David Naimon: Welcome to Between the Covers, Nikky Finney.
Nikky Finney: Thank you, David.
DN: The first thing we encounter when we open your new collection is a photograph of your Uncle Bobby and a dedication to him. I think one of the pleasures of this for long time readers of your work is that we aren’t meeting your uncle for the first time. If we’ve read your work before, we know the lives and stories of not only your uncle but of your parents, of your grandparents, a family of what you’ve called Southern North American Africans. Your loved ones sort of become mythical figures or mythic figures in the imagination of the reader I think. There’s a certain pleasure in meeting them again book-to-book. I know you write about family that are both alive and family that have passed on, but something struck me about a recent conversation you had with Ross Gay where you said that for you, the dead are living. I wanted to start by talking about your poetry as an engagement with both living family and with ancestors as a central subject if you could speak to that for us.
NF: I wasn’t quite sure how to become a poet back in the back day when I was walking around with poetry books in one back pocket and books on paleontology in the other back pocket learning poems by heart, listening to Langston Hughes, reading Gwendolyn Brooks in Jet Magazine or Black World. I didn’t even know if that was possible but I did know I loved words, I did know that I came from people who told the most amazing stories about struggle, about love, about never giving up. These were stories that lived at the dining room table, lived over the steam at the stove. I was all ears. My ancestors, the ones that had names, were always in the room. The others, who did not have names, I began to think about as I got older. As I got older, I also wanted to know the history that I knew I was not being taught in school. At some point, I was fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, I did not know the word ‘autodidactic’ but I started learning things on my own and started putting together the patchwork that would become the carpet that I am still riding on and still braiding, fixing, and patching up some forty or fifty years later. I immediately came to understand once I read the history, once I put the history around me like a cloak, I knew that no one could take it from me and I knew that I was changing, I could feel it. When you read about kings and queens and people who loved math and invented mathematical things, and then if you come forward, people who had patents for things that we use in American society, no one told me that an African-American person had made that, so I had to become captain of my own ship and sail it. One of the things that I believed, from the very beginning, that those ancestors whose names I did not know, those ancestors who had to change their names when they were dragged ashore to America and they had to take the names of the so-called masters and people who thought they owned them, I knew that those folks always remembered their names and I wanted to always remember them going forward. My foundation has always and will always be addressing their presence in my life, their presence in my community’s life, and their presence in this country’s life. I always said, if no one pays attention to this, I will pay attention to it and I will say this with every book I write, with every poem, it would be interspersed, intertwined, woven in because I feel like millions of kind, tender-hearted, brilliant people have been forgotten and so I always think of them.
DN: I wanted to read something that Kwame Dawes says about one of your early books, “Rice,” and ask you a further question about how you place yourself in relationship to others. He said, “The Western tradition of the past two hundred years has entailed the gradual dismantling of the notion of artist as priest, as voice that finds context and place among the hearers. The poet has been allowed to cloister his/her little self in closets and dusty drawers, therein to write secret tales about the self, only to die with them in boxes. Later they are found by others who published them and own them—and Gerard Manley Hopkins and Emily Dickinson—what pitiable souls who had no chance to sing to their community, to truthfully bare their hearts and souls and thus become the voice of their community—their village—while still living! What a poet like Nikky Finney does is to reinstate the concept of the poet as a griot—as priest, not void of subjectivity and a private self but able to contain the voices of the community—virtually empowered with the gift to develop a soul for the people.” This was written a quarter of a century ago. To me as a reader, it feels like it rings true more than ever about your work but I wondered if it rang true to you and if it did, maybe you could speak to this notion of poet as griot, of singing to one’s community, of placing an individual life within a stream of lives.
NF: There have been so many times in my life when I have not known how exactly to do something. I mentioned before wanting to follow poetry out if that was possible, wanting to not even saying that I wanted to become a poet, just wanted to follow poetry out and where would it take me. Because there was no path for ready-made because people kept saying, “Oh, that’s really cute what you’re doing over there with that pencil but one day, you will get a real job and you’ll find your real path,” I would whisper to myself trying to be respectful to those kind people, “This is my job. I will hold on to this. This is what I want to do.” When I was nine, ten, or twelve, in my community, something of merit happened or was about to happen because I had that pencil in my ear and that little tiny notebook in my back pocket, people who I had great respect for, people who did things, people who built houses, people who would string electric wires through a house and bring lights, people who were nurses, people who were teachers, I saw those people that I had great adoration for doing what they did in the world. I took the same feeling and responsibility to words—privately, of course, because this was nothing to boast about. Because those folks around me were so good at what they did so quietly, it wasn’t Nightly News what they did, they were just doing their work in the world, I wanted to do my work in the world and I decided my work in the world would be with words. They would ask me, once they saw how serious I was, to write a poem for that occasion, write a poem for Emmanuel Methodist Church turning fifty years old, “Can you do that?” they would say. I would say, “Yes, I’ll work on that.” “And can you write a poem for Mrs. Robinson’s birthday? She’ll be ninety next month. We’d like a poem.” When people who you respect ask you to do something for a moment in the community, then you become known for that thing. I didn’t set out to become that quote that you read from Kwame, then twenty-five years ago, and now makes me so still because the griot is the heartbeat, is the memory, is the long memory, is the thing that keeps the community alive when the people die. It’s like the most cherished thing you could ever, in my life, call me. When I read that, way back then, I couldn’t speak with him for a long time because Kwame does not use words he does not mean. I knew that much and I think you’re right, I think that I was living to do that. I think that I was reaching to do that, and I don’t even know how he wrote those words twenty-five years ago, but I feel like when somebody like Kwame Dawes write something like that for you, then you live into it even if you aren’t in it yet, you say, “Yes, that’s where I want to stand. That is where I’m going.” It was so directional for me twenty-five years ago. It remains directional for me. I’m quieted in a way because it’s one of the most sacred things that has ever been written about my work and about me. Other than my great respect for my history and for the people whose faces passed through my eyes, my mind, and my heart with no name who were here before me, on whose shoulders I stand and on whose path I continue to walk, I am honored to be thought of as a griot. I hope it’s true. It’s not a thing that makes your head big, it’s something that makes your steps more sure.
DN: Could we hear the opening poem to the collection Auction Block of Negro Weather?
[Nikky Finney reads a poem called Auction Block of Negro Weather]
DN: We’ve been listening to Nikky Finney read the opening poem of her new collection Love Child’s Hotbed of Occasional Poetry. Before this opening poem, it is immediately clear that we’re not in a conventional poetry collection. We open with the photo of and dedication to your uncle, then there’s an epigraph by Langston Hughes, then the table of contents, an introduction, an orientation to occasional poems and hotbeds, acknowledgments—not in the back of the book, but right up front—then a handwritten note from your father, a woodcut by Valerie Maynard, two more epigraphs—one from Emerson and another from Sandra Bland—and then a photograph that you found in an antique shop, the title page, the image of a box from the Central African Kingdom of Kuba, and then the opening poem we just heard. I was hoping maybe you could talk to us a little about the way you’re juxtaposing artifacts from your family, historical artifacts, found artifacts, your own words alongside the words of all these others before we arrived at this poem that you just read.
