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Nikky Finney

Visiting Poet

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)

About Nikky

Poetry Center Reading Dates: April 2006, October 2007, October 2014