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How Nikky Finney Found Her Own Path To Poetry

<a href="http://nikkyfinney.net/">Nikky Finney</a>'s <em>Head Off & Split </em>tells the stories of contemporary African-American life from the Civil Rights movement to Hurricane Katrina.
David Flores
Nikky Finney's Head Off & Split tells the stories of contemporary African-American life from the Civil Rights movement to Hurricane Katrina.

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.

Interview Highlights

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."

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