NF: David, you ask really, really good questions. [laughter] I just want to say, I’ve been talking about this book for a year and no one has asked me that, just coming-out party for it. I think people are intimidated by the nonlinear—well, not everybody, of course—but I think this was one of the concerns that the publisher had that they wanted it to be as accessible and easy to enter and I wasn’t really concerned about that. I really wanted people to begin wherever they opened the book. One of the treasures that I have found in the last two or three months is getting notes and text messages from people who know me and don’t know me and have the book. They open the book and they begin to read wherever they open the book. I think that is just amazing. I hope that something like that will happen. Some people would even go back and forth and then they start the second time through by beginning at the beginning and going through now that they have some orientation. But I did not want you to be lost when you began to enter this book. I wanted you to be curious. I wanted the reader to be curious. I wanted the reader to bite down on something that was in the human family and continue to turn the page. Uncle Bobby is so critical at the beginning of this book. There’s a picture of him holding up a doll and it’s not the doll, my Uncle Bobby was supposed to go and fight in Vietnam and he became a conscientious objector. His objection was, “I do not want to kill another human being for a war that I don’t feel is right,” and so his punishment was to go and work for community business and he chose a black doll factory in Los Angeles in 1967-1968. Because of that, he sent me one of the first dolls he ever made, it came off the assembly line. I was a girl in the south and I had only seen white dolls in my young life, and to hold that black doll with that afro hair and chocolate skin and smile was transformative. It was the moment where I began to say, “Oh, I didn’t know you could do that. Let me check this out.” If you can do that, if you can make a black doll look like me or my friends, then you can do anything. The covers were off what could be done in the world. Uncle Bobby was also gay, he was also a photographer, he fought for human rights with the ACLU in Los Angeles. He was vividly alive in my young imagination. He was vividly passionate about the things he was passionate about. I loved him as an uncle, he was so tender and present and I wanted to thank him by putting him at the beginning of this book for all the things he taught me in the short while he was here. He begins the book; he had to. I knew that when I was working on it. Then I found this amazing quote by Langston Hughes talking about he’s going to lay off political poetry for a while, and I thought this was almost funny and he starts talking about “Since the world situation, methinks, is too complicated for so simple an art. So I’m going back (indeed have gone) to nature, Negroes, and love.” I stood up because I thought [laughter] that’s what this book is about, I couldn’t believe I had found this. I was actually reading a biography on him and it was the best biography I’d ever read by him and that quote was inside. It was a quote I had never seen before. My life is always like this, I ask the universe, “Help me figure this out. I’m not sure I’m going in the right direction. Am I going in the right direction?” and then something will come along to stamp quietly without a lot of fanfare. If I’m listening in the right way, it says to me, “Keep going.” That’s what that quote did. I’m an avid reader of everything. I love research back to the autodidactic nature of myself and my early life. I knew the quote by Emerson and I always had it written in my epigraph book. Then I saw the quote by Sandra Bland and I thought, “What if these were facing each other? They’re like hundred-and-forty years apart exactly.” I’m making a collage, I’m thinking about the intersectionality of human beings. We live in this world where everybody wants to separate us and make us different skin colors, different humanity, different brain sizes, and I’m like, “That is so not how I see human beings.” We’ve allowed the voices, the louder voices in our world to convince us that we belong in that circle and you belong in that circle and never the two shall mix. I’m just furious with that conception of my humanity of human beings and so I fight against it every time I write anything. As I was telling the editor, I wanted Emerson and Sandra Bland to look at each other in perpetuity in this book because I feel like Emerson saying, “The sugar they raised was excellent: nobody tasted blood in it,” had everything to do with “Good morning, my beautiful kings and queens,” which was Sandra Bland’s quote. I think in two things and I don’t want to explain it. The publisher always wants to say, “Do you want to talk about that a little bit on a credit page?” “No, I don’t.” I want a human being to read that and know that it’s intentional and maybe they can find their way, just like you did with that question, to the heart of it. This is a slow book. At first, when I realized the ten readings that I was about to do after the launch were canceled, I didn’t panic, I didn’t get anxious. I felt like this book has thick-long legs. I feel like it could walk across the waters of this virus, of this pandemic, of this self-isolation time and still get to the other side of the bank. I still believe that. I thought, in the meantime, people, potentially, will pick this up, and because we are home, because the clock has changed a little bit and it slowed us down, that is what, perhaps, is needed at this moment to read this in the right way. If we were fast-paced and still going around the track like we have been doing for a long, long time, maybe you would miss something. There are so many things embedded in this book that begin in the beginning with those things that you so beautifully pointed out before you get to the poem, before you get to the hotbeds, and before you get to the occasional poem. I am setting up the visual, I am setting up the figurative, my love for the figurative and my love for the visual, and I am setting up the expectation that there’s no typical thing about anything about this book and I want you to know that as soon as you open the first page. I want you to trust your eyes, trust your own indicators. I met [Timothy Avett] on a plane from Massachusetts to Atlanta, and I loved sitting down on a plane, or I used to—I haven’t been on a plane in a long time, but I used to sit down on a plane—and if there was a stranger who smiled at me, I knew that we’re going to have a good conversation. By the time the plane landed, [Timothy Avett] had told me fifty things that I wanted to scribble down in my hotbed notebook because I knew they were worthy of more thought. One of the things I scribbled down was “Before the age of propellers, blue whales could communicate pole-to-pole. Now, they can’t hear each other.”
DN: I want to take what you’ve just said and move in a counter direction from it because there’s another element, we have this nonlinear element, the juxtaposition of image, text, and different images from different points in history and different voices in conversation with each other from different points in history including your own voice. But we also have, which runs throughout all of your work, this sense of story and the sense of narrative. I was recently listening to your editor, Parneshia Jones, on The VS podcast, Danez Smith and Franny Choi’s poetry podcast and she was saying that for her as a poet, it’s not about the book, it’s not about the page but rather, it’s about getting back to the old-fashioned, getting back to sitting on the porch, to saying what you mean and the passing the stories on that have been told on this porch. Later, in the same conversation, she says that everything about one’s family is buried under the porch where this is happening.
DN: I thought of this because I think both of you, as poets, are using story and using narrative in a strong way in your work and I wondered if you could speak to story in relation to poetry for you. Because it does feel like while you are doing all of these things that you mentioned—and you could enter the book at any point—that there’s also a way in which there’s a story in the way that you’ve arranged the pieces. Even the visual pieces, to me, feel like I can sense the movement of your mind, heart as you assemble them into something that feels story-like.
