(b. Lynn Carol Finney, 1957). Poet, editor, educator. Nikky Finney was born in Conway, South Carolina, on August 26, 1957, the daughter of Ernest A. Finney, Jr., an attorney who became the first African American chief justice of the South Carolina Supreme Court, and Frances Davenport. She took the name “Nikky” during her high school years in Sumter. She attended St. Jude Catholic School until the mid-1960s, when public schools were integrated in the state. With her older brother, she was among the first to integrate Central School in Sumter.
Finney left Sumter in 1975 to attend Talladega College in Alabama, where she found her calling as a writer. As a child she had started keeping a journal, and at the age of fifteen she had become interested in the black arts movement. In college she spent her time writing and studying literature, especially that of the African American tradition. During her junior year at Talladega, she befriended the poet Nikki Giovanni, who would later play a significant role in her growth as a poet. Finney majored in English in 1979 and won the Whiting Writing Award.
Finney enrolled in the graduate school at Atlanta University to study African American literature but left the program, which did not allow creative writing components in a thesis. Instead she joined Pamoja, a writing collective founded by the writer Toni Cade Bambara. From this workshop came Finney’s first book of short poems, On Wings Made of Gauze, in 1985. In 1986 Finney moved to Oakland, California, where she made a living from a series of jobs, from photographer, to printer, to workshop instructor.
In 1993 she began teaching creative writing at the University of Kentucky. There she cofounded the Affrilachian Poets, a collective of African American writers in the Appalachian region. In 1995 Finney wrote the script for the PBS documentary For Posterity’s Sake: The Story of Morgan and Marvin Smith, brothers who were photographers in the 1930s. Her second poetry collection, with photographs, Rice, was published in Canada in 1995. Rice constitutes an important development in American poetry. The poems are set in coastal Carolina, where Carolina Gold Rice once was a large export crop. Dealing with race, lost values, womanhood, and abuse, the poetry is in plain lyrical words and the imagery is powerfully evocative. Finney emphasizes her ancestry and African lineage, celebrates slaves who rebelled, and delights in the Gullah culture of her home state. PEN American awarded Rice the Open Book Award of 1999.
In 1997 Finney was promoted to the rank of associate professor at the University of Kentucky and also published a short-story cycle, Heartwood, which is about overcoming racial anger, fears, and prejudice in a small community by relying on the soundness of an individual’s duramen or “heartwood.” She published her third book of poetry, The World Is Round, in 2003. The collection won the Benjamin Franklin Award for Poetry (2004). In these poems Finney emphasizes her African lineage and matriarchal ancestry, celebrates the spirit of anybody who rebels, and convincingly incarnates her delight in the Gullah culture of her home state. Several of the poems are frank about police brutality and honest about same gender sexual relations among the “Southern North American Africans.” In spite of the justified sound and fury of the uncompromising political poems, and outraged protests against rocks, guns, flags, and white men, Finney’s greatest achievement resides in her ability to breathe true life into universal situations and to create poems that emphasize the importance of having the “charm bracelet of a family.”
In 2007 Finney wrote “Heirlooms and Introductions: The Poet Is the Trumpet of the World” as an introduction to a four-hundred-page anthology of contemporary black American poetry, The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South, which she edited, featuring “the sound of honey” of 102 poets. In this volume, she included her interview with Lucille Clifton, one of Finney’s favorite poets. In 2009 Finney joined other African American women writers to reflect on what had made them writers; in Shaping Memories, her essay “Ambrosia” states Finney’s main themes, background, and the origin of her ideas.
Head Off & Split (2011) is the title of the collection that won Finney the National Book Award for poetry. Several of the poems are political, and it is no surprise that the collection created interest among people who do not read poetry. Twenty-seven pages parade attacks on the second Bush administration with a sarcastic emphasis on its failure to help victims of hurricanes and flooding. The political poems are rarely among the best, as they are drawn down by the crusading “razor-sharp fins.” The “succulent heart” of the collection is in the more private poems on the power of love and the celebration of women in their frustrations and joy. The best poem is “Dancing with Strom,” which mixes the private with public life. Only someone who has lived it, and still is able to create a distance to the situation, could express it in words.
The title poem is about heading off from home, ‘splitting’ in that sense. It is a dramatic ritual of the art of leaving with a script for everybody involved. This is personal, even private, poetry; the interesting result is that the poetry often becomes universally true and relevant for the reader. The poet demonstrates what can never be controlled: “the will of the human heart to speak its own mind,” as Finney said in her acceptance speech for the National Book Award.
Nikky Finney was inducted into the South Carolina Academy of Authors in 2013. In that same year, she returned to her home state to take up a faculty position at the University of South Carolina in Columbia; in accepting the appointment as John H. Bennett, Jr. Professor of Creative Writing and Southern Literature, Finney commented, “I feel there are projects waiting for me there, books to write on that home soil, and students to nurture and guide.”
Dawes, Kwame. “Reading Rice: A Local Habitation and a Name.” African American Review 31 (summer 1997): 269–79.
Finney, Nikky. “Ambrosia.” Shaping Memories: Reflections of African American Women Writ- ers. Ed. Joanne Veal Gabbin. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2009. 142–51.
——. Foreword to Good and Bad Hair, by Bill Gaskins. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1997.
——, ed. The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 2007.
Kraver, Jeraldine. “‘Mobile Images’: Myth and Resistance in Nikky Finney’s Rice.” Southern Literary Journal 34 (spring 2002): 134–47.