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Nikky Finney

1957–

Nikky Finney was born by the sea in 1957 in Conway, South Carolina. The only daughter of an elementary school teacher and a civil rights attorney, Finney was raised in Sumter, South Carolina, where she attended Catholic and Public Schools.

Finney’s love for words was anchored in her youth by the sound of the Atlantic Ocean and her maternal grandmother, Beulah Lenorah Butler Davenport, a woman deeply connected to the natural world and hard work. An introspective childhood was further nurtured by her devotion to the keeping of journal books, wandering across her grandparent’s land, and the assiduous learning of poetry by heart. She discovered the work of Gwendolyn Brooks, Sonia Sanchez, Alice Walker, Naomi Long Madgett, and Carolyn Rodgers while reading her family’s wealth of monthly black publications: JET, Black World, Ebony, and Crisis magazine. Finney received her BA from Talladega College in Talladega, Alabama, in 1979 and was admitted into the historically significant African American Studies program at Atlanta University. Finney completed her graduate course work but abruptly left Atlanta University in 1981 without her MA degree, after being told she would not be able to substitute a creative poetic thesis for the traditional scholarly one.

This risky personal decision to forego the academic training that would take time, attention, and writing away from her own original poetic work and in the direction of others would prove mighty and consequential. Finney remained in Atlanta and was a member of the monthly Pamoja Writers Collective from 1981–1983. The workshop was held in the home of the American short story and fiction writer Toni Cade Bambara and was a gathering place for the building of black writing. This two-year, wholly community-based writing experience was Finney’s only organized creative writing workshop as a young writer. Its influence was monumental. The Pamoja Writers Collective in Finney’s words “was where she learned to close read, make a plan for my work and pay attention to the rich voices of people who were never considered writers by the world at large.”

Finney is the author of the poetry collections Love Child’s Hotbed of Occasional Poetry: Poems and Artifacts (Northwestern University Press, 2020); Head Off & Split (Northwestern University Press, 2011), winner of the 2011 National Book Award; The World Is Round (InnerLight Publishing, 2003), winner of the Independent Book Publishers Benjamin Franklin Award for Poetry; Rice (Sister Vision, 1995), winner of the PEN Open Book Award; and On Wings Made of Gauze (W. Morrow, 1985).

Finney is also the recipient of the Aiken-Taylor Award from the Sewanee Review and the University of the South, as well as the Benjamin Franklin Award for Poetry. In 2020, she received the Wallace Stevens Award, given annually by the Academy of American Poets to recognize outstanding and proven mastery in the art of poetry.

In his citation for the award, Kwame Dawes, the Ghanaian world literature scholar and editor-in-chief at Prairie Schooner 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 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. 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.”

After teaching undergraduates at the University of Kentucky, Lexington, for twenty-three years, Finney accepted a position at the University of South Carolina, where she is the John H. Bennett, Jr., Chair in Creative Writing and Southern Letters, with appointments in both the Department of English Language and Literature and the African American Studies Program. In this capacity, Finney teaches undergraduates and mentors poets in the MFA program. In 2020, she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.


Bibliography

Poetry

Love Child’s Hotbed of Occasional Poetry: Poems and Artifacts (Northwestern University Press, 2020)
Head Off & Split (Northwestern University Press, 2011)
The World Is Round (InnerLight Publishing, 2003)
Rice (Sister Vision, 1995)
On Wings Made of Gauze (W. Morrow, 1985)

Short Story

Heartwood (University Press of Kentucky, 1997)

Nikky Finney
Photo credit: Forrest Clonts

By This Poet

6

Left

   Eenee Menee Mainee Mo!
       —Rudyard Kipling, "A Counting-Out Song,"
in Land and Sea Tales for Scouts and Guides, 1923

           The woman with cheerleading legs
has been left for dead. She hot paces a roof,
four days, three nights, her leaping fingers,
helium arms rise & fall, pulling at the week-
old baby in the bassinet, pointing to the eighty-
two-year-old grandmother, fanning & raspy
in the New Orleans Saints folding chair.

                      Eenee Menee Mainee Mo!

           Three times a day the helicopter flies
by in a low crawl. The grandmother insists on
not being helpless, so she waves a white hand-
kerchief that she puts on and takes off her head
toward the cameraman and the pilot who
remembers well the art of his mirrored-eyed
posture in his low-flying helicopter: Bong Son,
Dong Ha, Pleiku, Chu Lai. He makes a slow
Vietcong dip & dive, a move known in Rescue
as the Observation Pass.

           The roof is surrounded by broken-levee
water. The people are dark but not broken. Starv-
ing, abandoned, dehydrated, brown & cumulous,
but not broken. The four-hundred-year-old
anniversary of observation begins, again—

                      Eenee Menee Mainee Mo!
                      Catch a—

The woman with pom-pom legs waves
her uneven homemade sign:

                      Pleas Help  Pleas

and even if the e has been left off the Pleas e

do you know simply 
by looking at her
that it has been left off
because she can't spell
(and therefore is not worth saving)
or was it because the water was rising so fast
there wasn't time?

                      Eenee Menee Mainee Mo!
                      Catch a— a—

           The low-flying helicopter does not know
the answer. It catches all this on patriotic tape,
but does not land, and does not drop dictionary,
or ladder.

