Visiting Poets

Nikky Finney

Nikky Finney

Born to a civil rights attorney and a teacher in the small fishing and farming community of Conway, South Carolina, Nikky Finney has been writing for as long as she has memory. Her poems are powerful and warm, like her southern roots, and provide glimpses into the human adventures of birth, death, family, violence, sexuality, and relationship, exploring the soul of human community. They both highlight the constants we share and appeal for more compassion, reaching from the personal into the collective with equal measures of love and rage. Writes Walter Mosely, “She has flung me into an afterbirth of stars and made my stiff bones as loose as jelly.”

Exploring characters as diverse as Jacques Cousteau and Saartjie Baartman (the so-called Hottentot Venus), young women defined by violence and old women killing time in a thrift store, Finney “takes a leapfrog hop of the extraordinary over the commonplace,” writes Black Issues Book Review, as in the poem “Coda,” which examines the often violent encroachment on her close-knit family. As Caribbean poet Lorna Goodison noted, Finney “calls us to consider and value again the blessings found in community, the strong bonds of family and the transcendent and inexplicable ways of the spirit.”

Recipient of the Kentucky Foundation for Women Artists Fellowship Award , Finney is the author of Heartwood, a collection of stories, and three books of poems, On Wings Made of GauzeRice (winner of a PEN America Open Book Award), and The World is Round (winner of the 2004 Benjamin Franklin Award for Poetry). Most recently, she editied The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South, due from the University of Georgia Press this year.

Educated at Talladega College and Atlanta University, Finney is Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Kentucky and makes her home in Lexington. She’s also on the faculty at Cave Canem, the writer’s center for African-American poets, and a founding member of the Affrilachian Poets, “the coal black African voices of Appalacia,” as she says. During the academic year 2007-2008 Finney was Grace Hazard Conkling Writer-in-Residence at Smith.

Select Poems

Many a foot
was chopped
off an African highgrass runner
and made into
a cotton picking
plowing peg
was burned away into
two festering runaway sores
was beaten around
into a gentleman’s original
club-foot design

They went for our feet first
for what we needed most
to get ‘way

My papa’s feet
are bad
once under roof
his shoes are always
the first to go
a special size is needed
to fit around
ankle bones broken at birth

Sore feet
standing on freedom lines
weary feet
stomping up a southern dust bowl march
simple feets
wanting just the chance
(just one)
to Black Gulliver jump
a Kress lunch counter
or two
and do a Zulu    Watusi    Zootsuited
instead of a fallen archless
wait   wait   wait
for the time to come
Him wanted to put his feet up
and sip himself some

Papa, how you say you’ll take that coffee?
Oh Baby, just make it black and bitter like me.

My papa’s feet are bad
they beat our feet around with billy clubs
and by our raggedy feet
had hoped to drag us all away

Country corners
and city curbs is where
they hold my keepsakes
some of my brothers
who brush their I-talian skins off
on the backs
of steam-pressed
pants legs

Shoes first
they’ll tell you
shoes above all else
they’ll show you

If your black foot
ever wakes you up
in the night
wanting to talk about something
aching there
under the cover
out loud
for no apparent

There is reason

From RICE (Sister Vision Press, 1995)

For the man who jumped out in front of the woman with his
arm raised like a machete screaming Abomination! as she
walked the streets of San Francisco holding her lover’s hand
for the first time in public.
There is a woman who goes to sleep
every night wishing she had broken
your sternum reached up inside your
chest momentarily borrowing your
heart to hold before your screaming
face and with her other hand still
clutching her lover’s broke next into
her own sternum plucking next her
own heart dangling them both there
sterling silver sign language for you
tell me what is the difference.

From THE WORLD IS ROUND (Innerlight Publishing, 2003)

After being told, “Oh, what would you know
about it anyway.”

How the room rained down
a mother’s only blistering ash,
her words lifting then settling
clear and hot, then the branding
of me complete.

After she proclaimed
to the rest of the family
that whatever it is I do
with another woman
could never even-steven
to what she does with daddy.

As if my way to human pleasure
too inefficient to be called the same.
As if we who do with a woman
should find a new name
for the doing.

She, believing that my body
coming together with another
woman’s a fake freak of nature,
not sex or love and could never be.

The sermon of her looks
always the same.

How my pot of woman
is not worth its salt
because there is not the pepper
of a man there.

That, in order for any woman
to cook up a thing worth
sensually serving
a lid and seasoning
of a certain fit and taste
is required.

That what I offer to the diamond
and life of another woman, that
then streams up my two front
female spines, that branches off
into a desert orchid, that grows
into a family of complicated
spirally things in the middle
of any hot springs geyser night,
is not worth its weight in sweat.

As if what I know about pleasure
and the microscopic fittings of love,
about the filling of an appetite
that lives somewhere between
my cerebellum and my thigh tissue,
that runs like a southern railroad
trestle to my heart bone emptying
next into my lung sacs, as if that
tenderness which douses all the gates
of my body clean and wet like all
the steamed water and wind that
ever was in the world suddenly
let loose, as if what comes from
the zest and tongue of another
woman’s capsule to my own;
that intricate complicated vessel
of how and what we shape our
loving into, cannot be compared
to what she has felt between her
own gulf stream.

Mama, what appears shut sky
to you, is heaven opened wide
to me.

From THE WORLD IS ROUND (Innerlight Publishing, 2003)

Poetry Center Reading

Spring 2006
Fall 2007
Fall 2014