NF: I want us to understand when you read this very special book that I am not special. I want young poets, older poets, readers, carpenters, plumbers, anybody, to understand that it sounds so cliche. It’s not that everybody has a story, it’s that all those stories are valuable. I felt that way back when I was uncovering African history and African-American history. I was like, “Whoa! This man invented the thing that changed the railroad. Wait a minute, this black woman invented the first security alarm for houses. How come we don’t know this?” Everybody’s story matters and you don’t have to invent something for that to be true. What that does, when you understand the power of that, makes you less likely to not like yourself. It makes you less likely to feel inferior to someone else. If your story has value in the world in which you live, your shoulders go back a bit. If the other person looking at you understands that also, they might not get in their truck and follow behind you with a shotgun when you are jogging through a community. Everybody’s story matters. I believe what Kwame was talking about, in terms of griot, comes out of my beloved stance about storytelling. I learned history by listening to the stories at the dinner table. We had to be in place at six o’clock at my mother’s and father’s dinner table. We ran through the streets to make sure we got there. You had to be there not because you thought you were going to hear a story but because that was the time in the day we could put our eyes on each other. My father could see we were still in one piece, we had not blown up anything, or gotten hit. He had to check us out. In the interim, there were also stories told. When you know what you come from, when you know who you come from, that’s a part of you. If I didn’t know those stories, I would not be the poet that I am, I would not care about stories. There are stories that we’re told at that table with my two brothers there they have no memory of. What makes one child remember the stories told at the table and another child have no memory? I don’t know. I do know my mother called me her sensitive child—and that wasn’t a nice term, that was “you’re too sensitive, you’re sensitive about everything,” and yet as I got older, one of the things I remembered, figured out, and protected was I became a poet because of that sensitivity. I’m not special and people who tell stories are everywhere. When this book came out, we had a virtual launch. I had a friend that I’ve known for twenty years call me after the virtual launch and she said, “Nikky, those letters your father wrote to you, my father wrote me letters too. I didn’t keep them but I remember them. He always put a note in a greasy cheeseburger bag or he would put a note on my mirror before I went to school. There were little handwritten things.” She started citing them by memory. She was like, “I just wish I kept them.” I said, “Just because I kept them doesn’t mean you had to keep them. What you kept, clearly, is the feeling they brought you. What you kept, clearly, by heart, is what he said to you.” But she hadn’t thought about that in thirty years. One of the things I hope this book would do would let people know how that ephemera, how those things that we threw away or that stuck in a desk, or on the back of a letter, those are our stories, that’s how we got here, that’s how we went left instead of right, went two blocks up and made that turn. I’m so curious about that in a very unscientific way but in a humanitarian, holistic [way]. I don’t think we’re caring enough about that, I think we’re so caring about the outer world and what we put on. But this book is about the interior of us. It’s the interior of me for sure, but it’s not the interior of me, as Kwame was saying, somebody over in a corner. No, this is me out in the world, living, becoming, growing into the poet and storyteller that I want so badly to become.
DN: Even though the collections dedicated to your uncle, it does feel like one of the main stories of the book is the love between you and your father and you mentioned that. We get the story from the time you’re a young girl until his death, and frequently throughout the book, we get these amazing handwritten notes, letters, and post-its that he wrote to you that your friend wished she had kept with her own father and they’re remarkable. I was hoping you could talk to us about your dad, paint for us the father you knew but also the father out in the world who was a remarkable person out in the world as well.
NF: My father saw me, he saw me and he named me Love Child. That was his private name for me off the record. It was what he whispered to me when he was close. It was what he wrote when he wrote his letters, “Dear, Love Child,” and for the longest, I could not figure out what that was for. It was sweet, but as I got older, I realized, “Oh, my goodness! It wasn’t just sweet, he wanted me to know what I had come from.” He knew that I would be entering a world where black girls were named many things that were not true and he did not want me to lose my place so he called me that in his private breath and it stamped me. I knew I had come from love, I knew he loved me, I knew that there was nothing I could say to him that would push him out of my life or make us lose our connection. When I saw his handwriting on the front of the book, that’s his handwriting on the cover. The art director got a special call for me, she surprised me with that, she was so affected by the emotion between us, she said his handwriting should be on the cover of the book and so she superimposed from one of the letters to the cover. My dad lost his mother in childbirth. On March 23rd, which was my father’s birthday, a white doctor was called to the farm in Virginia—and this is in another poem that I have in Rice, “The Afterbirth, 1931”—and my family did not know that he was drunk, they smelled a little alcohol on him and because—this is the way the story goes, speaking of story—they had called him out to the farm, he had come in the door smelling like a little bit of alcohol but he seemed to be okay. He delivered my father, he delivered him in a very hard way. He broke his foot during the delivery. Also, the doctor left the afterbirth inside my grandmother and nobody knew that because he was the only one in the room during the birth. Nine days later, my grandmother died of gangrene and my father never got to meet her. I look just like Mama Colleen, his mother, and we have two pictures of her. That began, probably, a part of our connection, and then the rest was emotional. I was his only daughter and we were inseparable. He was a tender-hearted loving father in a world where black men were not seen as tender-hearted, loving, or even a father; they weren’t available, they weren’t home, they were something else. That was him at home. He was overprotective of us because of what happened to his mother. There’s one part in the book where I talked about when he gave me the keys to the car and I drove to New York one day. One weekend, the family was going up and every hundred miles, he would say, “Are you okay?” I was seventeen, I was like, “Yes, Daddy, I’m fine.” But I didn’t understand, back to the intersectionality of our lives, he was such a good father; because he didn’t know his mom, because he wanted to be a good father, he wanted to prove to his mother that he could be a good father even without her having raised him. I didn’t know all that was going on at the time. At home, that’s who he was but also out in the world, he cared so much about black people, civil rights, and human rights. My father was recruited out of his law class in 1953 when all of the schools in South Carolina were segregated. He passed the bar and he waited tables for white lawyers for a year until the segregation laws changed and integration happened. He put up his shingle and started practicing law. They recruited him from one tiny small town in South Carolina to Sumter South Carolina. This was the Civil Rights melting pot at the time. They knew that young black people would be going to jail and so Daddy came as a twenty-five, twenty-six-year-old to Sumpter to get college students out of jail who were protesting the injustices in South Carolina. He became well-known for that. He also became very well-known for bringing white people and black people who typically were not speaking to each other into the same room for conversations that he felt we all needed to have. He moved up the ranks from a civil rights attorney to a circuit judge, to the Supreme Court, to the Chief Justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court, the first black chief justice. There was a poem that I read for that investiture that I looked over. I’d never seen my father cry before and I’m watching him and there’s a video where we’re both crying. He had this dual life; he was an amazing father but he was also protective of the human rights, civil rights, and humanity of people in South Carolina. He was the lone dissenter against the death penalty in South Carolina in 1973 when everybody else was just like, “No, if you kill somebody, you got to die.” He would get at the microphone and say, “I am not God. That is not the decision that I believe we should be making,” and he made it by himself, he would stand there by himself and I watched him. I learned a lot about when you believe something so passionately, how you really can stand there by yourself and speak. He was a great guy. Then in 2013, we got the first signs that his mind was changing and I knew I wanted to come home and help my mom take care of him. I left Kentucky and applied for a job at the University of South Carolina and came home. I had five years with my father as an adult, not as a kid, not as a child, but as an adult. What happens is if we live long enough, the roles change and you start taking care of your dad. I was just honored to be with him in those days and beside my mom. I put the book on hold because I knew that I was writing about him but I had no idea how it would all come to be. It wasn’t until after he passed on December 3rd, 2017, that I began to have the mental space and emotional space to sit with the things I had scribbled as hotbeds, the occasional poems that were waiting on me to do something with. I began to see the architecture of this book forming around his great spirit, his great love, and his name for me that he had given me fifty years before.
