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May's Book
Rice
by Nikky Finney

Bill:
Travel with us down path filled with passion raw emotion and powerful yet simple words as the bookclub@ket enters the world of Rice with poet Nikky Finney. These are poems of grace, beauty and integrity celebrating African American tradition and culture. bookclub@ket starts now.

Bill:
What about this poetry and this is our first book of poetry that we have attempted in a year and a half on the bookclub@ket, and I think we have chosen a good subject. Somebody begin and tell me what they think about Nikky Finney's Rice.

Dava:
Well I'm just a college student, but I do have an honors class and we focus on poetry. Earlier in the semester we talked a lot about T. S. Elliott, and we focused on poems that have a really big social impact or deep meaning to them so I'm used to reading poetry with such deep meaning not just poetry for fun or a cute little limerick. So when I read this it was directly along the lines of the things that I had already read, and in just every poem you knew what Nikky Finney had to say; you knew what she felt in her heart, and it was very deeply moving. The majority of the poems they dealt with how she felt.

Lynda:
The poems tell wonderful stories about Nikky and her family. And by the time you have finished the book you feel like you know not just Nikky but you know everything about her. You know her grandparents, her aunt, her sister. So much of her is invested in this book of poetry, and they are not just disconnected thoughts, but they are deeply woven rich stories about her family.

Jonathan:
Yeah, it's a very sincere, honest kind of poetry. A lot of it is autobiographical, and it's written in a very kind of bare, free verse style and with deliberately unpunctuated use of colloquialism, very conversational style, and it's all part of a kind of poetical sincerity, I think. And also kind of poetry of reverence because I think there is a great reverence in the tone of a lot of the poems for her family members and also for the rich heritage that she comes from. And the title of the book Rice; we ought to say it may initially suggest an Asian theme, but it clearly is rooted in the idea (as she explains in the introduction) that in South Carolina many slaves were imported from Senegal and other African countries to plant rice and harvest rice and so on. Therefore it's a book about the African American heritage in South Carolina in general and then a particular focus on family members and poems of tribute to her father and grand grandmother and so a great since of reverence I hear in the voice.

Lynda:
That's true.

Jonathan:
Right, you know.

Lynda:
And then rice is sustenance as well. Not only as a crop that that was harvested but also as sustenance for the family and sustenance for the soul as well and that rice as a meal was served breakfast through dinner. There was always rice on the table. So rice is a metaphor as well for the nurturing. . .

Jonathan:
hmmm

Lynda:
. . . in the family.

Bill:
In Rice as symbolic of words and how they are so important in telling these stories, and you mentioned heartfelt and you mentioned deep emotion, and also there is an anger there too.

Lynda:
hmmm

Wilma:
I thought they were very powerful and, poetry is always powerful in a way because it's very concentrated so you get the emotion double time. But a great deal of poetry kind of rocks you into understanding; this pushes you into it. You actually have to look at yourself and see yourself in some of it and you feel the anger. I found it very powerful and almost unrelenting. . .

Lynda:
hmmm.

Wilma:
. . . in a way.

Lynda:
True

Wilma:
Did you feel that way too?

Lynda:
Oh, certainly and the fact that life was so difficult. And racism was so pervasive and the injustice that her relatives her relatives faced, particularly her father being born by a doctor who was drunk. The poems, as you said, there was a tone of anger. But there was always that tone that her family had overcome, had risen beyond. But, in addition, the African American culture was also discussed and in terms of what had been put upon the culture through racism and slavery and...

Wilma:
Two of my favorite poems actually even go beyond that. Strangely enough I liked the one about Queen the mini-series.

Lynda:
hmmm.

Wilma:
And had felt the same way about it. It's almost an embarrassment and then also the one about Whoopi Goldberg. I had felt that way when Ted Danson had put on black face at the Friar's roast and I thought that was exceptionally powerful and interesting. Her entire outlook on that was just so true to point.

Lynda:
Absolutely.

Wilma:
And when she said about Whoopi, "you are not the first black woman to be dragged to the fire" or something like that for the roasting, you know with your feet to the fire. I thought that was very interesting.

Bill:
What about the three ways that she divided the book up. I think there are three segments: "Heel Toe," "Thresh," and "Winnow." What do you think she was trying to do there? Was there an attempt to really divide some of the stories that she was telling into a lighter selection or two into more of the personal? Talk to me about those three segments.

Wilma:
Well, certainly, the threshing segment had the more dramatic stories.

Lynda:
The violence.

Wilma:
Down from history. The violence.

Lynda:
Absolutely.

Wilma:
And the first part was a little lighter; then you get into more of the violence and the drama.

Lynda:
Planting the seed. It was the beginning.

Wilma:
Yes.

