Even as a teenager, Nikky Finney knew she wanted to become a poet. She published her first book in 1985, and has taught writing for years at the university level. In November, her collection Head Off & Split received the National Book Award for poetry.
Finney talks with NPR's Neal Conan about how her life has changed since receiving the award, and about her life spent pursuing her dream of becoming a poet.
On how life is different since winning the National Book Award
"People ... come up to me and say, 'We were sitting in front of our computers, streaming the National Book Awards. We had bowls of popcorn and Coke and beer. And when you won, it was like the room went up into this great cheer.' ...
"People have just [been] constantly coming up, the notes, the cards, the well-wishers. I haven't been able to write a poem in the last two weeks. That's different because I usually try to write every day. My mother calls me five times a day instead of three times a day now to make sure all is well. Everything has changed."
On the moment she knew she was truly a poet
"I think I said it quietly to myself, but I wanted to find the path. I did not come to poetry through a very traditional manner. I loved poetry as a child in a small Southern town in South Carolina, but there weren't any poets around. I didn't know how to do it. And so I kept meeting people on the path, on the trail to say, OK, put this piece into the puzzle. This is, you know, put this in your pocket. And so as I continued up that road, past 19[-years-old], my pockets got full.
"I met more people. I've turned left there and went up two blocks and then turned right there. And so there was no great declaration, just the sort of dedicated steps toward trying to learn the path that I needed to be on to do what I wanted to do. ...
"I think that it's an accumulation of many moments: The first time I had a reading, the first time a poet or a teacher gave me a poem, red-marked up, back. And I sat and the poet ... Nikki Giovanni said to me once: 'Finney, up under all this red is something beautiful trying to happen.' And I said, 'OK. OK, let's take two more steps.'
"And so it was like an accumulation of many years and many steps. Someone asked me, after the acceptance speech: When did you write that? And I said, I've been writing that speech my whole life: a word here, a phrase there, a history lesson there, all of it is an accumulation of a life lived, I think."
On the moment that inspired her award-winning collection, Head Off & Split
"I walked into Liberty Street Seafood [in Sumter, S.C.] Mama sent me for fish, like she had done a million times. And the fishmonger standing there, I have my fish in a silver bowl. I'm handing the fish over, and he goes, 'head off and split.'
"And suddenly, in the life of the poet, I changed from the daughter to the poet in that second. And I'm thinking: That is a beautiful metaphor for something I need to write about. I go out in the car. The fish is in the newspaper on the seat. I'm looking for a pencil on the floor, and I write it down.
"And five years later, Head Off & Split is born."
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
As a young woman, Nikky Finney decided to pursue what she said was the only life she ever wanted. A couple of weeks ago and a couple of decades later, she reached a new pinnacle few poets get to when she received the National Book Award. "Head Off & Split" tells stories in vivid, sometimes exuberant, sometimes searing language. It's her fourth collection. Nikky Finney now a poet by anybody's standard and anyone's definition. Well, if you write verse, when did you assign yourself the title poet?
Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email, firstname.lastname@example.org. Join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Poet Nikky Finney also a professor of creative writing at the University of Kentucky and joins us from a studio in Lexington. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION and congratulations again.
NIKKY FINNEY: Thank you so much, Neal. Good to be here.
CONAN: Have you had a chance to catch your breath?
FINNEY: No, sir.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
FINNEY: I don't think that's going to happen for a while. In fact, I love the idea of trying to catch my breath, like running behind it or in front of it or somewhere else. It's a good feeling.
CONAN: What's changed for you since you won the award?
FINNEY: Everything. The people who come up to me and say we were sitting in front of our computers, streaming the National Book Award. We had bowls of popcorn and Coke and beer. And when you won, it was like the room went up into this great cheer. You know, so the people have just constantly coming up, the notes, the cards, the well-wishers. I haven't been able to write a poem in the last two weeks. That's different because I usually try to write every day. My mother calls me five times a day instead of three times a day now...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
FINNEY: ...to make sure all is well. Everything has changed, Neal.
CONAN: It's interesting you try to write every day. Writers write. Poets sit in - a lot of it is putting your butt in the chair every day, isn't it?
FINNEY: You have to sit in the chair. You have to do it that way. You learn sitting in that chair what's working and what's not working. You learn what - that you have to, you know, omit some things. You have to take things out. You have to revise. It is the art and craft of making a poem that brings me to the chair every day still.
CONAN: Revision, it's interesting you note in the start of "Head Off & Split" that some of these poems appeared in slightly different form in various other places. Even after they've been published, you revise.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
FINNEY: Yes. Yes. Absolutely. Some poets might choose not to do that, but I think that a poem is a live thing and because I'm constantly changing, the poem is constantly changing also.
CONAN: You - we played a clip earlier where you said you made your decision to pursue poetry at age 19. Did you at that moment declare yourself: I am a poet?
FINNEY: I don't think I said it with such declaration. I think I said it quietly to myself, but I wanted to find the path. I did not come to poetry through a very traditional manner. I loved poetry as a child in a small Southern town in South Carolina, but there weren't any poets around. I didn't know how to do it. And so I kept meeting people on the path, on the trail to say, OK, put this piece into the puzzle. This is, you know, put this in your pocket. And so as I continued up that road, past 19, my pockets got full.