           Regulations require an e be at the end
of any Pleas e before any national response
can be taken.

           Therefore, it takes four days before
the national council of observers will consider
dropping one bottle of water, or one case
of dehydrated baby formula, on the roof
where the e has rolled off into the flood,

                      (but obviously not splashed
loud enough)

where four days later not the mother,
not the baby girl,
but the determined hanky waver,
whom they were both named for,
(and after) has now been covered up
with a green plastic window awning,
pushed over to the side
right where the missing e was last seen.

                      My mother said to pick
                      The very best one!

What else would you call it,
Mr. Every-Child-Left-Behind.

Anyone you know
ever left off or put on
an e by mistake?

Potato   Po tato e

           In the future observation helicopters
will leave the well-observed South and fly
in Kanye-West-Was-Finally-Right formation.
They will arrive over burning San Diego.

           The fires there will be put out so well.
The people there will wait in a civilized manner.
And they will receive foie gras and free massage
for all their trouble, while there houses don't
flood, but instead burn calmly to the ground.

The grandmothers were right
about everything.

           People who outlived bullwhips & Bull
Connor, historically afraid of water and routinely
fed to crocodiles, left in the sun on the sticky tar-
heat of roofs to roast like pigs, surrounded by
forty feet of churning water, in the summer
of 2005, while the richest country in the world
played the old observation game, studied
the situation: wondered by committee what to do;
counted, in private, by long historical division;
speculated whether or not some people are surely
born ready, accustomed to flood, famine, fear.

                      My mother said to pick
                      The very best one
                      And you are not   it!

           After all, it was only po' New Orleans,
old bastard city of funny spellers. Nonswimmers
with squeeze-box accordion accents. Who would
be left alive to care?

The Condoleezza Suite [Excerpt]

Concerto no. 7: Condoleezza {working out} at the Watergate

Condoleezza rises at four, 
stepping on the treadmill. 

Her long fingers brace the two slim handles
of accommodating steel. 

She steadies her sleepy legs for the long day ahead. 
She doesn't get very far. 

Her knees buckle wanting back 
last night's dream. 

                                 [dream #9]

She is fifteen and leaning forward from the bench, 
playing Mozart's piano concerto in D minor, alone, 
before the gawking, disbelieving, applauding crowd. 

                                 not [dream #2]

She is nine, and not in the church that explodes into dust, 
the heart pine floor giving way beneath her friend Denise, 
rocketing her up into the air like a jack-in-the-box
of a Black girl, wrapped in a Dixie cross.

She ups the speed on the treadmill, remembering, 
she has to be three times as good. 

Don't mix up your dreams Condi. 

She runs faster, back to the right, finally hitting her stride. 
Mozart returns to her side. 

She is fifteen again, all smiles, and relocated
to the peaks of the Rocky Mountains, 

where she and the Steinway
are the only Black people in the room.

Cattails

One woman drives across five states just to see her. The woman being driven to has no idea anyone's headed her way. The driving woman crosses three bridges & seven lakes just to get to her door. She stops along the highway, wades into the soggy ground, cuts down coral-eyed cattails, carries them to her car as if they might be sherbet orange, long-stemmed, Confederate roses, sheared for Sherman himself. For two days she drives toward the woman in Kentucky, sleeping in rest areas with her seat lowered all the way back, doors locked. When she reaches the state line it's misting. The tired pedal-to-the-metal woman finally calls ahead. I'm here, she says. Who's this? The woman being driven to, who has never checked her oil, asks. The driving woman reminds her of the recent writing workshop where they shared love for all things out-of-doors and lyrical. Come, have lunch with me, the driving woman invites. They eat spinach salads with different kinds of dressing. They talk about driving, the third thing they both love and how fast clouds can change from state line to state line. The didn't-know-she-was-coming woman stares at she who has just arrived. She tries to read the mighty spinach leaves in her bowl, privately marveling at the driving woman's muscled spontaneity. She can hardly believe this almost stranger has made it across five states just to have lunch with her. She wonders where this mad driving woman will sleep tonight. She is of two driving minds. One convertible. One hardtop. The driving woman shows her pictures of her children. Beautiful, the other does not say. Before long words run out of petrol. The woman who is home, but without pictures of her own, announces she must go. The driving woman frets & flames, May I walk you to your car? They walk. The driver changes two lanes in third gear, fast. The trunk opens. The Mario Andretti look-alike fills the other woman's arms with sable-sheared cattails. Five feet high & badly in need of sunlight & proudly stolen from across five states. The woman with no children of her own pulls their twenty pounds in close, resting them over her Peter-Panning heart. Her lungs empty out, then fill, then fill again with the surge of birth & surprise. For two years, until their velvet bodies begin (and end) to fall to pieces, every time the driven-to woman passes the bouquet of them, there, in the vase by the front door, she is reminded of what falling in love, without permission, smells like. Each time she reaches for her keys, she recalls what you must be willing to turn into for love: spiny oyster mushroom, damson, salt marsh, cedar, creosote, new bud of pomegranate, Aegean sage blue sea, fig, blueberry, marigold, leaf fall, fogs eye, dusty miller, thief-of-the-night.

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