DN: Like I said at the beginning, there was the pleasure in encountering your uncle again if we’ve read your other books, the circularity and the porousness between your different works. Similarly, you mentioned the story of your paternal grandmother at one point in Love Child, we’re at the deathbed with you of your other grandmother, and I couldn’t help but think of this story that you just shared of your father’s mother when we’re there even though it’s not stated or I don’t remember if it’s stated in this collection, but the memory reoccurs. We have a memory of your own family history from your past work as we’re with you, it feels almost magical to me. I want to take something about your dad connected to what we were talking before about image and text and non-linearity and story because you have these powerful juxtapositions of artifacts with your prose and poetry in the book. One of them is the poem about George Stinney, perhaps, the longest poem in the book. It’s a book ended by George’s mugshots on one side and then on the other side, a mixed-media collage that was made by you entitled “Daddy Stands Alone Against the Death Penalty with the Help of His Six-Year-Old Self and Auntie.” Then there are these obvious resonances by this juxtaposition that your father was an outspoken advocate for the abolition of the death penalty and the scenario of George Stinney, which I hope you’ll share with us. But there’s also these uncanny resonances between George Stinney and your father and your experience of going to the court seventy years later when the Stinney family is appealing for acknowledgement of the mistakes made in the justice system. I was hoping maybe you could share the story of George Stinney and how it intersects both with your father, in one way, but then your father in you in another decades later.
NF: In 1944, in Sumter South Carolina, which is where I was raised—not where I was born but where I moved when I was four when Daddy was recruited to that small civil rights rich town—in 1944, so that would have been maybe eleven, twelve years before that a young-black boy, fourteen years of age, was at his home and he was arrested for the killing of two white girls who had been out looking for Maypops, which is a fruit in the south, the day before. Their bodies had been found and somebody had pointed the finger at George J. Stinney Jr. as the killer. He was arrested, he was taken to jail. It’s a very long story and the poem is a very long recounting of a lot of the facts of that. There was no evidence that George had done this at all and yet because he was black and because of the times a lynch mob had met outside of the courthouse outside of the jail and were chanting and pushing this forward, a ten-minute jury conversation found him guilty and he was taken from the courthouse to the jail. He was given an execution sentence of, I believe, thirty days later. When it came to take him out of the jail, he had a Bible in his hand and he was walked to the electric chair with that Bible, not to read it but because he was so little, he was so small—it’s hard to even say—but that he was made to sit on the Bible so that the hat that had the electrodes, the metal hat would fit on his head and his feet were hardly touching the floor. The 2400 volts of electricity did not kill him immediately because probably, the hat and the electrodes on his legs didn’t fit well because this was a chair made for men, made for an adult, and he was a fourteen-year-old, ninety-pound boy, and so they had to give him two volts, two jolts of this electricity to properly “kill” him. After that, his family stated that he was unrecognizable. George J. Stinney Jr. was fourteen and he was the youngest human being ever killed in the United States of America. This was a boy who grew up in the same town I grew up in. This was a boy who wanted to be an artist. He would take pencils and paper and draw airplanes and cars with those big fins on it. That was what he spent his time doing when he wasn’t in school. He also had a cow that he had to take care of out in the backyard because the cow provided milk and sustenance for his family. My father and George J. Stinney Jr. were about the same age. My father was living in Virginia at the time and when he heard he was going to South Carolina, my grandfather had gotten a job as the Dean of one of the historically black schools in South Carolina and so he was leaving Baltimore and going South, all his friends teased him and told him he was about to be lynched. My father had great fear coming south as a boy even though, maybe, he didn’t know George J. Stinney’s name personally but word had gotten out that this is how young black boys were treated in the south. The difference between—as the poem tries to navigate—George J. Stinney Jr.’s family was illiterate, they had very little except that cow, my father’s father had a bit more, they had a car, and they came into town in that car. I make suggestions in the poem about though they were two black boys in the South around the same time, that we often don’t spend enough time looking at what happens to people who have so little and what happens to people who have so much more. Here is my father, and this was the really hard thing about weighing this, in the courtroom when we returned to the courtroom seventy years later, I am facing a portrait of my father that has been hanging there for twenty years as the first black circuit court judge in South Carolina, I’m facing him as I’m writing notes from the trial. My brother is the solicitor in this case, he is against the George Stinney defense table. So black people have come into the jobs that white people only had back in 1943, but the law hasn’t changed. My point is the law is still against those who have so little. The law hasn’t changed much and one of the things my father and I used to battle about in the sweetest way was I would say, “Daddy, the law is not fair,” and he would say, “Baby, the law works,” and so we would go back and forth, me and my poet’s hat, he with his law degree, and we would have these conversations about the law. This story is a very important one for me having grown up in Sumter, me having grown up the daughter of the man who fought against the death penalty in South Carolina with such passion and verve, me looking at George Stinney Jr. dead at fourteen and my father coming into the state to become what he becomes. The world is round and I wanted to juxtapose these two young hearts and minds and let it make us look at the inequities that still exist in our society and the things that can happen to some of us who have so little and those of us who have so much more can rise in a different kind of way. There are no answers there, there are just questions, I hope. The very long poem, I hope I’ll be able to read it to an audience and have some discussion one day. I read it to the University of Arizona audience two days after finishing it and it’s a lot different poem than it was then but it’s a poem that matters greatly to me. One of the things—and I’ll just say this—I looked at the arrest report of George J. Stinney Jr. When he was arrested, the person checking him into the jail said he’s ninety-five pounds and he has maroon eyes. I said to myself, “Maroon eyes? What is maroon eyes? What fourteen-year-old boy has maroon eyes? He’s making him out to be a monster from the moment he walks into the jail.” Repetition is holy and so the repetition of maroon eyes happens in the poem quite a bit because I want to deposit in the reader’s mind how the state of South Carolina saw George Stinney Jr. at fourteen, not as a boy, not as a boy who loved to draw, not as a boy who had a future, but really as a monster and he was anything but that.
DN: In case you just tuned in, we’re talking today to the poet, Nikky Finney, about her collection Love Child’s Hotbed of Occasional Poetry. Could we hear one of the hotbeds? I was hoping maybe we could hear Hotbed 7.
[Nikky Finney reads Hotbed 7 from her poetry collection, Love Child’s Hotbed of Occasional Poetry]
DN: We’ve been listening to Poet Nikky Finney read from her latest poetry collection, Love Child’s Hotbed of Occasional Poetry. In your national book award acceptance speech, you do something similar to what you do in this collection in terms of positioning yourself as a poet within a family history which rests within a larger history of a country and of a people. You open with the slave codes of South Carolina in 1739. You connect your winning this award for poetry through your family’s own history that where you grew up, there were no bookstores and the library was segregated and you end your speech for this writing award with the statement that black people were the only people in the US ever explicitly forbidden to become literate. One thing that I’ve noticed through all of your work is an interest in the origins of words, in their etymologies, in what is being said beyond the surface meaning of the word. In past collections, you’ve teased apart the meaning of words like “thresh” and “pluck” and in this one, you look at the word “occasion” and also at the word “hotbed”. The book is peppered with hotbeds like the one you just read. I was hoping maybe you could tell us what a hotbed is for you and why you choose this term for these works in particular.
