‘Poetry is my first voice:’ Q&A with Nikky Finney

Finney discussed Martin Luther King Jr., her interest in poetry and advice for college students.

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Sally Johnson

The Hustler met with Nikky Finney on Jan. 17 over Zoom. (Hustler Staff/Sally Johnson)

Katherine Oung, Ekta Anand, and Sally Johnson

On Jan. 17, The Hustler sat down with poet, educator and activist Nikky Finney. She is the author of  “Head Off & Split,” which won the National Book Award for Poetry in 2011. Her newest book of poetry, “Love Child’s Hotbed of Occasional Poetry: Poems & Artifacts,” was published in 2020.

Finney virtually visited Vanderbilt for the university’s 2022 Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Series, delivering a keynote address and participating in a moderated discussion. The Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Series was established at Vanderbilt in 1985 and is held annually, although some programming was canceled/postponed this year due to the delayed start of the Spring 2022 semester. 

The Hustler: Today we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr., an impressive civil rights advocate, leader and orator. His words drew thousands to gather, such as his famous “I Have A Dream” speech. As a writer, what is your interpretation of the significance of his words?

Finney: If you were to go backwards from the “I Have a Dream speech” and follow his life to when he was a young boy, you would find a little boy who read the dictionary, loved words and loved to stand up and recite stories from the Bible. The sound of the human voice was very important to him. Dr. King spent his life reminding human beings that we all come from the same cell, even though we live in a world that separates us by skin color, financial status, culture and all those kinds of things. He felt it was his job and duty to remind us of the things we have in common. 

When he opened his mouth and spoke the “I Have a Dream” speech or wrote “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” it was all a reminder that the ways in which society separates us could not hold back the ocean of our togetherness. It was about all of us.

He was a Black man from the South, born in 1929, but he was talking about ways of living together that were thousands of years old. His words were tiny, precious pearls that, in the heat of the civil rights and human rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s, became very precious commodities for the people who were involved in the struggle.

You came to Vanderbilt in 2013 as part of the Gertrude & Harold Vanderbilt’s Visiting Writers Series. How does it feel to be back speaking here nine years later? Have you noticed any significant changes since 2013? 

I wish I was at Vanderbilt. One of the things that I really miss is walking into a room with other human beings. I miss reading something and hearing one of those human beings go “Wow.” You can hear that from where you stand if you’re in front of an audience. 

The pandemic has taken away a lot of what I love about traveling and being a writer. But we will not allow it to stop us from telling our stories.

One of the things that’s really, really critical about the pandemic and about the polarization that is happening in society now is that it’s going to take institutions and people not allowing that polarization to stop us from continuing to have the conversations that we need to have and inviting each other to the table to talk about the things that will illuminate our future in the best and most positive way. I just love that that’s happening at Vanderbilt today.

Why poetry? What is the significance of this more abstract writing form and its contributions to the world, and how did you realize this as your passion? 

I don’t feel like poetry is an abstract form. I feel like poetry is my first voice. I started writing when I was about nine or 10 years old. I wasn’t a very talkative child. I was a huge fan of books; I was a bookworm. You could leave me alone in my room for hours, for days, probably, and I would be just fine if I had several books, a glass of water and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. 

When I was 14 or 15 years old, I started writing. I started keeping a journal. I started watching and deciphering and entering the world of words. I didn’t know the word etymology then, but I discovered it soon after. I loved tracing where words had come from and what they meant. I was so fascinated as a girl about this. That led me to poetry. That led me to Walt Whitman; that led me to Gwendolyn Brooks. I was also a young person, a budding teenager, during the Black Arts Movement in America. We had poets like Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, Haki Madhubuti and Mari Evans giving their poems expression. I was a child listening to that, and I was stunned that you could do that. That made a huge impression on me. 

I had great early English teachers who made us memorize poetry by heart. One of the things I loved about poems is that I could close my eyes and I could say the poem that I was learning by heart, almost like a companion. That really spoke to me. It didn’t speak to a lot of people in my English class, but it did speak to me.

As I got older, I read stories about men who had gone to war. Before they went on the battlefield, they would take their favorite poem or an excerpt from a poem and put it in their pocket. I started thinking about what poem I would carry with me if I went off to war.

I started taking excerpts of poems, folding them up and putting them in my pocket or keeping them close. They became more than just words on paper. They became like fire in my soul.

I never expected to be a poet in my life, but I expected to love poetry. My community recognized that I loved poetry. So they started asking me to write occasional poems. I began to see myself as a person who people associated with language and words and poetry. I just kept to the course of that and started writing poetry in my early 20s.

What influences did growing up during the Civil Rights, Black Power and Black Arts Movements have on your writing and worldview? 

In the community that I grew up in Sumter, South Carolina, my father was a civil rights lawyer. He was defending the students who were organizing sit-ins at lunch counters. When those students would get arrested, my father, in his late 20s and early 30s, would go and get those students out of jail. My father really taught me how social justice was a part of your daily existence. What I wanted to do at that moment was understand how I could help. I wanted to write a poem while watching people march with signs, trying to change injustices, but I was too young. So I sat back with my journal and I wrote what I saw, like a journalist or a witness. A writer is a witness to what’s going on around her. I didn’t understand that then. 

I understood a few years later that I had been a poet of my generation. I started reading other artists talk about how they wanted to be an artist of their time, like Walt Whitman. The Civil War was going on, what did he do? He went into hospitals. He wrote about the things that he saw all around him. When I read about that, I wanted to be a poet of my time and write about what was happening in the streets, at the lunch counters and with college students who should be focused on studying but who also wanted to lend their voices to the struggle that was happening in their contemporary America, very much like the college students that got involved with the Black Lives Matter movement. In your generation, like every generation, there are things to fight for. That’s one of the things that, as an artist, I want to always be aware of.

What is the most impactful piece of advice you have received in your career? In turn, what advice would you give to students interested in both art and activism?

The best advice I received was to find out what you’re willing to fight for. The world is always imperfect. We can sit back and not be involved or we can put our bodies, words and minds to work. I want to fight for a world that is willing to see justice for all. I want to fight for a world where there are elephants because we’re getting very close to being in a world where there are no elephants. I want to fight to turn the clock back on climate change. These are things I’m willing to fight for. I’m willing to sacrifice my body, money and name for these things. I think that when you understand what you’re willing to fight for, you understand what your work is about. It’s not just pretty language that you’re writing. I’ve been leaning into those things that I’m willing to fight for. That was really good advice for me.

Answers have been edited for length and clarity.