Poetry Friday: Nikky Finney, 2012 Festival Poet

Posted on by Martin Farawell, Program Director, Poetry

Nikky Finney’s National Book Award winning collection Head Off & Split, gets its title from a fishmonger’s term she heard as a child when she was sent to buy fish by her mother.  Returning to the same fishmonger as an adult and hearing the phrase after so many years hurtles her back into memories of her childhood.  In the introduction to the collection, she describes the realization that she does not want the fish to be cleaned (head off & split) for her, but “wants what she has come for kept whole, all marrow and every organ accounted for, just as it was pulled from the sea.” This became the central wish behind all the poems in the collection: not to censure or clean up perception and experience, but (as the Buddhists would say) to stay present with whatever arises in the mind or in life.

And Finney does stay present.  Fully present.  She is a cool-headed observer, a careful recorder searching out the exact word or image, but also allows herself to be open and receptive enough to embrace, savor, even relish whatever she encounters―however raw, tender, sexual, brutal or beautiful―and speak of it with passion.

It would diminish Finney’s achievement to describe these poems as visceral (pun intended).  Finney is no newcomer writing effusive confessional free-verse.  Elsewhere in the introduction she describes herself as “Not a girl any longer, she is capable of her own knife-work now.”  Through four collections she has mastered her cutting and shaping skills.  Everything she learned in composing the shorter poems of her earlier books is retained in these longer, more expansive pieces.  Finney has the rare ability to build highly compressed language into huge rhythmic waves.  The rhythm of the long lines carries the reader along at first hearing, often startled by the exactness of her observations and word choices.  But only through multiple readings does the language reveal how layered and densely packed it is.

The language is not only packed with specific detail, but with history.  Like another 2012 Festival Poet recently featured on Poetry Friday, Irish poet Eavan Boland, Finney is acutely aware that the past is alive in the present.  In some ways, many of these poems can be seen as acts of ancestor worship, if we expand the word to include Finney’s apparent sense of it, in which not only everyone but everything has ancestors.  She celebrates the blood-line of parents and grandparents, but extends the connection to include racial, cultural, historical, literary and spiritual ancestors, even reaching back to our kinship with the animals who must, unwittingly, share the fate humans create for the world.  She goes even further, including objects and tools and architectural features: a southern porch summons the ancestors who built it.

In the title poem, the last in the collection, as if the writing of all the other poems that came before have led her here, the speaker herself is “Head Off and Split,” laid open by the past, exposed and vulnerable, yet made stronger and more determined by the process.  Nikky Finney invites us to take the journey with her, and, from the introduction to the last poem, we know we are in the hands of a courageous and compassionate guide.

To hear Nikky Finney give what host John Lithgow described as “the best acceptance speech for anything I’ve ever heard in my life,” listen to her National Book Award Acceptance Speech.


Please use the “Comments” box below to share other resources you may have found for this poet.  In this way, we can build together a mini-wiki-encyclopedia on the 2012 Festival Poets.

For more information on the 2012 Dodge Poetry Festival and Program,
visit our website dodgepoetry.org

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