NF: I’ve been keeping a journal, I’ve been keeping up with words since I was nine or ten. I’ve been devoted to having a place for keeping words that I want to revisit since I was nine or ten. I guess you could call these journal books, they have lots of different titles and names on the front of them. Some of them just have epigraphs as an epigraph book, quotes from other people that I want to use later in my life or with a work that I don’t know that I’m going to work on but the words resonate so deeply inside me. I want to save them, protect them, keep them, plant them in the bed of something, hoping they might grow longer, stronger, taller. One of the things that coming to know words has done for me is make me recognize the narrow way so many people use words. Words are root systems, there’s a root system there and so when I discovered the etymology of words, it was like it’s always Christmas morning, it’s always a birthday for me when that happens because I think the world really uses this in one way but there’s a poem I have in the book “Rice” where my uncle Freddie used to say, “You’re all slaves,” and immediately, he would say that to a group of family members—and if you lived in this world, if you live in America, you would think, “Oh, he’s talking about the slaves, the enslavement of African people,” no, he meant you’re a slave to things you cannot do without, you’re a slave to capitalism, you always got to have the newest hat, and that is what that does for me. It flips the script. It makes us dive deeper into who we are and how we got here. If we would just look at how we use words and how we don’t use the first definition, we use the easiest definition, it would tell us so much about our society and how much we miss about getting to know each other. So a hotbed is where I place those words or a concept that I want to think more about, that I want to deepen into the soil of my head and heart that I think something can grow from. My journal books for fifty years have words in them, concepts, ideas, and things I was thinking about as a girl of fifteen or a young woman of nineteen, thirty, or forty and so I have a bookshelf of a hundred and fifty-nine journal books in which there are thousands of hotbeds where words and ideas have grown into the George Stinney poem or The Afterbirth, 1931, or Auction Block of Negro Weather, that always is a beginning point. There always is something that buzzes in me that makes me think, “Wait, don’t keep moving forward, stop here for a second and gather this seed of an idea, this seed of a word because something will sprout from it if you give it the right attention and the right soil.” Hotbed, when I started thinking about what I wanted to call those things, I didn’t want to call them journal entries because they’re not verbatim from the journal themselves, they’ve been edited and they’ve been pulled and stretched into things that can sit beside the occasional poems in the book and so I thought, “Oh, I love being outside, I love having my hands in the garden,” and had heard the term hotbed once and I was having a conversation with somebody at the press and they thought, “Oh, this term hotbed, this could throw people, they could think this is not the kind of book you want,” I was like, “Let it throw them. Yes, let’s do that. Let them think whatever they want to think but let’s also be true to what a hotbed is,” and a hotbed is where a person who knows gardening, who loves to garden, begins the plant itself.
DN: I want to take that into questions of the nonhuman in your work also because I recently watched the talk that you gave at the University of Kansas called “Making Poetry in Our Anthropocene Age” where it is clear that you’re writing about nature as, at least, partly motivated by how much we are taking from the earth versus what we are giving back to the earth. But the experience of nature in your work, at least, for me, is also much like encountering your uncle or your father, not for the first time, but seeing them again book-to-book. I think most particularly of the giant oak trees from your family’s land. I wanted to, in light of that, ask you about nature in relation to time because time and different scales of time feels like a very important part of this book. On one level, you could say this book is the story of you becoming a writer. It contains the first poem you wrote, when you were ten-years-old, to your mom, drafts of some of your early poems, letters from editors, newspaper clippings from some of your readings. On another level, that is how you came into your own under the loving gaze of your father and the gaze that you returned to him. On another scale, it is the lineage of women in your family across many generations. But there’s always the presence of something else non-human. In the talk, you were talking about your love of dinosaurs but in this collection, it feels most notably trees and whales and that presence makes sure, at least, for me, that I don’t settle too comfortably in a human notion of time, that it’s underscoring that something longer, much longer and older is happening alongside or along with what we are experiencing. I was hoping you could talk about how, for instance, the photo of your mom next to a two-hundred-year-old tree or your mention, in your acknowledgments, of the two fishermen in California who jump on the back of a whale to free it from plastic fish nets, how these elements are being woven into your family story and into the story that you’re singing back to your community.
NF: I try to live a whole life I want to. I want to be able to hear voices, human voices. I love walking through the forest. I am alive. I come from women who grew things out of the earth and ate those things and I can hear my grandmother saying right now, “I sleep so much better when I eat something I’ve grown,” and I trust her knowledge of that. I trust as she would say, “There are things you can decide with your head and there are other things that must be decided with your belly. Listen to them both.” When I walk through gardens, forests, valleys, and seashores, I am not using my head, my body is listening. I want to be in tune with that. That’s why I heard that line that [Timothy] gave me about how whales used to talk to each other. I think we lose so much as a human society because we are not paying attention to all the other kinds of life around us. I think we shortchange ourselves, we narrow our minds, we shorten our lives. Just look at what has happened in the last two months, humans disappeared, animals took over the streets, wolves down by the bay, just alive, and they know as soon as we leave that we’re not there. We’ve destroyed so many areas where we need to be in a symbiotic relationship with the forest and animals and we go to those places to see the national parts. We have to care more about how we live in tandem with things because if not, we are hurtling towards a cliff because we need those things to be our most human selves. I’ve learned that by spending summers with my grandmother on a farm in this Upstate of South Carolina and watching her roll cantaloupes and watermelons into my carriage and walk back down the road to the house where we split that and sit out in the sun and realize our humanity, I, too, believe that I sleep better when I eat the foods that I grow. I feel like more of us should understand and know that kind of power and that kind of existence. These are also interconnected things. I feel when I write about monarch butterflies and my birthday in the same stanza as the title poem for this collection, there are no conflicts there. I’m one with the world that I am possessed by and I don’t see any edge there. I feel like I want the monarchs to survive and their survival has everything to do with my survival. I think we’re getting farther away from that as land gets encroached more and more, as people only hear about money, as people only hear about things. I think that we are spiritual social beings and I think we need to feed ourselves in every way possible, and these are many of the ways that I feed myself.
DN: There are so many potential amazing examples to potentially choose from in the book to have you read but I was hoping maybe you could read another hotbed, Hotbed 88, which, I think is a nice intermingling of the human and the nonhuman.
NF: You just used my best word, David, the minglement.
DN: [laughs] That’s true.
NF: [laughs] I love that word.
[Nikky Finney reads Hotbed 88 from her poetry collection, Love Child’s Hotbed of Occasional Poetry]
DN: We’ve been listening to Nikky Finney read from Love Child’s Hotbed of Occasional Poetry. In that Anthropocene talk, you thread [1:25:49] by Lucille Clifton throughout your speech, her lines, “Listen, children, the earth is a black and living thing,” you weave this, thread it through the speech that you’re giving and you link your writing of poetry to your mother and your grandmother as seamstresses. It made me think of an alternate title you had for this collection which is the name of one of your poems, Linea Nigra, which, in Latin, means a black line, so we could think of this ancestral line in your family but it also is literally a biological line that happens when a woman becomes pregnant on her abdomen. I wanted to think about or connect that to another question that you raise and explore across your books and that is the ways people in your family have responded to you not being a heterosexual woman and not continuing the family lineage in a biological way. Your mother, at one point, says, “The love between two women can’t match that between a man and a woman,” and early in this book, we get a line on its own page spoken by the whispering grandmothers, “Who told Love Child, she could stop our line?” I was hoping maybe you could talk about this question of lineage and line and family as it relates to being a queer poet and how you engage with both of these things in your poetry because it feels like you are somehow honoring your love for your mother and your grandmothers and also pursuing the truth of your own life at the same time. Not an easy walk, I would imagine, but if you can speak to the Linea Nigra in this regard.
