It takes more than good intentions to transform the South. It takes money.
What the hell is a Scalawag?
Nikky Finney is a poet, professor, and the 2011 National Book Award-winner of Head Off & Split, a collection of poems named to honor her trips to the fish market as a girl growing up by the sea in South Carolina. Her new book, Lovechild's Hotbed of Occasional Poems, is due out in 2020. Scalawag is honored to publish the title poem from this new collection, Linea Nigra, in our first arts and culture issue, out now.
Our editors got to talk with Finney in December about the new book, about remembering her father, and about reading poetry anthologies from the Piggly Wiggly.
Scalawag: Linea Nigra is written on the occasion of the death of your father, Ernest A. Finney Jr., last year. The public knows him most prominently as the first Black justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court. What was his influence on you and your work, and why were the particular themes of this poem inspired by your relationship?
Finney: "Linea Nigra," as the title poem in this collection, comes directly from Linea nigra, Latin for "black line." The black line is the dark vertical line running up the abdomen of a woman, stretching from the pubis to the navel, that forms during pregnancy. This particular poetry collection is my black line and—in my case—it wanders down and up and backwards from my pubis to my navel to my eyelashes to my medulla oblongata, to the tips of my fingers, stretching out and through my life looking at life moments that I recorded in my journals and gave birth to the poet that I am. My mother gave birth to me but my father gave birth to my sense of justice and fairness. He named me Lovechild when I was pretty young. It was his private name for me. It was a little embarrassing for me. I asked him why he named me Lovechild and he said, "You won't know until you know." Twenty years later after I had given a reading, a complete stranger walked up to me and said something that took the top of my head off and finally, I knew. The moment that I am describing is in the book—near the end. It was a moment I've always wanted to write about but until recently I never knew how to pull all the arms of the story together.
Scalawag: Linea Nigra is one poem from your forthcoming book, Lovechild's Hotbed of Occasional Poetry, due in 2020. What is occasional poetry, and why did you choose to devote a book to it?
Finney: I've loved collage since I was a girl—since spending hours on end staring into the many different world frames of Romare Bearden in particular. Bearden, another Southerner. I discovered his art in JET or Ebony magazine back in the day when Black publications kept us in touch and helped us continue to inspire each other. I would cut his collages out and glue them inside my journals or on my bedroom walls. His collages were as mesmerizing to me as pictures taken underneath the sea, another great pull on my interior life. This new collection is a collage. My fifth poetry collection and first attempt at pulling together the visual, the spiritual, and the temporal ways the world inspires me. There are journal entries. Fictive pieces. Notes from my father. A photo of my mother. A photo of me at 26 (with no gray hair and no wrinkles). Epigraphs sent to me on the carpet of another's tongue. I did not choose to devote a book to occasional poetry. Occasional poetry chose me.
Last year when I started gathering up the work around me—thinking that it might be nice to give birth to a new collection—I discovered that I had a bounty of occasional poems. Post the National Book Award win, all kinds of people approached me about writing a poem for them or their organization. This is not what poets usually like to be called to do. But when I was a child, I was called to do this. I remember wanting to be useful and not just a little girl with her pencils writing for herself. My community was filled with so many useful Black people who did things with their hands. Mr. Neal built our houses, Dr. Deas was our pharmacist. I would watch him behind his counter in his white jacket mixing our medicines sometimes. Mr. Brown was our electrician. He rewired our houses with a pencil on his ear. Mrs. Robinson was our great seamstress. I wanted to be useful too. I wanted to make something with my hands. When I started telling people around me that I was a poet they started requesting poetry from me. Mrs. Dicks was turning 90 and needed a poem. Emmanuel Church was turning 125 and needed a poem. Mrs. Bethune's portrait was going up in the old high school—Could you write us a poem please? This early novice poet-work had less to do with inspiration and more to do with wanting to offer something, made with my own two hands, to the people I cherished. It had to do with wanting poetry to be seen as useful—useful as a roof or coat.
Scalawag: A little more than 10 years ago you served as editor for the Cave Canem anthology The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South. The titles of the sections of the anthology are wonderful: "Swimming," "Childhood," and "Other Thunders; The Echo and Din of Place." Can you talk to us about how you curated that anthology, and do you have any advice for our team of poetry editors who are participating in the work of curating and presenting the poetry of Southerners of color to a wider audience often unfamiliar with poetry and with the authors themselves?
