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May's Book
Rice
by Nikky Finney
Nikky Finney

Bill:
Welcome!

Nikky:
Thank you.

Bill:
And we are so glad you could sit down with us for a few moments. Where did these stories, these poems, come from.

Nikky:
I don't know the actual you know beginning point. I know that memory has a lot to do with it. I know that recalling my community from when I was a child, folks telling stories, recalling names and faces that perhaps were no longer there when I got to a certain age and I always wondered who these folks were and I always knew something about the importance of remembering those stories. So I don't have an actual beginning point but these come from home these come from community, they come from family, they come from also struggling always to understand why so many folks it seems are left out of the equation of American history and I felt the necessity to you know fix it.

Bill:
Were these all stored back in memory banks for years and years or did you choose pieces here and there and put them down and then suddenly put them all into this wonderful edition of Rice.

Nikky:
I think a little bit of both. I have always been a scribbler. I have always kept a journal ever since I was nine or ten. My folks were passionately involved in the Civil Rights movement of the 60s and I was too young to be out in the streets with them. But I remember keeping my little keyed diary close at hand and writing down what I saw from church windows and basements and kitchen windows and things like that and I felt like well okay if I can't be out there this is my way of participating. So there are notes scribbled back from when I was a girl and also combined that with memory and I think gives you a great canvas of where the stories and the poems were birthed.

Bill:
They are all so personal. Is it hard to expose yourself that way to the general audience? Is there a fear that you are revealing to much of yourself?

Nikky:
No I don't have that fear at all. I think that when I first started writing the hardest thing for me to do was to open up my mouth and share the poems. It was never hard to write down what I saw or to get it in a personal voice. And over time I have come to understand that human beings are so hungry for the truth of the story no matter what culture it comes out of no matter what community it comes out of I can't tell you how many folks along the path these last fifteen years of being a writer have just come up and affirmed the fact that you are doing something right and I think that that has kept me going but no not a fear. Sometimes its a fear of not even though the poems may seem very revealing and they are I always feel like I leave something out and I think that I write at what I'm doing now I could never have written at 20 or 30 and I think the older that I get more gets revealed. I have no idea what I'll be writing when I'm a little older but I welcome the journey.

Bill:
Is the best yet to come you think?

Nikky:
Oh I don't know I think you know what I wrote in my first book at 26 is truly and honestly what I had on my heart at 26 so you I don't compare its like comparing children. You don't do that. I'm at a point now where I'm writing stuff that really I'm moved to write just as I was at 26 so I think that the beautiful thing about being a writer as opposed to say an athlete if your body is failing you is that I think the more practice you have at living the more you can write if you sit down and do the work of it.

Bill:
I heard Susan Sontag just make the statement that she had heard someone say that the best work in a writer's life is in the first half of a writer's life uh but she felt and she's probably in her 50s maybe possibly early 60s that she is just finding her voice and finding this energy that makes her race to the tablet and to the computer, do you find that?

Nikky:
Absolutely, absolutely true. I mean if there's a there's a different there are different kinds of freedoms that come with age and at 20 you are so glad to be 20 dadada and but at 40 you are also claiming space and time and looking at life very differently so I totally agree with her assessment of the passion to sit and do the work now is so different from what it was. And it's you know again you can't compare it but it is very lively and very exciting and very sometimes very spontaneous in a way that I think maybe the other writing has not been. And less fearful. I think there is always I think fear is good I think fear drives you to do certain things but less fearful about what comes back. I think that's where I think that's where I am.

Bill:
Who are your heroes and heroines and mentors that you look to and who have been who have guided you through your writing career to date?

Nikky:
So many different levels. I one of the one of the inspirations for Rice is my grandmother who didn't go beyond the 8th grade and yet could walk through a forest in South Carolina and name the plants and the trees that she saw there she was also fiercely independent and a farming woman who could who needed very little from the outside world because she could either sew it or grow it or make it with her own hands. And I appreciate folks who are independent of needing so much from so many and there are so many who people I think are invisible in the world today who are extraordinary in this way. And I look to them for inspiration because I think we as Americans and as human beings get more dependent on things, technology and things to say we have to get up in the morning and can't get through our day without it and I think those other folks depended on an inner spirit and an inner drive an inner necessities to make family and make community and help one another and so I always find myself reaching back for those spirits and those individuals to guide me make sure I am on the right path, make sure I'm writing about the right things. You'll find in Rice stories about what I call people pushed to the side of life and I'm always bringing them back in to the path because I think as a teacher especially I have to remind young people that sometimes you are looking over the heads of people you should be writing about. Because for one reason or another they have been told that they have to write about certain kinds of people in order to get noticed. I don't believe that. I think the writing is what is important and being humane and being a part of the human race is absolutely a part of this process of trying to write it and get it right.