Bill:
"Heel Toe"

Jonathan:
Planting the seed.

Lynda:
Leading up to ...

Wilma:
And then the "Winnow" part was a little light, not lighter and I shouldn't say that but it wasn't as...

Bill:
I might have used that too and that's really not the word that you can use.

Wilma:
Well, in comparison maybe to the middle part.

Bill:
In comparison to the others but that's the third segment.

Jonathan:
When she introduces "Thresh" as a theme, she gives various definitions.

Lynda:
hmmm.

Jonathan:
One being to deliver blows -- I guess when you thresh corn. Then another one, a secondary meaning, being to talk over thoroughly and vigorously in order to reach an understanding. I guess that, in a sense, is what she's doing in the poetry -- to talk about the experiences in order to reach an understanding of them.

Lynda:
But even so, even as we make that point it's really a broad point to make because even in Heal Toe there are poems that speak to violence and the violence of bringing Africans to America, For example, in the poem "Making Foots" and many a foot was chopped off an African high grass runner and made into a cotton picking plowing peg and on.

Bill:
That's exactly where I turned.

Everyone laughs

Bill:
Lynda, that's the one that I wanted to speak about. And again I know all of you have a section to read and favorite poem. April was national poetry month, and it seemed like there was a lot of poetry read, and we saw more about poets. There seems to be a resurgence in our country with poets and poetry, and I'm so proud of the fact that we chose Rice and hope that people can look at these poems and read them aloud, too. "Making Foots," which is in the Rice segment, when you just are quiet for a moment and hear these words being spoken or read.

Many a foot
was chopped
off an African highgrass runner
and made into
a cotton picking
plowing peg
was burned away into
two festering runaway sores
was beaten around
into a southern gentleman's original
club foot design

Those are strong powerful words and paint a picture that is not easily forgotten and that's only one of the poems in that section of "Thresh."

Dava:
I think that poem is especially significant because I was wanting to read from that poem also -- because it introduces yet another aspect of her poetry. It is not only a story or her life, a story of her family, and poetry about her soul. It also issues forth a call to action to the current generation not to forget the tradition and to see it as it was, and she is angry I think in many of these poems because it has been glossed over and so many people have forgotten. So even in "Making Foots" at the very end it says,

If your black foot
ever wakes you up
in the night
wanting to talk about something
aching there
under the cover
out loud
for no apparent
reason

There is reason

I think that is a very important aspect of all her poetry.

Lynda:
And also in "Making Foots" she talks about her father's feet are bad and once whenever he gets home the first thing to go are his shoes.

a special size is needed
to fit around
ankle bones broken at birth

And that refers to the poem "Afterbirth" which tells of her father's violent birth. So, when you read the book, the poems really refer back to each other too and add context to the entire reading.

Bill:
They do and I thought that was one of the most interesting aspects of the book that you don't really realize at first. I don't know how many books of poetry do that. The poetry that I have read sometimes, of course, it does relate and they can relate to each other, but a lot of times they stand alone. Sometimes you are reading something early in the book that might refer to a character and you don't find out who that is until later. I thought that was intriguing.

Lynda:
That makes you want to go back and forth.

Wilma:
I do too.

Lynda:
Once you have gone to the end you want to go back and start all over again.

Jonathan:
The book really as a whole is very pleasurable. I think many of the individual poems are really wonderful, but reading it as a whole really is the way to read it.

Everyone agrees.

Jonathan:
Somebody said that it's like a complete meal. You know with three different servings. I think many good books of poetry do have that kind of unity. Bill, you are talking about if they don't actually refer to each other in terms of referring to particular characters or names, nonetheless there may be a similar kind of language or imagery used and it's all knitted together. Very frequently, particularly in universities and high schools today when we read poems, we just read individual poems by an author or maybe two and because we read them in anthologies and so it's very valuable to read poetry in an anthology written by an author full of the intentions of that author in terms of shaping them and putting one poem after another in a particular order. I think you have a different experience of poetry when you read it like that as opposed to reading it in an anthology where you just get little bits and pieces from books.

Bill:
But don't you think that you need some breathing room in these poems too. I agree about reading them as a whole, but after reading "Afterbirth" or "Making Foots" or some of them, I found that you have to put the book down and let it be for a while.

Jonathan:
Many of the poems are about very painful experiences and painful aspects in American history -- racial injustice, lynchings, slavery, and in some cases to unpleasant experiences in family. But what keeps you going is the voice of the poet who continually wants you to keep reading. In other words, although it's very painful and sometimes unpleasant subject matter, what prevents you from putting it down is the aesthetic pleasure of the voice. The beauty is of the tonality of the voice, and I think that when you hear Nikky Finney read her poems, you know she is a wonderful reader of the poetry. It has a kind of authority and vitality when it's read aloud. That is a little different from when you see it on the page. She performs a poem, and I think if in fact the students said to me they didn't get a poem, I would say read it aloud and listen to it because the aesthetic pleasure of the language comes through with the reading aloud.

