Looking Ahead With Nikky Finney

Award-winning poet and USC professor Nikky Finney explains how art brings to light the truth others are afraid to say.

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Nikky Finney is a South Carolina-born poet and educator who returned to teach at USC after spending many years teaching at the University of Kentucky. Here, she holds a joint position in the African-American Studies and English departments. Although we recently met in person for the first time, I have known Nikky Finney for years through her poetry. Finney’s “Head Off & Split” won the National Book Award in 2011. It is a collection that challenges the personal and the historical. It invites us into a world where famous politicians and family members interact like old, stubborn friends. As a teenager, I dreamed about leaving South Carolina for some utopia in the North that never struggled with racism, poverty or ignorance. Finney was the first South Carolinian I knew to marry acceptance with resistance, to instill beauty in all of our state’s flaws. Her poetry, in all its honest, messy, humble splendor, showed me a better way to love South Carolina.

During these dark political times, I encourage every reader to pick up a copy of “Head Off & Split.” But since I can’t reproduce her poetry in print, I thought that listening to Finney speak might work as well. Below are quotes from an in-person interview with Finney in her Welsh Humanities Building office. For anyone seeking wisdom, solace or beauty from a woman who knows what it’s like to fight for freedom firsthand, I hope that Finney proves as inspiring to you as she has to me.

ON GROWING UP IN THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT: It made me who I am. Period. As a child, you come out thinking, before the world educates you otherwise, that people are the same, that people should be given the same rewards for the same work. I grew up in a time when I learned that wasn’t true. We call ourselves a country of freedom-seekers, but we don’t live by that in the ways that I believe we should. I was always asking a lot of questions, and I grew up understanding that you’re supposed to be responsible for being a part of the answer.

ON POETRY AND SOCIAL JUSTICE: If you’re listening to politicians talk, they will tell you what they think you want to hear. Good art has the opposite rule. Good art says, “You need to hear this, and I love you enough to want to say it to you.” That is one of the things I love about being an artist. Sometimes I have to take a deep breath and say something really difficult, not because I’m trying to win an election, but because I’m trying to have a conversation with a fellow human being.

ON THE WOMEN’S MARCH: I can’t even go to sleep, I’m so excited. You can feel like you’re by yourself, and then you look up and see 10 million humans across the planet saying, “No, you’re not wrong. We stand in solidarity with you.” I was excited beyond words to watch the signage, the singing, the joy, the embracing of love and empowerment, and people putting their bodies in front of their words and gathering in the streets all around the world. We can’t just march one day. It’s a time to be vigilant and proactive and to use many of the tools that were used in the ‘60s and ‘70s, not just to change minds and hearts, but to change laws.

ON HER FAVORITE POEM SHE’S WRITTEN: I don’t have a favorite. That would be like choosing between children.

ON BEING AN ARTIST: I think artists love beauty, but also when beauty is side by side with something that helps us as human beings, some notion of our complexity and our connection to each other. Discovering that is a really important part of my work as a writer. I didn’t know you before you walked in here, but when you said you’d read my book, I thought, oh, we’ve been in conversation before.

ON STUDENTS: I want my students to be critical thinkers. I want them to be close readers of essays and novels and poems. I want them to see themselves and where they fit in what they’re reading so they can make good decisions about what they want their lives to stand for. Here at the university, we’re responsible for academics but also for creating responsible human beings, humans who have ideas, who aren’t silent about them, who are powerful and present and engaged. This is a really important time for young people not just to engage in the rhetoric, but to engage in the honesty of who they are in 2017.

ON HER FATHER (CHIEF JUSTICE ERNEST FINNEY): My dad is an amazing human being. He taught me so much about the human heart. Not a man who would write a poem, but a man who cares so much about people. I had this poem that was read at his inauguration called “The Justice Man,” and I feel that that is him. He has fought for justice in South Carolina for many, many decades.

ON SOUTH CAROLINA: I was in Kentucky for 23 years, and I would come back and forth quite often, but it’s nothing like waking up here. South Carolina has good people. It also has a history of not including enough people who are marginalized. So many people struggling to live and to eat and to not be homeless, and I think we can do a better job at seeing them, at recognizing that they are valuable, about doing something to help their lives. These are our citizens of our state, and yet we don’t feel compelled. It’s tough to be here and not be critical of that. I am still pushing for South Carolina to be better than it is, because I think it can be. I think sometimes it doesn’t want to be, willingly, and that’s why artists and others have to push for better days ahead. I think we have a lot of work to do.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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