Bill:
Did you look to older African American poets and writers for inspiration?

Nikky:
Oh absolutely. Absolutely. My first in terms of just the writing stuff Gwendolyn Brooks, and was just a favorite. Langston Hughes I mean I grew up on the poets of the Harlem Renaissance and one and one aspect I also grew up on poets of the black arts movement of the 60s Nicky Giovani and Sonja Sanchez, and Don L. Lee, and Carolyn Rogers were also very inspiring. One of the things that I have tried to do with my work though is it to I believe like Lee Young Lee the great poet believed that all poetry is about love all poetry is about longing even when you are angry and mad and think that you can't find a word for it I think the word longing can hold everything that I do. I'm either longing to understand something or longing to get back to another time or remember someone longing to embrace something that is seemingly embraceable and so I I think that word for me is a is a basket a word that can hold all of the efforts that I put into my work that that generation the generation of my grandparents is in terms of writing is very crucial. I don't write like them but I am inspired by what they tried to say in there work and how they try to illuminate the community in ways that reminded us of who we were. I'm still trying to do that for the generation behind me coming up as young writers coming up. It's very important to.

Bill:
This may be an unfair question - it's like asking an actor what there favorite movie is or a songstress what her most delightful lyric is. May I ask you what your favorite poems are in Rice?

Nikky:
Yes very,

Bill:
Because they all mean so much.

Nikky:
They all mean so much. There is a story behind every poem there. The photographs are very important they don't have names on the pictures and that was on purpose because I know that we all have photographs that are under the bed and in boxes and dust and that represent family members, lost to memory, to active memory but you don't aren't necessarily lost to passive memory and so I wanted the pictures to hopefully stir all of us to look at pictures and wonder who folks were. Ask questions because I think there is a terrible loss between generations between young people not going up to older people on porches or in old folks homes and having a conversation. I mean it is one of the writing exercises that I try to give my students is to say look go do this. And they come back with just amazing stories about how they are going to call their grandparents when they get home. Because something is lost. We don't sit at dinner tables any more and have those conversations so I hoped Rice would spur that kind of reconnection between the generations of families.

Bill:
Tell us a little bit about you and what you are doing now. Tell us about what you did at Berea and now what you are going to be doing through the summer and the fall.

Nikky:
I have been at Berea College the past for the past year the 1999-2000 year as the Chair of the Humanities just a great experience to work with young people there and to be a part of that community that very socially active community in Kentucky and in the country. In the fall I return to the University of Kentucky in the Creative Writing Department I have been there about seven years and I resume my teaching and working activities there.

Bill:
Is it difficult to teach and write? Would you rather write full time.

Nikky:
I would rather write full time I think and do something else I think teaching is a challenge and I'm always conscious of the fact that I am teaching and actually my students do inspire me to do some work. Its just the time element that you have to I think stay aware of what you are doing and stay aware that you've got a lot to do on your own and don't get totally consumed by the act. I know that the way I teach I have a tendency to give my students my home phone number and you know care take a little you know a little over the line. But that's how I was taught. I want to pass that on in that way so I just have to become. Stay conscious of it so that I can also go home and sit at the desk and do my work.

Bill:
What does it mean to you it must mean an enormous amount that there has been more attention to poetry in the last year or so that the national poet laureate I happened to be in Chicago last year and was there during the book festival and part of what he was Penske was doing there was asking people to read their favorite poems and he's captured all of that and there just seems to be a real emphasis on people picking up poetry that have never read it before.

Nikky:
Uh huh

Bill:
What does that say to you as a poet?

Nikky:
Well it says that the form is alive and well and being talked about and new breath is being brought to it and that is a wonderful thing. There are so many different forms and so many different experiences of poetry being brought alive in the country from poetry slams to cafes to the project that you mentioned which is an amazing one. I think. So I think that it just it keeps us going you know it keeps the genre full and alive and breathing with new energy and I think that any art form needs that. And so you know we in this country we go through phases of liking something and disliking something and poetry has been through that for many years and will experience it again but those of us who love it and those of us to understand that we do poetry to breath smile at you know when it's popular and hold it close when its not. So we just we just cherish it in that way.

Bill:
Thank you so much for sitting down with us.

Nikky:
Thank you.

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