Nikky Finney Is an Award-Winning Poet Who Begins Every Poem With Chalk On a Blackboard

Nikky Finney is no different than other writers with creative routines. 

Stephen King listens to heavy metal while he edits his writing. Maya Angelou kept a hotel room where she wrote each morning until departing in the afternoon. 

And poet Nikky Finney writes on a blackboard.

“You’d be surprised when you get inspired, and I’m always trying to catch, you know, like cut my hands and like catch a word or catch an idea,” Finney said. “And blackboards, preferably old-school blackboards, help me do that.”

Finney didn’t always use blackboards to write. 

Nikky Finney
Nikky Finney

Nikky Finney gets her start

Finney discovered poetry when she was around 13 or 14 years old. She’d spend Sunday church services sitting in the pew alongside her family, scribbling down poems and whatever else popped into her head.

It wasn’t until around 2000 that Finney found that a blackboard helped her creativity. She’d already published a few books by then. Finney’s first poetry collection, On Wings Made of Gauze (Amazon), came through her friendship with two writers, Toni Cade Bambara and poet Nikki Giovanni. 

Bambara hosted a group for Black women writers in Atlanta in the 1980s called Pamoja, a Kiswahili word meaning “together.” 

Finney came to the city for graduate school at Atlanta University, but she dropped out of the program after learning she couldn’t include creative writing in her thesis. Instead, Finney fell under the mentorship of Bambara, who wrote books such as The Salt Eaters (Amazon | Bookshop) and Gorilla, My Love (Amazon | Bookshop).

At one Pamoja workshop, Bambara gave Finney some tough love. 

“So—you can write pretty,” Bambara said to Finney. “But what else can your words do besides adorn?”

Inspired more than deterred, Finney kept refining her poems. Finally, Finney sent some of her pieces to Giovanni for critiquing. Giovanni edited Finney’s work and mailed it back with a note that read, “Nikky, underneath all of these red marks, there is something beautiful really trying to happen.”

On Wings Made of Gauze came out in 1985. Ten years passed before Finney released her second poetry collection, RICE (Amazon | Bookshop), and published her third book in 2003. 

By that point, Finney was using blackboards to create her poetry. Finney says using a blackboard helps her think through a poem.

“I have to see what I am about to, or in the process of creating,” Finney said.

Finney stops time with an award acceptance speech

A blackboard birthed many of the poems in Finney’s 2011 collection, Head Off & Split (Amazon | Bookshop). One such piece is “Red Velvet,” which combines words and numbers to tribute Rosa Parks.

Head Off & Split won the 2011 National Book Award for Poetry. At the awards ceremony, Finney delivered what might be the most legendary literary acceptance speech.

Finney begins by talking about the 18th-century slave codes of her home state, South Carolina. The poet then talks about the millions of Black Americans who were enslaved and forced to remain illiterate. 

“We shiver together,” Finney says of those who preceded her. “If my name is ever called out, I promised my girl-poet self, so too would I call out theirs.”

The award show host, John Lithgow, called Finney’s remarks the best acceptance speech he’d ever heard. The talk made headlines at the time. And references to it, and quotes from it, continue to appear in articles ranging from the literary world to the Black Lives Matter movement.

You can watch Finney’s short speech at the bottom of this page.

Finney released a new collection in April 2020, her first since Head Off & Split. The latest book is Love Child’s Hotbed of Occasional Poetry (Amazon | Bookshop). 

Finney taught poetry for 21 years at the University of Kentucky. But she’s now back in South Carolina, serving as the John H. Bennett, Jr. Chair in Creative Writing and Southern Letters at the University of South Carolina. 

And when Nikky Finney starts writing, she still begins on a blackboard.

Books by Nikky Finney

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Sources

Nikky Finney’s 2011 National Book Award in Poetry acceptance speech

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