Posted by: jeannineatkins | November 5, 2014

Nikky Finney and Elizabeth Alexander: Poetry and Devotion

Yesterday, poets Nikky Finney and Elizabeth Alexander returned to Smith College, where they both taught in the past. The two friends were clearly glad to be talking and reading together, and the overflow audience for a Q and A in the Smith College Poetry Center was engaged, too. One question was about how national recognition had affected their lives and works: Elizabeth Alexander was put in the spotlight when she became the fourth poet invited to a presidential inauguration, reading “Praise Song for the Day” in front of President Obama and millions more, and Nikky Finney when she won a National Book Award in 2011 for her fourth volume of poetry, Head Off and Split, and gave a stunning acceptance speech. Both noted their gratitude for having a wider audience for both poetry and attention to the lives of black women, while also saying they felt responsible for remembering who they were before the increased recognition, and a responsibility to go back to their desks.

nikky teaked4

Thoughtful questions were asked about particular poems, the pros and cons of being identified as black women poets, the meaning of nostalgia and heritage, how they recognized when a poem was finished, and more. Responding to a question about how she knew when an experience might turn into a poem, Nikky Finney quoted Denise Levertov (“You smell a poem before you see it”) then related the genesis of the title poem in Head Off and Split, with her personal past and present colliding. She told us, “I like the slow process because I get to hear into the poem, to hear into me.”

A young woman asked, “Can you describe the moment when you felt like you could give someone a voice?” While Elizabeth Alexander draws more often from history, and Nikky Finney more often writes of the news of the day, both spoke about how they never want to be presumptuous, and how they balance their use of imagined voices or personas with a dedication to “using art to carefully fill the chasms in black women’s history.” Elizabeth said that she “heard the line ‘I am Venus Hottentot.’ I do not think she spoke it across time and space, but wherever poetry is before we make it, that’s where it came from.” Nikky Finney spoke about the importance of empathy, and when inspired to write about tragedies mentioned or overlooked in the news, sits at her desk where she asks for “permission, strength, and courage to get it right.” This related to her work in general. In responding to an earnest question about ways to cope with second guessing and self doubt, she said, “If I can remain devoted – devoted – to what’s on the page, I’m good.”



  1. So happy to learn of these two poets, Jeannine. Grateful.

    • Thanks, Sarah. It was a great q and a, followed by a great reading. Very different voices, but values in common.

  2. Oh, thank you for sharing this, Jeannine – what an inspiring experience it must have been.

    • Tara, the only thing that would have made it better was if you were there. I was thinking of you, as I sat surrounded by so many bright young women.

  3. So interesting, to think of “smelling a poem before you see it” and to hear characters speaking from the deepest interceses of a poet’s imagination. I think I would’ve loved this presentation–and these poets!

    And oh, I’m still thinking about Nikky Finney’s writing process. I found a friend in her approach–in that she seeks guidance in getting things right, and that she overcomes self-doubts by being “devoted” to the words on the page.

    Thanks for sharing this event with us, Jeannine.

    • Melodye, yes you would have found yourself in good company, with discussion of themes dear to your heart such as humility and self respect. Nikky related how after her powerful acceptance speech for the National Book Award, someone told her, “You knew you would win.” No, she told us. She knew as a finalist she had a one and five chance, and she wanted to be ready. When a door opens you may have a five second chance to use that opportunity.

      And Elizabeth spoke about her memoir to be published in April, and the difficulties of that when coming from a family who does not air their laundry. She read an excerpt, full of love and beauty.

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