped into easy categories. I am a Black woman writer who is free to write about the entire world. Black people are everywhere all over the world. Words are so powerful. There is no fine line between "being exploitive and being honest" and telling my story. There is no comparison. Either you are telling the truth, as you honestly know and feel it or you are telling some truth that you think somebody wants you to tell - which by the way is not the truth. Does that make sense? There is no middle ground with this answer. You must remove all the editors from your shoulders when you write and write what you need to write. Regardless.
Q: Much of Head Off & Split is structurally interesting, in terms of both how the poems look on the page and how they work internally to themselves. This, in my opinion, displays attentiveness to the individual form of each poem - the individual life of each poem. Can you address your process of structuring a poem? Do you have a form in mind during the creative process or is it something that you sculpt later, after you've gotten the words onto the page? Also, how do you see the line functioning in Head off & Split?
Nikky Finney: I rarely have form in mind when I write. I have the words in mind. I have the feeling of something in mind. An image usually has me by the throat. I'm an incredibly visual person. I have to see it in 3D. Then it is my job to bring that dimension to the page. But I'm not initially visual with regard to the structure. I'm initially visual with regard to the people, places, and things that have begun to inhabit the poem and talk to me. The physical sculpting comes much later, once I feel confident that the people, places, and things will stay and hang around. Then the poem begins to speak to me. The poem begins to tell me what it needs and wants. I listen. I don't think there is one way in which "the line functions" in Head Off & Split. I can tell you I have never written a book in which I have ever been more aware of the line - than this one. But I feel this has more to do with the muscles of the poet rather than the muscles of the poem. Unlike the ballerina, whose knees go out at twenty-eight, I know so much more about what a line can do now - than I knew way back when.
Q: a. When I started to read "Dancing With Strom" and got to the line "My mother is dancing with Strom Thurmond," I first took it as a surreal image, a moment as strange as anything one could imagine. However, knowing your family history, specifically your father's position as Chief Justice in the South Carolina Supreme Court (which you reference a little later in the poem), I came to see that image as a possibly factual narrative moment. My first question is simple: Did that happen, and, if so, could you explain the circumstances and the tradition?
Nikky Finney: This is a true story. It was the wedding day of my youngest brother. We had just left the church and arrived at the reception. My brother's new wife was born in Edgefield, South Carolina. Edgefield, South Carolina, was also the home of Senator Strom Thurmond. Edgefield was where the reception was being held. Thurmond heard about the wedding and dropped by. There was no tradition. There was only this once-in-a-lifetime moment. Thurmond's driver pulled up in a long black car. Thurmond got out. I was standing way up high on a balcony looking down. He danced with all the women there. All of the women were Black women. One of them was my mother. It was quite a celebration. Weddings usually are. I was the only one standing around feeling that the moment was a scandalous one. I was the sister of the groom. I was also the poet standing there staring down, rudely staring at all the happy dancing human beings, the poet who could not help but bring her long memory to the dance.
Q: b. In other poems, you deal with other public figures and events (such as Condoleezza Rice, Hurricane Katrina, and former President Bush). Could you explain your process as it relates to the intersection of history (or current events) and poetic imagination? In other words, what liberties might you take and what responsibilities do you have? Additionally, was there any specific reason you chose to focus on such members of the Bush era as George W. Bush and Condolezza Rice, rather than Colin Powell and Dick Cheney?
Nikky Finney: I believe poets and artists must make their way into the political and public arena. I do not believe there is any place off limits to me as a writer. My poetic imagination lives and sleeps right beside my historical interests and scholarship. There are many different parts of me that have many daily conversations. I do not believe any of those conversations are taboo or off limits. I do believe it is my responsibility to make art and not some one-dimensional polemical tirade. As an artist something must be made and built that matters to the thinking mind and heart of humanity. I didn't choose Rice and Bush over Cheney and Powell. The Rice and Bush ideas came during several moments over many years while watching the nightly news. "Plunder" came as a result of watching George H. Bush's final State of the Nation address. The Condoleezza Rice poems came because I kept wondering who might she really be beneath that beautiful gapped tooth smile. We were both southern Black girls whose individual lives were shaped mightily by the 1950's and 60's Civil Rights legislation. I wanted to know more about our similarities and our differences so I started scribbling. I had no idea where I would end up.
Q: I understand "Plunder" to be a sonnet crown. However, the sonnets in "Plunder" obviously don't adhere to the strict confines of traditional sonnet forms. What is your interpretation of the essence of the sonnet? What elements must be present in a poem in order for it to be considered a sonnet? How do you think about form when you write, both generally and with this poem specifically?
Nikky Finney: The stanzas in "Plunder" do not strictly adhere to the traditional sonnet form. My tenth grade English teacher once told me "Miss Finney, you learn the rules first, then you break them." She changed my life when she taught me this. I was never very good at following the rules. So this understanding has always worked for me. I don't write a lot in traditional form. But the older I get I love using different traditional forms to journey deeper into new ways of saying. This is what happened in Plunder. The first fifty drafts were anything but 14 line stanzas. But once I had the story down then I needed something to help me organize and shape the material. So thinking about it as a sonnet really helped me cut some things out and keep other things and repeat what had to be repeated.