I met more people. I've turned left there and went up two blocks and then turned right there. And so I didn't - there was no great declaration, just the sort of dedicated steps toward trying to learn the path that I needed to be on to do what I wanted to do.
CONAN: Was there a singular moment where you said, well, I guess I'm a poet now?
FINNEY: I don't remember that singular moment. I think that it's an accumulation of many moments, the first time I had a reading, the first time a poet or a teacher gave me a poem, red-marked up, back. And I sat and the poet said to me - Nikki Giovanni said to me once: Finny, up under all this red is something beautiful trying to happen. And I said, OK. OK, let's take two more steps. And so it was, like, an accumulation of many years and many steps. Someone asked me, after the acceptance speech: When did you write that? And I said, I've been writing that speech my whole life: a word here, a phrase there, a history lesson there, all of it is an accumulation of a life lived, I think.
CONAN: Well, we'd like to hear from those poets in our audience about when was that moment they thought they could call themselves poet. 800-989-8255. Email: email@example.com. But you mentioned your childhood, and I was wondering if you could read a poem from your book, "Head off & Split," that I think refers to that childhood: "Liberty Street Seafood."
FINNEY: Certainly. I stand in line. Behind me, the hungry stretch and wiggle out the door. Sterling cake bowls nestle in ice, mullet, striped bass, whiskered cat, rock shrimp, steel porgies, blue crab. No eel till Christmas. Mother muscles, flat-faced flounder, sleeping snapper, whiting, one sea turtle, lazy fishermen. In his fishmonger-owner apron, Randy is white, round as blowfish, conducting this orchestra of desire.
Members, the cut boys and the lined up who come every day and wait in between frozen ice and hot oil. The cut boys are well-suited in fish scale and high up on risers above us. They sing out with their knives. Stationed inside, tiny cutting boots, slashing this throat and that fish tune, veritas. Those who are exquisite at beheading always occupy a throne. One has a giant afro. Another's hair is finely braided backward, like flattened rows of corn. The half straight-ends of his thick, black wool curl up his neck like one, large, thin. The last one has shaved and greased his head for duty.
Old men who sit around outside the front door tease. Early on, they named him dolphin. He is playful, jumpy, slick, far more endangered than the other two. All three wear the heavy, rubber smocks of men who use their hands to kill and feed. All three hold knives longer than their Johnsons. For now, they are safe. The wet wood engulfs them from the waist down. Cleaned fish, their handiwork, will soon be on display at 96 dinner tables south side.
We pass the time by lying. How you do? Fine. Alabaster fish scales streak and dot their hair like Mardi Gras keepsakes. Fish petals float into the wet air. Black, Indian, Zulu, sequined, smelly, bloody scales settle across three sets of brown hands, arms in muscle shirts, scales thick as white evening gloves. The cut boys turn each fish over like one-eyed fabric dolls.
One-half is Mama Helen's(ph) eyelashes. He is the jittery dolphin on the loose. A hand-me-down afro pick sits in number two's back pocket. This one with a tail always on his neck, has a fist always on his comb, circa 1975, belonging to his brother, thrown under the jail, up under in Upstate Connecticut. The cause: a bad fight about a chica gone jugular.
These cut boys shine jewel and scale, stationed before a wall of black and silver ways and means. Eastern star daughters and North Star slaves stare out of the hungry through their notched eyes. They whisper and laugh, loving how we wait on them. Three black boys in hip-hop haute couture, in suits of bloody rubber smocks standing side by side, making $3 an hour beheading and detailing fish, their long knives whacking pine all day. Fish eyes roll. So Friday is made. The white man reaches for the money, faces the hungry, his back fully turned, their knives just above his head.
CONAN: "Liberty Street Seafood." This is Nikky Finney, from her book "Head Off & Split," which just won the National Book Award. And it also relates to the title of the book.
FINNEY: Absolutely. I - in fact, the title came - I walked into Liberty Street Seafood. Mama sent me for fish, like she had done a million times. And the fishmonger standing there, I have my fish in a silver bowl. I'm handing the fish over, and he goes: head off and split. And suddenly, in the life of the poet, I changed from the daughter to the poet in that second. And I'm thinking: That is a beautiful metaphor for something I need to write about. I go out in the car. The fish is in the newspaper on the seat. I'm looking for a pencil on the floor, and I write it down. And five years later, "Head Off & Split" is born.
CONAN: We want to hear from out listeners who write poetry, when they thought of themselves as poets. 800-989-8255. Ashley's on the line from Oklahoma City.
ASHLEY: Hi. Thank you so much for taking my call. I love TALK OF THE NATION. I listen to it every day.
CONAN: Oh, thank you for that.
ASHLEY: No problem. The time I knew I was a poet is when I wrote something, and it scared me. I would say poetry bravery, because you have to revisit places that you don't want to, that you (unintelligible), that you're scared of. And when you can pour that out and articulate it, that's when I knew I was poet. That's when I felt like I have - there's some validity to the words that I have inside of me.
