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Department of English Language and Literature

  • Professor Creates Lyrical Responses to Exhibit Photographs

Nikky Finney’s Stunning Poems for SOUTHBOUND

Professor Creates Lyrical Responses to Exhibit Photographs

Nikky Finney, the John H. Bennett, Jr. Endowed Professor of Creative Writing and Southern Letters, was commissioned to write poems based on photographs in the “SOUTHBOUND” exhibit at the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art at the College of Charleston. The result is an electrifying dialogue—powerful poetic meditations on southern visual history.

As Professor Finney describes this “once-in-a-lifetime project”:

When the organizers of SOUTHBOUND contacted me about composing one ekphrastic poem for the exhibit, I wasn't sure I had time to do it. Then they sent me the photographs to peruse…The images hit me like a ton of bricks. The photographs rocked me, hugged me, made me sit up straight, lean forward. The southern landscape being photographed was my land and I had never seen it so naked, so revealed, so revelatory. Art does this to us. The power of revelation and candor was on every page. I ended up submitting 4 poems instead of one and I could have submitted 12.

 In this dialogue, Finney’s sensuous love prose-poem is framed in southern greenery:

teddy and chris

Preston Gannaway
Teddy and Chris #1, 2013
Chesapeake, Virginia

Magnolia Garden Homes, High Noon,

Unit #144, Parking Lot H

Thick kudzu arm lover, the one who gives my thighs their bass
& drum, our backyard needs more art, I offer us, volunteer, me
& you, here, in our open fort of love, before the sirens come,
while they try and decipher the call from the screaming old man
in the window of #142, holding his arm and Bible outstretched
like a flaming cross in the air, while they slow roll the front gates,
approach with blue lights silently whirling, keep your blue berry
lips right where they are, filibuster and plunge more smoke &
tobacco into my ear, We are here, Baby, right now, so let the sun be
the artist it is with every thing else fighting to live & breathe, let
the sun etch and burn us into more than just an unwonted sight
in the back lot of our Magnolia Gardens, let the sun chisel me &
you deep into the land and geography, bake us, into more than a
high burning wall of man lips & thighs, sweet man made just for
me, man made of honey & hive, hold your chin up next to mine,
we are being closely watched, the artist needs to get us right, bake
me into clay and statue with you, I want magnolia and ivy to grow
fat and slow, wrap our feet and legs, summer & winter, fall, I want
someone in overalls, who knows the art and arc of cling & fuse
to arrive and attend to us like they attend to other fine obelisks of
great import, other conspicuous monuments in the park, I want
him, or her, to have a steady hand, to trim and clip us here &
there, for forever, and for two days after that, to keep our lovers’
embrace monumental & intact, and ten feet tall, who, if not us,
will make our winding hungry black bodies permanent eyes and
arms of the great garden, tonight, while others die walking and
running in the dark from the blue barking orders to stop and frisk,
here in our man made sculpture garden we will do any and every
thing but stop, we will stand our lovers’ ground, two men of soft
muscle, two diamond hard tongues, one doo rag, hewn & cut in
twin shades of blazing black marble.

A woman wielding garden hoe and pen rewrites Hurston’s image of black womanhood in Their Eyes Were Watching God:

Black Woman Moose Lodge #719

(Ludie Mae Green edits the great Zora Neale Hurston with one stroke of her orange hoe)

On this wooden bench I have learned to pray for myself first.
Here, no, here, just below her glorious wings, I never know what

I will find. Just last week I came upon a book pulling me over to it
as soon as I walked in. I picked it up with both hands and squeezed

it tight. It was the great story of Eyes and God by the great Negress
authoress. In my day, I was the reading champ, so I and sat with it

like I had found an old friend. And soon there it was – still breast-high,
page 44, “De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so far as Ah can see.”

Just to see those words again, rising off the page like field smoke, words
I used to whisper every night after working in their kitchens all day. Well,

the memory of all that made me throw that sweet book, cover and all,
the whole way back down to that bench’s other end. I guess you could

say the great Negress authoress had hooked me once again. I picked it
back up and finished reading it for the five hundredth time. Reading

and reading, circling back to read some more, just to have the word-lights
of the great Negress authoress going off like lee-little lighthouses from one

end of me to the other. Inside the rich red soil of her words I feel pulled away
from their hot stove and dressed and ready for what I’m most famous for:

the okra and green beans of my garden. Even now as I sit here with my magic
wand: my life’s orange hoe, curled and waiting quiet in my hand, I do so believe

that a writer of her knack needs to know the effect she is still having on the
living who are still trying to live. Therefore:

Dear Miss Zora Neale Hurston,
Even though you may be dead you are not gone. I write to thank you for fleshing me out on page 44. And if I may, I would like to offer one small edit of your great and perfect words. I, Miss Ludie Mae Green, would like to add to the official record of me, first reported in 1937, when you announced that the “De nigger woman is the mule uh de world….”. May I also say, she is the headless faceless moose of the world. We are gawked at and rode around on our backsides and worked to our death but our smart minds and pretty dark faces are also cut out of the final picture. What they can use is kept for sale and decoration, while our odd and precious other parts are hung up on the wall just like a trophy. In closing, I would like to say, American history is indivisible, and invisible too, and made from the pure wild wonderful wilderness of a Black woman’s life – so far as I can see.