Q: Head Off & Split is dedicated to Lucille Clifton. Could you discuss her influence (and that of others) upon your poetics?
Nikky Finney: Without Lucille Clifton there would be no Head Off & Split. There is no poet whose body of work has made more of an impression on me, whose own poetic breath shaped me. None. There is no human being who gave me more permission to write the kind of work that mattered to me - None. Her honesty was immense. Her fearlessness is still present in the world. Because she was so much herself, and not someone else, not someone she was taught or told to be, I feel her here on the planet every single day. One hundred years from now we will call her name just like we call Zora Neale Hurston's name, and we will surely wonder why we did not love her louder, longer, more, when she was here with us.
Q: Two of my favorite poems from the collection are "Resurrection of the Errand Girl: An Introduction" and "Liberty Street Seafood," and I am intrigued by the motif of fish markets and fish cleaning that give the collection its title. It brought to mind for me a comparison with the motifs of digging/unearthing and farming in Seamus Heaney's work. While I don't want to ask you to "explain" this rich metaphor, I wonder if you might discuss how you discovered it and how you view it now, looking back at the collection, including how "head off and split" relates to the poet and the self.
Nikky Finney: Seven or so years ago I was driving home to South Carolina to see my parents. I called my mom as I got closer to her front door. It was a Friday. We are a family who likes to eat fish on Fridays. Mama asked me to stop and pick up some fish from the fish market. Of course, I said. Buying fish on a Friday in my hometown is tradition. Going to the fish market was something I had done since I was a little girl sent there as the errand girl. I had stood there in the fish market hundreds of times before. But this time when I handed the fishmonger my fish and he asked me what he had asked me hundreds of times before, "head off and split?" I heard it as a poet and not as the errand girl. This is one of the many beauties of poetry. One of the many amazing things about writing across a lifetime.
Q: What involvement (if any) did you have in choosing the cover image. The connection with the title of book is obvious; though is there anything else you can share about the cover image, or the title? Can you also elaborate on the connection between the collection's title and the section titles within.
Nikky Finney: I had no involvement in choosing the cover image. I was stupefied when I saw the cover. The art director hit this one out of the park. There was the fish wrapped in the history of the daily news. So many of the ideas that I wanted to explore in the poems had come from the newspaper itself. It was simply a brilliant move on the artist's part. I still find this cover quite stunning. The section titles were almost the last thing to be put into place. I remember working so hard on them. I kept reading and re-reading through the poems to study images and theme. I wanted to know which poems were speaking to each other? Which poem had a thread in another poem? Which poem had insinuated another poem into existence? Which poem needed another poem close by in order to be complete? I had to tape them up on the wall all up and down the stairs to be sure. I had to sit underneath them and stare up at them, physically, to be sure.
Q: Many of the poems in Head Off & Split include bits of information derived from historical or personal experiences. What is your writing process when you create poems that utilize pieces of historical narrative? Do you find that you must research a lot beforehand as a preliminary phase or do you have an idea of what poem is supposed to be like and search for the appropriate facts then?
Nikky Finney: I do sometimes search for appropriate facts when I am writing something and I know I want to be historically accurate. Example: If I say Condoleezza Rice lived at the Watergate Apartments. I want to be right about this. If I say she got up at 4 am to work out then I want to get that right. I don't want to say 2 a.m. But for the most part I love the unknown diving in that I often associate with research. I love finding out all the things that I don't know. I love submerging myself in information and watching and feeling certain things attach themselves to me and to the idea that has brought me to it. I am a writer who keeps writing not because of what I know but because of what I don't know - because of the sweet surprise that research always brings.
Q: What difficulty do you face in writing about "everyday people" vs. celebrities? Do you contact them before/after writing/publication? How much research goes into these poems as opposed to how much is imagined?
Nikky Finney: I experience no difficulty. Integrity should be on the tip of your pencil no matter who or what you are exploring.
Q: What is your advice to young writers wanting to explore race in their poetry? I'm afraid of coming off Tony Hoaglandesque at times but also afraid of not honestly addressing the subject of race as a young, white, gay man.
NIKKY FINNEY: We live in country that is terrified to talk about race. We've elected a Black President who talked about it brilliantly as a candidate but hasn't brought it up since. Terrified. I believe it, like all complicated and difficult subjects, requires honesty and humility, but mostly courage. I would encourage you to read other writers who perhaps have done it well. Have you read Wendell Berry's take on race. A beautiful book of essays called The Hidden Wound. Tony Hoagland does not have to be your standard. Stretch out. What about Studs Terkel? Be gentle but firm with yourself. Be willing to say the hard thing but also willing to admit that you are not the expert just a voice wanting to come out of the wilderness.