Poet Nikky Finney embraces outspoken candor to inform, educate, motivate
By Bryan Gentry, firstname.lastname@example.org, 803-576-7650
One of Nikky Finney’s latest poems begins in the depths of a slave ship.
You are given 10 square feet of space to live and 3 vertical inches of air to breathe. Ankle iron is ordained for your frontal & temporal lobes. Their one desire: your black body in endless service & performance.
In “At War with Ourselves: 400 Years of You,” the poet and English professor covers four centuries of American history, recounting uncomfortable truths about racism and violence. But she also sings of success and resilience. She reminds readers about African American inventors, Olympians, leaders and activists, as well as everyday heroes who live out their dreams.
The ravishing wondrous innermost black islands of you, were never sunk, no matter the number of cannon balls sent to sink.
Her poem commemorates the 400th anniversary of the first arrival of enslaved Africans on American soil in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619. Finney worked with composer Michael Abels, who set the poem to music, and they recruited the famed Kronos Quartet and choirs from California and UofSC to bring the music to life..
Collaborating with a high-caliber composer and performers was like a dream come true, Finney says.
“I wanted to write something intimate and emotionally charged, that spoke directly into the 400th anniversary of the African presence in America," she says. “Something historical. Something beautiful. Evocative. Something heart-wrenching and maybe even sublime.”
Finney says she approached it “not just as a poet, but also as a citizen of this country who wants that country to not be complacent, but to fight harder to be better than it is.”
Finney was born in Conway, South Carolina. Her father was Ernest Finney, the first African American judge appointed to the state’s Supreme Court since Reconstruction. Her mother was a schoolteacher. Finney left South Carolina to chase her dream of becoming a writer. Her education and work took her to Alabama, California and Kentucky. She published several volumes of poetry along the way and in 2011 she received the National Book Award for her poetry collection Head Off and Split.
Finney is grateful for those who didn’t hold back when she was learning to write poetry and needed guidance.
“I would like to thank the relentless teachers and librarians scattered throughout my life — those adults who were not trying to be my friend when I was their student," she says. “They wanted me to succeed more than they wanted me to like them.”
All along Finney assumed that she had left South Carolina for good. But in 2012, she visited UofSC to teach a class and give the Robert Smalls Lecture for the African American Studies program. Valinda Littlefield, then-director of the program, was impressed by Finney’s immediate connection with students.
“The students were enamored with her,” Littlefield says. “It was just unreal the kind of rapport she had with them.”
Then came the public lecture, where Finney’s interactions with her family stoked an idea in Littlefield’s mind, “Why isn’t she here? This is home. This is where her family is.”
That led to conversations about bringing Finney to South Carolina. In 2014, she became the John H. Bennett Jr. Endowed Chair in Creative Writing and Southern Letters. Today, Finney thanks Littlefield for making it possible, but Littlefield is focused on what Finney has done for students and the university.
“She brought her ability to reach lots of people,” Littlefield says. “She also brought her no-nonsense approach to literature, to history, to race. She’s not one to sit behind the walls of campus. You will find her in lots of corners in the community speaking truth to power.”
This spring, Finney opened her email and found a message that left her “stunned, surprised, giddy.” She had been nominated and elected as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a prestigious fellowship of artists, scholars and leaders who work together on projects for the public good. Former members in the academy include Benjamin Franklin, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Martin Luther King Jr.
“Becoming a member of the academy doesn't alter my words or my work," Finney says. “I am who I am no matter the company I keep. Being a member adds a new, robust and international dimension, which I hope to inhabit with the same outspoken candor that being a poet of any geography requires.”
In September, Finney received the 2020 Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets. The award is given annually to recognize outstanding and proven mastery in the art of poetry and carries a stipend of $100,000.
The events of 2020, ranging from a world-stopping pandemic to racial violence and protests, show that Finney’s “At War with Ourselves: 400 Years of You” is timely and needed. Unfortunately, the world premiere this spring was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But Finney expects performances to move forward in 2021.
“We have not given up,” she says.
Nikky Finney achievements and milestones
2011: Won a National Book Award for her poetry collection Head Off and Split.
2012: Visited the University of South Carolina to teach a class and give the Robert Smalls Lecture for the African American Studies program.
2014: Named the John H. Bennett Jr. Endowed Chair in Creative Writing and Southern Letters at the University of South Carolina.
2020: Nominated and elected as a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Received the 2020 Wallace Stevens Award from the Academy of American Poets.
Nikky Finney will speak at the Fall Literary Festival on Oct. 14. She is one of three authors speaking at this year’s virtual festival, which will be held on three consecutive Wednesdays in October. The event is free and open to the public. Registration is required.
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