Yours, Most Truly and Most Sincerely,

Ludie Mae Green
Reading Champ of 1945, Ninety-Six, South Carolina

rachel boillot

Rachel Boilliot
38669, Postmistress Ida, 2013
From the Post Script series
Sherard, Mississippi

A young boy revises his ideas of masculinity and fatherhood as he proudly displays a treasured belt:

Titus Brooks

Titus Brooks Heagins
Devonte, 2008
From the Durham Stories: Not Hell But You Can See It From Here! series
Durham, North Carolina

Little Man Standing in Clover

I come here to think not smile. Cut that.
Prefer turf where I am taller than the clover.

Green is my granddaddy’s favorite color.
Daddy’s ’72 Eldorado is green. Everything

I like to think about was born before me.
I want to be a man like my daddy. Great

granddaddy takes his shirt off in the sun.
Cut that. He says it will take time and luck

for me to be a man and that’s when mama
yells out from where we didn’t know she

was listening, “prayer.” I never come here
to think without my belt locked and loaded.

Uh-uh. Cut that. A man needs his belt when
he comes from these parts. Snakes hide out.

Ain’t scared of no snake. Cut. That. I got
something for a snake. Wanna see? Daddy

says a man should keep his chest out in the
sun as much as he can so his six pack will

grow and his eyes won’t run. Daddy says
a man needs one good belt and if it’s right

he can wear it to church on Sunday then
to work on Monday and nobody can tell

the difference. Cut that. Smiling is for
cabbage patches and girls in tops.

The most poignant juxtaposition takes place between a photograph of an environmental disaster and Professor Finney’s poem on the Charleston church shooting of 2015. As she explains:

For over a year I had been trying to write a poem about the Mother Emanuel massacre. When I saw Daniel Beltrá's photo of Oil Spill #12 in the SOUTHBOUND catalogue, I knew this photo was—for me—the most accurate visual representation of longing and loss that I had been feeling about the Charleston massacre. I also knew what I wanted to say had something to do with Miss Polly scrambling underneath the collection table when the shooting began. I watched and listened to her heart-stopping testimony at the trial last summer. I had tried but couldn't find my way into what I wanted to say about it all. Then—I saw the photo and it somehow reminded me of Miss Polly's testimony. It reminded me of that haunting moment when Dylan Roof asks Miss Polly, “Have I shot you yet?” The incredulity at such a question being asked in such a moment like that. I knew immediately the question he asked and her immediate answer would be the bookends of the poem I hoped to compose.

Miss Polly Is Akimbo Underneath

the Mother Emanuel Collection Table

The one who came to start the next Civil War
speaks to her directly. “Have I shot you yet?”
There is no one else left to answer. In the church
basement all are dead or bleeding out. Miss Polly,
half on her knees, is askew, tilted, her last angle,

akimbo to the eight others who are sprawled and
already spiraling toward heaven. In her mind she
too is about to die. There is no place to hide when
you are the last one facing the waving gun. The air
has been invaded by a poison mix of bright red ore
There is about to be another. He cannot see the
seeping septic colors but she can and there is no
isthmus wide enough, beneath her shield of a table,
to keep her from the current of his non-stop debris.

A floating band of iron orange tincture crooks her
pounding heart but does not push her downstream.
She waits sideways, as high up as she can, refusing
to look at him. She knows how evil can enter through
the iris if beheld too long. She will not be all black

and blue unsure of what has been released in the
room. A river of flaming copper is moving slowly
through her blood. She is an honest woman and
has seen with her own two honest woman eyes,
what hate erupting inside a man can do and what

this one has done. She decides her last words on
this earth will not be camouflaged and khaki,
handed over just before he runs out the same way
he walked in. When he shot the Pastor first she
could have faked it, fallen over sideways, held her

self perfectly still, asked her body to lie for her but
that would not have been the life she has lived. It
will not be the death she dies at his feet. She turns
into the last one standing and her molten answer
arrives, the color of pounded beets, beaten out of

their safe skins, her persimmon words outline every beloved
bullet riddled body still lying on the floor. “No, you have not.”


Daniel Beltrá
Oil Spill #12, 2010
From the Spill series
Gulf of Mexico

Professor Finney’s poems are only part of the dialogue sparked by this amazing exhibit. She continues:

I was so moved by the entire body of SOUTHBOUND work that I got my MFA graduate students involved. When I am looking for subjects to teach and share with my students, they are never far away from my own immediate outrage or joy. I made ekphrastic assignments to my MFA class and they began to swim through the images and work on their own interpretations of the photographs. When I casually shared this assignment with the organizers they wanted my students and their work to be part of the opening festivities. So we made a plan and drove over one Saturday last October. Six USC MFA poets/students were given the spotlight. I think it was an amazing moment for them. It was for me. They wrote beautiful memorable poems. They rose to the occasion with their pens and imaginations. They read with power and grace. 

 See, too, the Lenscratch article:

Challenge the conventional. Create the exceptional. No Limits.