Lynda:
She is brutally honest though.

Jonathan:
Yes.

Lynda:
And I can see how it might be difficult. She talks about her own family members if you are to believe that these are really her aunts or uncles or. . .

Bill:
Sister.

Lynda:
Yeah, sister. But "Acquanetta of Hollywood," the aunt who doesn't quite understand her own heritage and doesn't quite get it. You know that's quite a portrait to draw of a family member. (laughs) So...

Wilma:
I liked the way that she didn't let us forget throughout that she is a poet writing. Occasionally, we get into the poetry completely and then she will have a poem about her being an author, about her being a writer. I liked the first poem for that reason and it looks very simple, but the imagery in it is wonderful. It's called "The Blackened Alphabet." And she says,

While others sleep
My black skillet sizzles
Alphabets dance and I hit the return key
On my tired But ever jumping eyes
I want more I hold out for some     more
While others just now turn over
shut down alarms
I am on I am on
I am pencilfrying
sweet Black alphabets
In an allnight oil

And that pencil frying is just wonderful.

Lynda:
Isn't it, though. And there are moments I know in my life when I've stayed up all night and getting something done and I'm writing and the keyboard is just sizzling and I think I'm really on it.

Everyone laughs.

Lynda:
Those words are flying.

Wilma:
Later, she has a poem too where she leaves the pencils in her hair. And she has gotten so engrossed in her writing that when she goes to bed, she leaves the pencils in her hair and they stab her in the night. It has some good energy in it, too.

Lynda:
hmmm

Wilma:
But, from time to time she reminds us that she is a poet, and this is the important job that she's been given in life -- to commemorate all of this about the background her own family and herself. So I think it's really a very fine whole book of poems.

Bill:
And she talks about herself and at times pokes a little fun at herself, in "Tenderheaded" about her hair where she writes,

I am
and have been
since they used to pass me around
by my three mule braids
like a bowl of briarberries
no one wanted to touch
but everyone wanted to see

"You take her!"
"Ohh no mam, I had her last time, remember?"

Nobody
No body
wanted to straighten this hair
and I didn't want nobody to

So, if you see her on our Web site there is an opportunity for people to hear her read one her selections. I think again poetry is written to be heard and to be spoken and she does lend a drama to it which I think adds a great deal to it.

Wilma:
There is another black poet, of course, Frank X. Walker and she refers to him twice in two of the poems that I enjoyed and I heard him read his poetry last week.

Bill:
Hmmm

Wilma:
So this is a really good tie-in on that, too. One of the last ones has to do with him and an earlier one too. "The Goodfellows Club" where she says he is kind of the last of the dying breed. You know he is still a gentleman, even though he is not yet thirty years old. Then the other is "The Mapmaker," and she says that they have asked for a person to work with his hands and they find much more.

We sent for
a man with hands
a carver
a stonecutter
a chiseler
someone to dig through
all the distortions
to etch us right
someone to bring us out
out of all the wood grains there are
and finally be
all our living colors
Mapmaker
your touch
and wood talks
like a compass
a protractor
between all your many hands
measuring us out
underneath all your sawdust fingernails
rulering us around

So she does give some credence to other authors, and he's not the only one. She talks about some of the women authors who have influenced her. And I find that helps save some some of the overbearing relentless feeling.

Bill:
hmmm.

Wilma:
Because you get some idea of some optimism and good solid. . .

Lynda:
There was whimsy through the book as well.

Wilma:
hmmm.

Lynda:
And Jonathan mentioned the colloquialisms that are scattered throughout the poems. They resonate absolutely with me, and it was just wonderful seeing old familiar expressions dropped into poetry. There have been times when there are poems that I have been told to read that I found very difficult to access. You know to find meaning in. But these poems were like yeah, right!

Everyone laughs

Lynda:
I know that expression. It rang very true. I wanted to read the poem called "Rule Number One" which talks a little bit about reincarnation. But this is a poem I think to God.

If you send me here again you
send me back the same you

can change my clothes
only leave me in the right realm makes

no never mind to me
which shade you decide upon just

be sure and return me
as one whole

to a Black woman's curly life
nothing else     nothing

jus' something 'bout the way we do
the do     the words we use

If you decide for whatever reason
I should do this again you

you send me back here the same you here
I want old familiar ordinary skin stretched

on any new bones you are readying for me
return me only to a Black woman's curly conjured
life

I like that (laughs)

Bill:
hmmm. Is there a challenge to this poetry? Maybe more so than any other or does it stand alone? Is there a challenge to pick it up and work your way through it, Jonathan? If the words don't resonate or if they don't mean something to you. Or is that maybe intentional? Does she want you to realize and learn these aren't just words on a page. This is history and these are facts.