CONAN: Nikky Finney, that seems as a good a definition as any.
FINNEY: Oh, that is - Ashley is right on the money. She just said it beautifully. I feel the same way about some things that I have written in my life. She's absolutely right about that. And sometimes, one of the things we give our students, as poetry teachers, is that assignment: Write about something that scares you. Don't be afraid to look at it. Don't look away. And, you know, to talk about what Ashley's talking about, this book is also built upon that premise of nothing looking away. Don't just hand me the fish back all beautiful and ready to eat. Let me have to cut the head off. Let me have to look at the cold, dead eyes of the fish. Let me understand where the fish has come from and from how far, and what does it look like. So Ashley's right. She's right on the money on that.
CONAN: Ashley, is there a poem in your desk drawer that you've never shown anyone?
ASHLEY: There is. There's so many. There's so many letters I've written. I've written - I'm working on a project right now with one of my friends, and we're writing suicide notes. And not that we've thought about it, it's just that being able to say something and don't have - and you don't have to worry about - you don't have to stand up or answer for those words. You can just say them and put them out into the universe, and those are there.
CONAN: Well, put them out into the universe, Ashley.
ASHLEY: Yes. I...
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. Good luck.
ASHLEY: Thank you. Thank you so much.
CONAN: We're talking with National Book Award-winner Nikky Finney. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
And let's go next to Dave, Dave calling from Tucson.
DAVE: Hi, there.
CONAN: Go ahead, Dave.
DAVE: Good to hear Nikky, and good to hear you, too, Neal. First realizing when one is a poet, that's a tall order, because there's the voice inside yourself that's saying, I'm writing poetry. And when it's on the page - and when I was first published, somebody said, well, you're a poet. So I've to kind of disabuse myself sometimes of what is the notion of being a poet. First, as a - who an individual is that writes poetry that's worth reading or reading to others. And it's always a struggle to go ahead and not to think I'm a poet, versus sitting down and writing, because writing is the whole ball of wax. Now, I would have a question to ask about: How do you fight the battle about self-censorship, when you got a subject matter that you know that is going to turn into a poem, and you're working it, but then you wonder about the ramifications of - once it gets to the world?
FINNEY: I really don't worry about the ramifications. I know I used to when I was much younger. But I really feel like - I've been doing this 30 years, and I don't worry about the ramifications. I really pay attention to the words on the page. I want to honor the process of writing the poem. I want to tell the truth. I want to tell it beautifully. I don't really think about the people who are trying to get on my shoulder to say, don't say that.
CONAN: Dave, thanks very much.
DAVE: Thank you.
CONAN: Nikky Finney, could we ask you to read another one?
CONAN: How about "Hash Marks"?
FINNEY: Perfect. "Hash Marks." Drayton Hall Plantation, for South Carolina and its corridor, a shame. The blue-bonnet children had a wall. The swimming swamp dogs, too. Their hash marks of height play peek with the same canary sun, plantation measurements of progress. See? This is them on two legs. This is higher one here on four. On this tour, every visitor but one gets misty-eyed concerning the preservation of the pencil lines.
Where is the wall that brims the height and progress of the Negroes? Sheet rock record of cross cutbacks, split hymens, slit bellies, sold-away sons, no recording from the precise recorders of these, to honey other calculations that grandfather time. What is here for me in the big house is suspended, afloat in bee amber, each long drawn, lost, longing, root-cellared, pickled, airtight, dunked in blue glass jars, wax-dripped tops, shout and twist.
CONAN: "Hash Marks," another poem from "Head Off & Split." The book is dedicated to the late Lucille Clifton. And I think, of all the poems in that book, this one reminds me most of her.
FINNEY: Mm-hmm. Oh, Neal, you are so - you are a poet. You are a reader of poetry. You are giving yourself away. Lucille Clifton had another poem about a plantation in South Carolina that she visited. And so my inspiration for this poem came precisely from that poem of hers. So that was a great feed right there. That was perfect. Yes, yes, absolutely. She was a great inspiration of mine. I had the pleasure and honor of interviewing her in her home in Columbia, Maryland several years before she died.
I remember the moment that I decided - you asked me this before, and I thought, well, there was this other moment that involved Lucille Clifton. I was in Strand's Book Store, and I found Lucille Clifton's book "Generations." And it had both photographs of her family, as well as poems about that family. And I said to myself in that poetry aisle: You can do this? You can put photographs - another love of mine - with poems? And, thus, my idea for my second book, "Rice," came into my imagination, where I combined pictures of my family with also stories of growing up in South Carolina in the 1960s.
CONAN: Nikky Finney's fourth book, "Head Off & Split," got the National Book Award a couple of weeks ago in New York. Nikky Finney, again, congratulations and good luck to you.
FINNEY: Neal, thank you so much for this moment. I really appreciate it.
CONAN: Nikky Finney, also a professor of creative writing at the University of Kentucky. And she joined us from a studio in Lexington.
On Monday, we'll look at the difficult choices facing the United States on Syria. Join us for that. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.