NF: I am honoring my mother and my grandmother and my great-grandmother and my mothers before whose names continue back across the water. I absolutely would not be here if not for them. I also, in my quirky, passionate way, refuse to not be myself, refuse to think that I cannot follow my own black line to the end and have the audacity, in a good way, I hope, to believe that the mythic grandmothers at defense who are furious at me for having stopped my matrilineal line also go their separate ways in the evenings, home to their chair to pick up a copy of Rice, The World Is Round, On Wings Made of Gauze, Love Child’s Hotbed of Occasional Poetry, Head Off & Split, and they read a story from one of their daughters, they read, they take in something that is not another child, that is not a daughter or a son that I have given birth to, but something that has weight, something that feels something that is alive, something that has been raised by me, something that clings, saves. There is no comparison between a book and a human being—and I’m not trying to make that here—I am trying to say that I will be accountable to my quirky, different, outlier, gay self, and the things that I give birth to matter, the things that I give birth to give birth to other things and I wanted to put their fury because I was met by that when I started having conversations with my family and my mother and my father and I came out to them. I remember my mom broke down in tears and I asked her why was she crying and she said, “Because you’ll never have children,” and I thought, “Mom, that’s a very narrow definition of telling you that I’m a lesbian,” but that was her definition. It wasn’t true, we had a good conversation about that, she dried her eyes and even though I didn’t have children, I had this big maternal place in my heart where my students and my friends and the people I love know that I am a nurturer, I am a caretaker, that’s a huge part of, I think, giving birth to someone or to something and I’ve come to great peace about it. There are so many children in the world who need loving, whether I gave birth to them or not, there are so many words, stories, and ideas that need birthing and I want to be that person. Once again, David, I’ve taken a word, [laughs] opened it up, and stretched it out and not allowed the world to give me the first definition but allowed my own imperfect self to swim through those waters in order to say to us and to say to poets and artists and anybody, who cares about this moment that we are in on the planet right now, it is up to us to work really hard at living here together and part of that has a lot to do with our narrow or our wide definitions of things, our wider definitions of things, not that they aren’t truer, not that they are any less true than that narrow definition, in fact, they are more true because they go back to the route, they go back to the etymology of words and to our basic humanness, I think.
DN: You were on stage at the Geography of Hope conference with an indigenous artist and performer, Lyla June Johnston, and she was talking about how the most important question of our time is how do we return to self, how do we return home to who we are. At the end of her talk, with you sitting on stage next to her, you take her hand and say, “If I had a daughter, I’d want her to be just like you,” and then this young woman turns to you and says in return, “I am your daughter,” and I just remember losing my breath at witnessing that exchange.
NF: You just made me cry on radio, that’s crazy.
NF: [laughs] Oh, that moment, that moment. That was a moment I’ll never forget. She was my daughter, she is my daughter. We have to hold each other, I may never see her again. I’ve never seen her before and for us to find each other at that moment and recognize each other, that was a powerful moment.
DN: Yeah. One of the ways there’s a Linea Nigra running through Love Child, a black line, is the celebration of black women from Barbara Jordan and Lorraine Hansberry to [Amy Sheridan,] Michelle Obama, but I was hoping, in particular, you could talk about Paulette Leaphart and about what you call the most arresting images of your entire life and the making of the poem Topless in America in response.
NF: I had heard there was a woman walking from the southern states to Washington DC and I had heard this as all news reports, I’m not really a social media person. I had heard that she was topless and I had heard that she had had her breasts removed because of breast cancer and that she was walking to highlight the cause of breast cancer in America. When I saw a photo of her, I remember not being able to move for a long period of time, I remember thinking, “This is the most arresting photograph I’ve ever seen in my life.” I can remember being a girl in the south and my mother teaching me the ABCs of modesty, I can remember, as I grew up, how those stories and those lessons stayed with me and I remember listening to Paulette Leaphart say why she was walking, why her daughter was with her, and what she wanted to accomplish, and I thought I had never seen anything so powerful in my life and I wanted to write about it because, again, that moment became a hotbed. I wrote about it in my journal, I wrote about what I felt like looking at her with walking pants on, pushing her daughter’s stroller, and nothing else. I think you have to be female, you have to be a woman, you have to be a girl to know how the culture covers you up after a certain age until you decide if you don’t want to do that, and then if you don’t do that, the names that come your way, so you have to go back to my father calling me Love Child and not those other names that I spoke up at the beginning of this interview. I wanted to write something for this moment. This is how I write, this is a process. I was thinking about having seen this photograph and in the next instant, maybe that same afternoon, I was listening to NPR and there was this anthropologist talking about how a person, how a human body moves. You can’t go looking for this stuff, you just have to be awake and alive to the universe. In that poem, I talk a lot about—I love anatomy, love it—and I was talking about what the spine does when you’re walking, what happens to the hips, what happens to the shoulders, and it just all came together in that way you’ve been talking about, David, how I’m just juxtapositioning anatomical things and this woman walking in the name of breast cancer research. If you would have put those two things on a piece of paper, you’d go, “Uh! I don’t know if this is going to work,” but once you start, you take the pairing, you take the razor or the pencil lead and you start shaving off the edges of things and things start resembling each other and you say, “Oh, you can put Emerson on one page and you can put Sandra Bland across from him and those two quotes could absolutely be talking to each other.” So it’s not the first idea, it’s in the thinking about it, it’s in the steeping, it’s in the slow melting of two ideas into each other that those two dimensions can come together. I really love that poem a lot. I really love what happens to me on the walk. I’m not there, truth meets a fictive story as well and so I’m not trying to do journalism, I’m not in pursuit of that, that’s for other people who are doing the who/what/when/where/why. I am just looking at what I have been given and then what I imagine along this journey and what rises to the surface for me.
DN: I was watching some videos of Leaphart talking and walking where she says that we all have scars, that our scars are there for a reason, that they are our stories, and that she didn’t want to hide hers. That flipping of the narrative of something that seems limiting or constricting or something to hide that maybe is normally considered shameful and making it a source of liberation, it made me think of your interview at ESPN where you talked about your interest in sports growing up and how you talked about that as a girl, it was the one place where you had the freedom of movement. I wanted to hear a little bit about that because you do have poems in here, some of the longer poems that we’re not reading are some of the great reasons to pick up Love Child, some of the most remarkable ones like Ode to the Girl On a Wheel. Could you talk a little bit about sports and liberation?
