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Carolina’s new writer-in-residence talks about her poetry and what she hopes to accomplish on campus.

Poet Nikky Finney (photo by Forest Clonts)
Poet Nikky Finney (photo by Forest Clonts)

On Feb. 25, poet and National Book Award winner Nikky Finney will give a reading from her upcoming book of poetry as the new Frank B. Hanes Writer-in-Residence at Carolina. The Well spoke with her about her poetry, what inspires her to write and how she wants to engage the University with creativity as our writer-in-residence.  

The Well: What do you hope to accomplish at UNC-Chapel Hill as the Frank B. Hanes Writer-in-Residence? 

Nikky Finney: Accomplish is such a beautiful word. I would love for people to come and celebrate the power of creative writing and poetry and also the critical legacy of Frank B. Hanes – who I’m told was so passionate about the world of writing and was a great supporter of local writers. Where would we be without that sacred individual who put his heart and legacy on the line for a beautiful meaningful word or line? I hope we laugh and cry and wonder and see something we didn’t know or had forgotten about each other.  I hope somebody who loves a good story comes to the reading and somebody who misses a good conversation. I hope people who aren’t afraid to feel something powerful about someone who doesn’t look like them comes. We are human beings. We hold stories in our bodies like water. Water that needs to ebb and flow. 

TW: Your new book, “Love Child’s Hotbed of Occasional Poetry,” will be released in April of this year. Could you describe occasional poetry? 

NF: The historical definition is poems that were written for a specific occasion or time in life. Birthdays. Weddings. Special occasions. But usually associated with the Greeks or the Romans. Antiquity. Poems from a long time ago. I use the same definition but with a modern approachWhen writing this book, I thought about my own life when I was growing up in Sumter, S.C. I often had a pencil behind my ear and a notebook with me. The people who loved me saw me as a girl-poet. I wrote poems for different occasions in my own community. It might have been Mrs. Robinson’s birthday or our church celebrating its 150th anniversary. Someone would say, “What about Nikky, she’s a poet. See if she can make a poem for us.”  In “Love Child’s Hotbed of Occasional Poetry” am using the long history of the occasional poet in a much more modern and intimate way. The book is also a play on the word, “occasional,” because I am a poet, but occasionally I am a prose writer.  

TW: What inspired this collection?  

NF: I’m a poet of my time, and I wanted to collaborate with that side of me that loves the visual so much. When I write anything I want you to see what I’m writing. There are actual images in the book. We have prose, poetry, letters and notes from different moments in my life. We also have letters from people across the timeline of my life. We’ve included the presence of images and stories and treasured artifacts in this book. I believe you have to be a certain age, and I’m not certain what that age is, to be able to gather and order things that reflect your life in this way. I couldn’t have written this book when I wrote my first book when I was 26 years old. You need perspective. It might come after 4 decades or 5. The ability to look back and begin the process of wondering if these two events or moments or visuals might say something if positioned together. The more I did that, the more I wanted this collection to contain whatever it needed to tell the story it needed to tell.  

TW: Your poetry and writing seem to be grounded in history. Is that a specific choice or a natural element of your writing? 

NF: I grew up in the South in the 1960s, and as a girl I was really impacted by that reality. The civil rights movement, the protests against the war in Vietnam; there were so many things happening around me, that involved owning one’s voice and speaking out. Those historical moment really defined me as a poet. Not for looking behind me but for looking ahead. I believe my poetry is timely and political, and I don’t shy away from that. I really feel that we can’t move forward into any new human dimensions without first discussing those provocative historical events. Historically, politically, personally, spiritually, it’s who we are. 

TW: Have you always known you were a poet? 

NF: I wanted to be a writer. Poetry was my first voice, and I always loved listening to and composing poetry. The music found in poetry is so priceless. I was drawn to the freedom that is there, and all the other things that are often found in poems, such as metaphor or simile. I love the many ways you can compress or say two things at once. I feel like I am a poet more than anything, but I’m also at my heart a girl in love with the power of words — a writer. 

Finney will read from her new book on Tuesday, Feb. 25 at 7:30 in the Genome Sciences Building Auditorium. 

As part of the Frank B. Hanes Writer-in-Residence program, Finney will also lead a panel on, “Public History and Memory and the Souls of Blackfolk in the South” on Thursday, Feb. 27 from 3:30-4:30 p.m. at the Campus Y.  

Interview by Madeline Pace, The Well

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