Jonathan:
I think there is a challenge in any poetry, Bill. I mean I think we are living in an age when poetry is not the dominant discourse. The dominant discourse is a language of advertising where you are encouraged to read language quickly and to read between the lines is discouraged. I guess it's also an era of film narratives and prose narratives -- no novels. These are the dominant forms of language that we read. And for entertainment, people read novels more than poetry, so there is a challenge to any poetry, and I think any person who doesn't often read poetry comes to a poem and they go oh you know. But as for the challenge of the content, if you mean it's sort of dealing with areas that are too taboo in everyday conversation, perhaps I think that's part of the quality of the poetry.

Bill:
That's interesting.

Jonathan:
Then she says this is a space in which I will talk about whatever I want, and I will talk about it boldly. And I will explore the range of my thoughts and feelings, and I will use whatever language I want in that space and there is a value of poetry in doing that. And I think that these poems are not difficult to understand in that sense of T. S. Elliott's "The Wasteland" -- you know the famous obscure modernist poem of 1920's. It's not difficult in that sense at all. And it's really quite accessible and there is a very amiable quality to the voice, even though there is also a very dark undertone to a lot of this: an anger, an irony, and a bitterness even in some of the poems. A poem like "I Have Been Somewhere" the one about Kentucky. for instance . . .

Everyone agrees

Jonathan:
. . . is a very angry poem. But it's expressed in a very understated way. I think the power is in the understatement you know. There is another, an African-American poet called Ameri Baracki formerly Leroy Jones. His poems are notoriously angry and explicitly so and sometimes very forthright, and Nikky's poetry is not angry in that manner. It's different. It's a much more muted and controlled and understated, at least in many of the poems.

I Have Been Somewhere
for Kentucky

I have been somewhere
where     they lay out poison
in the city square
for Blackbirds
simply because there are too many
and on my everyday walk
I sidestep the carcasses
of beautiful Black winged things
I have been somewhere

And, of course, she goes on in the poem to focus not so much in the fact they are birds, but the idea of blackness and the way in which blackness is not something she feels Kentucky is comfortable with. It's a painful subject, but again this is poetry, the space in which she says yes I have the right to talk about this in any way I want as boldly as I wish in this medium. I think a lot of it's very powerful and reading as a whole it's just a wonderful experience more so than individual poems, you know.

Bill:
hmmm.

Dava:
Well, her poetry can also be difficult on a stylistic level. Even if you are someone who is familiar with the language and with what these phrases mean, the way free verse goes, the sentence ends in the middle of this line and you read it once. You didn't realize that was the end. No matter who reads it, they have to concentrate and the point is driven home all the more.

Jonathan:
That's true.

Dava:
Anybody has to think about it.

Bill:
And I think Wilma and I also said to one another that it took me more than once on some reading it once and going back and reading them again and understanding some of the verse and some of her style and the words and that sort of thing. I read it aloud and it meant so much more to do it that way than just to read it silently. I would assume, Jonathan, that's not always true, is it, when reading poetry?

Jonathan:
Some of the poems there are little moments when the imagery seems to turn inward and it takes an effort to follow it, to see exactly where it is going, and I think that's the poet saying, yes I'm expressing myself that I want to, follow me, or if you don't, just turn the page. So I think poetry does demand a little more patience, a little more resilience on behalf of the reader, and the poet often willfully says yes I know this is a little more difficult than usual and that's fine because this is not the language of advertising, this is not being made easy for you. She's not just telling little ditties to please the ear or to please the reader, but rather to match the experience that she is trying to describe I suppose. But reading aloud I think is a great idea for any poetry, Bill.

Bill:
I saw this written the other day that in an age of Regis Philbin, the World Wrestling Association and Christine Agulara, if I am pronouncing her name correctly,

Everyone laughs.

Bill:
. . . there is poetry.

Jonathan:
That's good.

Bill:
Dava, you mentioned a few minutes ago that there is sort of a public part of these poems and then a very private part that maybe could then speak to to individuals.

Dava:
Lynda read the poem. It was about reincarnation. But when I read that it almost spoke to me to say if someone should force me to do something in another place, I want to still be myself and that's what it said to me. Also, it's very beautiful poetry because there are all different kinds of people reading it and there are things that I think she just wants to say to certain people a lot of times. and I'm sure I've missed those things because maybe she wasn't talking to me. But when she was talking to me, I heard it. (laughs)

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