NF: Yes. Again, growing up in a very traditional, very conservative South Carolina, with a mother who believed in that, I watched my two brothers, I’m the middle child, and I watched my [1:41:53] brothers romp and roam and dive and run out in the sun with just their shorts on and I was always told—and in the first couple of books, I explore this a lot—“Be still. Keep your dress down. Keep your knees closed. Put your hands on your lap.” Given, on Easter Sunday, a fake muff to put my hands in, this last thing in the world I wanted was something to put my hands and my hands were always flying about gesticulating and drawing in the air and I couldn’t do that like my brothers. I also couldn’t just take off running across the field because girls didn’t do that. I loved sports. If it was open to girls, I did it. I swam, I learned how to swim, I ran track, I played softball in the backyard. I was pretending to train for the Olympics, I told my mother so I put up a wooden side horse and jumped over it every day. If I had just wanted to run without purposely doing something, I don’t know that she would have let me do it, part of it was fear, you have fear for girl children in the south and in other places as well, so I had to always couch it in something like I’m doing this because one day, I’ll be Wilma Rudolph or somebody else and she’d go, “Okay, go practice.” Sport was always something that I found great pleasure in and I excelled at it. I played tennis, I played basketball. I was always a quick study with athletic kinds of things and still love the body and movement. When I was asked by ESPNW to write that occasional poem for them, I started doing research, I thought, “What are the things that women have given society beyond sport and beyond their excelling in different kinds of sport?” and the floodwaters, holy-moly, just opened up with all kinds of things that I had no idea women had, again, given to society so it would be a better place. I thought, “I’ve got to bring those things in The Murphy Bed and [wideout 1:44:32.8] and The Paper Bag, the dog walking leash, come on, nobody tells little girls that in the stage and I think it would matter if little girls knew that big girls had invented these things that made society better. One of my ways, as a poet, to make society turn and look at the things they won’t teach us is to put it in the poem in the most poetic, creative, undidactic, I’m not trying to jump up on the table and rant, I am trying to empower and stretch those words again that you talked about into words that more of us can swim in.
DN: On the opposite page from this poem, this occasional poem you wrote for ESPN, Ode to the Girl On a Wheel, is the image of a bird looking backward which is the symbolized image for the African word “Sankofa” from the Akan, people of Ghana. It is meant to remind us that it isn’t too taboo to fetch what is at risk of being left behind. The bird’s body forms a circle in its reaching back. There’s the obvious connection of this circle to the poem about cyclists but you also have this long-standing engagement with circles. The narrator of your collection “The World Is Round” is an, as of yet to be born, infant, perhaps, you as the infant in the incubator looking out at the world through the incubators around the opening. But it feels like we can connect this idea of the circle to so many things that we’ve already discussed today, that a hand would reach through the incubator’s circle to touch you and check in on you that the circle is connected to care and lineage, or in the case of the Sankofa, to making sure to fetch what is at risk of being left behind, but also your love of basketball and that you chose a sport of circles with the ball in the hoop. But I want to talk about it in relation to photography about that circle through which to see the world also being, potentially, a lens. I’m thinking of the impact that the Leaphart images had on you and wanted to return to the way this book isn’t just a book of text but is an engagement with image and with many of these poems being ekphrastic and often ekphrastic in relation to photography. The infant in your collection The World Is Round is called the infant photographer and that collection has the lines, “Not with my mind but with full-body camera do I remember this,” and “Not with any eye but with skin did I see this,” and similarly, in your poem “Pluck” from your collection “Rice,” there are the lines, “Before you watch anymore love your eyes,” and your latest collection opens with the line “The eyewall is human.” Talk to us about circles, eyes, lenses, incubators, and photographs.
NF: When I was about fifteen—fifteen was a really critical moment in my life—I was at my grandmother’s and grandfather’s farm at the Upstate of South Carolina and my uncle Billy—he was my mother’s youngest brother—had come home from Vietnam many, many years ago and he brought three trunks with him when he left Vietnam. I opened one, disobediently opened one, and found twelve, I would say, camera lenses. Now, there were five cameras, old Nikon F cameras. He was an amazing photographer and just like I have an uncle, my father’s brother was a photographer, my mother’s youngest brother was a photographer, and I continued this moment of disobedience by taking the cameras out and figuring out how the lenses attached. These were trunks that were at a top of a barn on this hundred-acre farm. I sat with my legs out of the window—and I’m closing my eyes as I tell you the story because I can see it so clearly and because it had such an impact on me—and as I lined up the lenses and I had the one camera and when I put on the wide-angle lens, I was amazed and looked through it, I could see so wide. When I put the telephoto lens, I pointed it on the backside of a cow and I could see his tail swishing up in the air and so close and I kind of jolted because I looked through the lens and then I looked to see if I was really looking at what I was looking at and then there were other lenses, there was an underwater lens that made everything kind of woozy and I started thinking about writing and lenses and to this day, forty years later, I teach, by telling my writing students, about the differences between those lenses so you want to go up close to somebody, you want to talk about their face, put on a telephoto lens, you want a wide-angle of the whole family out under the trees, you don’t want to just focus on one person, wide-angle will be perfect. You want to do some Gabriel García Márquez writing about fantastical things, maybe that underwater lens will give the edges some fantastical moments there. So as a girl, I discovered these lenses and photography. Five years later when I graduated from college, Uncle Billy gave me the Nikon F and one lens, not the others, and I began my walk through life with a camera over my arm, in my purse, in my bag, and I would stop and I could just see differently. Sometimes, when I think about preparing a book and what is there, I’m looking through different lenses of my heart, my head, and my belly in order to see how it all lines up when I looked at the pages of this book. Everything had to go on a big-empty wall so that I could see that beginning that you so astutely targeted when we first started talking, I wanted that to be the entranceway, I wanted that to be the foyer for the rest of the book. I wanted you to walk under those visuals and those things before you got to the first room, the first poem, and I wanted you to feel something around you before you got there. The photograph is less about what you’re looking at and more about the photographer, I’ve always believed that to be true. What you focus on and how you aim the lens and do you get the bird on the top of the calf or do you wait for the bird to fly away? Is it the bird on the calf or is it both of them? Making those split-second decisions is really important to me as a writer and they become the hotbeds that I then look at to become the longer poems. But the circle is the most sacred geometric symbol in the entire universe. There is no more critical, important thing we can draw on a piece of paper, no more thing we can sit in a classroom full of young hungry minds than a circle. Everything we do should be in a circle, not with our backs to each other but face-to-face, equal in that way. The circle I have drawn in every hotbed, in every journal book for all of my life and so figuratively and visually, I’m always trying to get back to that circle as a poet, as a writer, and as a person who wants to be a good citizen of this planet.
DN: One of the longtime listeners and supporters of Between the Covers is, herself, an amazing poet, who happens to also be friends with Ross Gay. She passed along, with Ross’s blessing, a copy of the talk he gave about you and your work when you won the Aiken Taylor Award, a talk, I believe, he gave with you in the audience. He named his talk “Be camera, black-eyed aperture” after a line from one of your poems, a poem that ends your collection “Head Off & Split”. In his meditation on those words, he says, “To be black-eyed, yes, perhaps, to have the eyes of a black person and we can have a lot of conversations about what that means but it means something. But I’m going to say, at the very least, it means to see black people. For Finney’s model for us has been since her earliest poems to see black people, to our eyes and pencil, on her beloved’s.” Then later, Ross says, “This looking, this black-eyed opening not looking away is a poetics. Yes, but as any poetics is, it is also an ethics. What we look at, what we see, and how and if we say what we see is an ethics. Tender black looking with the light coming through is an ethics kin to testimony, kin to witness, I think, I’m saying I will not not see you, Finney’s work says again and again, I will look and say what I see. This witness is my occasion with my pencil in my ear.” I guess I wanted to hear, presuming that you see yourself and Ross Gay’s loving offering gaze on you, more about the poetics and ethics of looking of poetry as a witness or even when he says, “This witness is my occasion to think of the ways occasional poetry can and does bear witness.” Does anything leap to mind when you hear him speak to you through me again?