Finney: In the small Southern town where I grew up, in the 1960s and '70s, there were no bookstores. The Carnegie library was segregated until I was 12 or 13 so I got a lot of first books off the book racks at the Piggly Wiggly. The Pig, as we called it, would have these turnstile book racks with all manner of paper pocket books on all sides. I don't know why but they always had poetry anthologies there. I learned so much as a young person, about poets and who they were, from anthologies and not from single author books. The single author books came later. The anthologies were so much more egalitarian than the single author books. Powerfully so. I liked reading the different ways a poet could say something about love or life. I have always loved anthologies and word play. I do not love lazy language. I remember working hard on those title sections in The Ringing Ear. I remember thinking about poetry as a sensual experience and so much of the poetry that was arriving for that anthology—and wanting to be considered—was so richly sensual.
Thank you for letting me know that you saw that hard work in those title names. I typically don't like section titles that don't work hard for my attention so I knew I had to make them memorable. My advice to your editors is to keep doing what Scalawag already does—include new voices that rarely get the chance to see their names and imaginations in print and young poets and thinkers who might not be in the checkout line at the Piggly Wiggly but somewhere wanting to be useful in the service of their alphabets—to a world that needs their voices.
Scalawag: Writing that illuminates the beauty, mystery, violence, and supernatural power of the South and its landscape is often lumped under the style of Southern Gothic. How do you see your work fitting within or pushing back against the tropes of the genre?
Finney: I fight so so hard against categorization. I know people need such things and labels to look forward and back and around and say this and say that and people are always asking me these kinds of questions in order to put, fit, place, me, my work, in a category, and I just really want to leave that to you the reader. I only want to focus on the work and how hard I am working to make it sing out.
Scalawag: Some people think it bizarre that an organization like Scalawag, which is focused so much on journalism, also publishes a fair amount of poetry. For you, how do you describe the relationship between poetry and journalism? How do these traditions exist in conversation with each other?
Finney: The truth of my life has always been that what some people find "bizarre" I find utterly delightful and righteous as rain. The in-articulators would have us believe that poetry should be kept out of our daily conversations and saved for the mountaintops or the champagne parties. But poetry belongs where truth exists. Poetry wants to live where honesty and courage have been prioritized. Poetry is the first language of a free and flying unchained heart. Poetry is the heart's journalism—with or without a word count. Poetry is our greatest human portraiture. If Baldwin was right (and of course he was) and the "poets are the only ones who know the truth about us" then dare I say the journalists are our heartbeat and tambourine.
Scalawag: Imani Perry (and others) have spoken recently about a renaissance of Black arts and letters happening right now. What is your take on this, and who are some of your favorite people writing and creating right now?
Finney: I think history tells us there is always a renaissance of the arts in a society when war has been declared against the speaking of the truth in that society. It is happening now is all segments of the community around me and there are brilliant lines of cultural intersection—young and old, trans, gay, women, men, rural, homeless, immigrants, Black, Anglo, Southern, artists fighting for their lives and the long life of their reliable and courageous tongues. Those artists, out of muscle memory or the spirit of refusing to be silenced by pain, shame, or violence, are speaking out now and fighting to be read, seen, and heard, in the spirit of refusing to be disregarded. There are so many new brilliant voices at the mic and on the page winning beautiful awards. But I would have to say right now I'm focused and loving what my MFA students are writing—their work is haunting me because they are about to fly the academic nest. They are the ones who will be bringing up the rear in powerful tender ways; Joy Priest, Catherine Ntube, Lauren Rose Clark. These poets are on my mind right now because the embryo of their work has now become the long-legged powerful ostrich in full stride.
Scalawag: Where can people come see you reading and speaking in 2019?
Finney: In January, I'll be doing the Bankhead lecture at the University of Alabama. In February, I'll be at the Midwest Poetry Series in Kansas City and also flying out to Tucson, Arizona, to read at the Poetry Center there, focusing on their necessary inquiry into mass incarceration in modern America. In March, I'll be joining my fellow poets of The Field Office to do a special reading at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs in Portland and to also share a very special conversation and reading with one of the most mesmerizing poets of the day, Natalie Diaz.