Country Grammar by Tara Betts
Mosaic #11, Fall 2001
Nikky Finney, daughter of civil rights workers, sees herself playing with the hottest, blue tongue of the flame as a witness with a pencil to the struggles of Black people and her family in the South. Documentation of these struggles represents the bulk of her poetry collection, Rice (Sister Vision Press, 1995), and also finds its hold on her works-in-progress—a novel, Frogmarch, and a third poetry collection, The World is Round.
Those precious moments granted her the opportunity to teach as a professor at University of Kentucky. In 1989, she moved to Lexington to teach at the university and joined the Affrilachian Poets, a collective of Southern Black poets who have been writing together for 12 years. “We were in need of each other and kept each other over the fire. We still start up every school year with new African American writers.” The classroom always presents its challenges. “You walk into a classroom and you have 15 poets getting ready to feed you and you’re all swimming at the same time.””One of the hardest things I do with writing is trying to teach writing. There is so much about writing that is mysterious and I want to stay that way. I never approach it like there is one way to do this. Each poem dictates how it is written.” Finney stresses this point in a time when so many young writers scramble to get a master’s degrees in writing. “If you’re going to a place to be taught to write, then you’re missing the point. Honoring who you are, sitting down, locking the door and listening to your voice is a part of writing. Plucking guts is your own part of the battle.”
Although Finney’s work has appeared in numerous anthologies, including The Bluelight Corner (Three Rivers Press, 1998) and Step Into A World (Wiley, 2000), she is still crafting her two works-in-progress. “I don’t expect to write a lot of books in my life. The poems have to arrive.”
”Writing is painstaking and is just as much a job as building a house. We don’t give ourselves the permission to write until someone sanctifies us. Instead of knocking on doors and plastering it on doors, people just go unrecognized. It’s also knowing how to be your bad ass peacock self.”
Finney follows this idea with a cautious truth that the rush to be published ignores. “Learn the craft and submerge yourselves in the power of the writing. We need to sit at someone’s shoulder and listen. We have to listen to knowledge brick-by-brick, then figure out what you can contribute to the tradition. We have to slow down and not be in such a rush, this is an art that becomes more intense with experience and age.” Reading and listening to the voice within as experiences accumulate and years pass is a part of what created Nikky Finney.
A voracious reader during her childhood, Finney praised the English teachers in the southern schools. “I was thrown into an ocean of words and I kept swimming,” Finney stressed this as deliberately as each of her words in a poem. It almost seems as if her speech is a draft with its careful metaphors and images reminiscent of the Harlem Renaissance and Black Arts Movement writers that influenced her.
Influences are sometimes not enough. “Writing and writers were not exactly something you aspired to be. When I started leaning towards it, embracing it, my parents have always been afraid.” In spite of her family’s fears, her grandmother, who passed away at age 99, encouraged her to finish Rice, a collection that revisits stories of ancestors and relatives long past and connections to our present Black selves.
Rice is easier to find than her first book, published when she was 26, On Wings Made of Gauze (William Morrow, 1985). “I have some burn marks with William Morrow and the way they handled my book. As a young, impressionable and naïve writer, I [had] to take in some truths sitting at the feet of Toni Cade Bambara.” As a result of the writing workshop she took with Bambara in Atlanta, Finney made a decision. “I would be more involved, be more aggressive, which was why I was satisfied with Sister Vision’s work on Rice.”Finney’s decision to trust a smaller press indicates how today’s writers have technology as a tool that offers them autonomy from bigger publishers, and allows them to make the work visible and full of integrity. “In this technically savvy age, where we are turning away from the arts, if there’s something you want to do, you can do it. You have to be prepared to put everything on the line, if not, then go to engineering school. If you are ready to make the sacrifice and tell the stories the way the ancestors gave them to you then you need to keep ‘coming on strong’ like Sterling Brown.”
”It [creating a poem] is the process of going over it hundreds and hundreds of times, breathing it in, reading it aloud and sharing it with the orchestra of the tongue, developing a familiarity with those pieces of the orchestra. It is the mapping, the remapping and the sketching of the poem that gets me back to the blue flame.”
Getting too close to the flame and enveloping the self in the hottest part of the flame helps some writers, Nikky Finney included, hone integrity and the craft of words beyond trends.