FN: I remember sitting in the audience and listening to Ross read those words calling what I do—my process, my way of living, my way of writing, my way of being accountable to where I am, and who I am—a poetics. If you’re living your life truly, if you’re living it and following the path that you’re following, you’re not trying for those things to be a poetics, you are true to them, you’re trying to be true to them. It’s hard to talk about what he said because it’s coming from his eyes and his sensibilities. I landed here. I love where I landed. All the things that have made me who I am and the writer that I am have been unfolding for all of my life since the moment of the incubator [laughs] when my mom had to leave me in the hospital for a week and this nurse came into that world and put her hand through a circle of plastic and checked on me and made sure I was alive, made sure I was breathing, made sure that the jaundice that I had as an infant was going away; and that circle meant everything. I don’t remember this with my mind, I remember somebody’s hand checking on me. From the very moment of birth, I feel like I am a witness to that circle, to human beings who reach for each other, for human beings who refuse to be disconnected from the larger world, and I will proceed in that manner in different ways for the rest of my life. The fact that I started writing occasional poems when I was fifteen and sixteen and didn’t know they were occasional poems, that they fit under some awning or rubric, I was asked to do something I love to do and I wanted to do it well. I was asked to do something somebody thought I could do well and so I wanted to do it well. There were carpenters, nurses, and doctors and all those people so why couldn’t there be a poet too?
DN: If you’ll indulge me, I want to read one more little section from that same talk of Ross’s because it raises something that is probably difficult to answer but I think it’s important to ponder, and this is Ross again from that same talk: “It feels crucial to me to mention that Finney’s witness is as complex as the accordion wings of a swallowtail. Her practice of witness, her black-eyed looking, her work, while often articulating and studying and testifying to the brutalities of white supremacist patriarchy, is not rooted in resistance to white supremacist patriarchy although her poems often resist those things. I’m saying Finney’s work and vision and witness is far too capacious through brutality to be the ground from which it grows which is a danger and a risk when we write about the brutal. For if we make the brutal the ground of our imaginations, the ground of our poetic lives, we come to need the brutal. I want to say that again, if we make the brutal the grounds of our imaginative and poetic lives, we will come to need the brutal for our poetic and imaginative lives. Our poems will need the brutal which is not good for our poetry nor is it good for the soul or each other. This is, to me, a profoundly important point or question, ‘How do we write a rich poetry of witness that does not make brutality the ground? A rich poetry of witness that articulates or responds to or contests or resists brutality while not granting brutality the status of essential truth?’” and he goes on to say that your work is an answer in as much as it comes from a ground, from a soil. I was hoping you might be able to speak to finding one’s ground as a poet so that one’s poetry isn’t reactionary and thus, shaped by that which one resists but grows from its own hotbed.
NF: I think it’s a unique position to have been born in 1957 near the beginning of the Vietnam War and also at the beginning of civil rights era, the human rights era, gay rights era, women’s rights era, and to go through my formative years with the Vietnam War as backdrop and also the sound of uprisings, people filling the streets, people finding their voices, and people refusing to stay in the background any longer. I was a witness to all of that as a teenager, younger than a teenager. I remember always asking myself, “What will you sound like, Love Child?” At the end of the essay that’s in this book, the essay that’s at the beginning of the book where I talk about where I was raised and talk about Lorraine Hansberry and talk about my father and my box of pencils, the last two lines of that essay are really critical to what you just asked. “I am accountable to truth & beauty,” both of them, no more one than the other, I am accountable to truth and to beauty and the last line of the essay says, “I am Love Child, the insurgent sensualist.” I am not just the insurgent, I come with the sensualist backdrop. I am not just seeking truth, I am also seeking beauty. I have been able to remind myself of that balancing act my entire life. It has been absolutely critical to my voice, not just as a poet; as a poet, as a teacher, as somebody living with other human beings on this planet, I will give you both of those, I have to because I came up at a time where people were just screaming “fire” and somebody else was screaming “peace and love”, somebody else was shouting, “Kill somebody,” and somebody else was like, “Come, sit, let’s talk.” I had the benefit and I know this about me of all those voices spinning around me, David, in a circle, a circle, not a square, a circle. As I’ve turned around the circle, I remember clearly saying, “That’s what I want to do,” I don’t want to do that, I want to do more of that, yes, a couple of that, two cups of that, five cups of that truth, beauty, insurgent, sensualist, that’s how I see myself, that’s where my words come out of. I will not be defined outside of what my father named me. If I allow that to happen, all of the work he put into me would be a lie.
DN: I want to stay with circles as we come full circle. When I think about reaching into the ground or the bird that’s reaching back or the hand reaching into your incubator and thinking about circles and cycles and the Linea Nigra, I was hoping we would end with Hotbed 58 about you and Toni Morrison and then Hotbed 15 which ends the book but really is the beginning of your conception of the book as a book. If you’re open to it to introduce us to these circles and lineages of Hotbed 58 and 15 and then read them for us.
NF: When I read this, I think it’s important too because we’ve talked about your great question about lenses and I mentioned that there was an underwater lens where the edges became fantastical. I just want to make that little intro to this really, really important hotbed for me.
[Nikky Finney reads Hotbed 58 and 15 from her poetry collection, Love Child’s Hotbed of Occasional Poetry]
DN: Nikky Finney, it was a deep honor and pleasure to talk with you today.
NF: David, you’ve taken my breath away again. This interview has been very special and I so appreciate the work you did before you got here. That always matters to me and it can be seen in every question you asked. It was a pleasure to be here.
DN: It was a joy to do the work.
NF: Yeah. Thank you so much. I appreciate also all the work we did to make this happen with the microphone and Zoom and Skype. [laughs]
DN: [laughs] I know. Yes.
NF: We had to really fight to do this and now we know why. Thank you so much.
DN: We were talking today to Poet Nikky Finney about her latest collection, Love Child’s Hotbed of Occasional Poetry. You’ve been listening to Between the Covers. I’m David Naimon, your host.
Nikky, I know we’ve been going an extraordinarily long time.
NF: Oh, no. If it was a bad interview, I would have cut this off a long time. [laughs]
DN: [laughs] I’m glad you didn’t think so.
NF: It was rich.
NF: David, this is one of the richest interviews I’ve ever done. I’m serious. I’m not kidding. I really appreciate this. This one will go down in the books, my dear, I’m telling you.
DN: I’m very moved by that.
NF: You’ve reached this far and around and you were my witness today and so I greatly appreciate it.
DN: It was an honor too, to be the photographer.
NF: Yeah. [laughs]