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The Minglement of Nikky Finney: The Architecture of a Poet

Conducted by Kelly Norman Ellis

 

I have known Nikky Finney for over thirty years. She was my teacher and mentor when I was a doctoral candidate at the University of Kentucky. She taught me about Lucille Clifton, Lorna Goodison, Angela Jackson, and Kwame Dawes. I watched her give birth to her second poetry collection, Rice, and my DNA can be found on many of the souvenir burlap rice bags we, her friends and family, made by hand and gave out with each book. Her renderings of black life reach into the depths. We talked about her new collection, Love Child’s Hotbed of Occasional Poetry—and black girls who love pencils, lime green stationary, Lorraine Hansberry, and Tamu Dolls—as collard greens simmered on my stove.

 

KNE: This book. I’ve never read anything like it. That’s a good, good thing.

 

NF: People have been saying, “Nikky this is really different.” This is not Head Off and Split. This is not Rice. This isn’t like anything you’ve ever put together before [and I say] yeah, and I could never have gotten to the gates of this book until I did those books first. Everything has a season. You know? Throughout my life there has been a gradual and grateful blooming, as a woman who loves the written word and a woman who also adores the enigmatic visual.

 

KNE: The book is surprising and not surprising. I’ve always known you to be a collector of black life and artifact. Whether it is family stories or the physical artifacts. And your second book Rice, which still has a big impact on my work, was the first book, that I had seen, that had those family pictures. It is like looking through a photo album and remembering. I think Lucille Clifton does it too.

 

NF: Well, that’s precisely where the permission came from, Kelly [Lucille Clifton]. I was hanging out in the poetry section of Strand’s bookstore in 1983 or 1984, maybe earlier. I remember pulling her book Generations off the shelf. The total artfulness of that book. The way it pulled me in. The cover with all her kin and the grand photo of her there on the back of it corner to corner. I remember reading through it once and then suddenly looking around the store for anyone to share my rocketing surprise with. Eventually, I just held the book up in the air saying, “You can do this?” You can put photographs of your people in between Walt Whitman and lay down your story and verse all around like tapestry? I just sat on the floor for the rest of the afternoon with that book in my hands. I must have at least five copies, all hardback, on my shelf at home right now. That book. That book was like a boll weevil living inside of me for the past forty years. It was always turning something over and over inside of me. Something good.

 

KNE: I want to ask you about a word in the title, hotbed. I know your love for living things … growing plants, caring for animals. Being around you in Kentucky, you always reminded me so much of my stepfather. My mind went immediately to how much time you always spent growing things when I read the definition of hotbed that you give in the book. How did that word inform this book?

 

NF: I’ve been working on Love Child’s Hotbed of Occasional Poetry for several years. Different iterations but really the same book. Always the lesson I think for poets, for writers of any genre, is to get out of the way of what you think the book is and allow the work to worm and grow wings and be what it is telling you (are you listening?) to what it wants to be. I get teased a lot by my friends because they say I publish a book every ten years or so. I like the slow rhythm of my work. I’m not counting the years in between books. I’m living my fullest life in between the pub dates and I have no desire to keep up with anyone or anything. So I’ve been working on Love Child since Head Off and Split came out in 2010. I wasn’t aware of the title that far back, but I just kept working on whatever work was next. At some point after winning the National Book Award I remember noticing how many new kinds of people were approaching me and asking me to compose a new poem for some new occasion? It hit me. This kind of request wasn’t something new for me. In my hometown of Sumter, SC I was “the poet” child. I was often asked to compose a new poem for an elder’s birthday or a high cultural moment. My community saw me holding on to pencils and paper. The kinds of people asking me to compose a new poem changed because the National Book Award is an award that comes with a much wider net of readers and it absolutely changes a poet’s life, but I had composed poems for special occasions at the request of other precious human beings since I was a girl. There was Mrs. Robinson’s 90th birthday and Mt. Pisgah’s 100th anniversary. The new portrait of Mary McLeod Bethune was being hung in [the] old high school. A poem was needed! I was thinking a lot about who gets to ask for and receive an occasional poem. Certainly not just the Romans and the Greeks! In this same moment I had also made the decision to leave Kentucky after twenty-three years and return to South Carolina. My father had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. He was the deep drum beat of my heart ever since I was a girl and I wanted to be a part of the unknown journey that I knew he and my mother would soon be on with this new health diagnosis. This of course meant that along with forty pieces of art and several hundred books I had to pack up my 159 journal books that lined the walls of my bedroom. I’ve kept a journal since I was thirteen. One by one, as I packed them up, I also opened some of them and found and read these ancient and dutiful moments of reflection and inquiry. I tagged some of the pages because I wanted to see them again when I wasn’t packing them in boxes. When I arrived in South Carolina I was graciously given a year free from teaching. I began to xerox and file those pages. I put them in a file labeled “Hotbeds” because I could see how those private moments in the journals had later fed and fertilized the construction of the public poems.

 

Soon, I realized the book I was working on was not only poetry and not only private moments of prose reflection but it was adding up to be a true minglement of many of the things that I had used throughout my life to read and navigate the world as a black gay quirky nerdy word-loving gardening woman. Minglement—I really love that word. I’d never seen it used in a description of a poetry collection before. I hoped my editors would understand what I was building. I knew I was going to push for it. I wasn’t sure what kind of pushback I might get. Alongside the prose writing there were love notes from my father to me over the years. Some were written on post-it notes. Some were written on his official judicial stationary. I started xeroxing them also. I didn’t think they would actually make the last draft of the book. They were so private and personal. I didn’t think it would ultimately feel right to make them public but that changed as everything in the book moved into its final place. I thought about a garden. I started thinking about how I try and bring my whole self to the tending of my orchids or my foxtail ferns. What it takes to grow them. The right angle of light. The right combination of soil. The touch and the patience. I have plants growing in my house that my grandmother gave me cuttings from twenty years ago. They are so precious to me. There was a moment when I saw that word “hotbed” one day on my file folder I thought, Oh Lord, they going to think this is something that it’s not…

 

KNE: Some erotic poetry? [laughs]

 

NF: Yes. Nikky Finney’s new collection is all erotic poetry! Hmmm maybe that will be book number six. [laughs] Yes, sometimes poetry is about word play, but in this instant I was not trying to fool anybody or play any games. In using the word “hotbed” I was trying to stretch how we sometimes narrowly think about words. A hotbed to us gardeners really is a place where you plant the seeds and give them what they need to grow. So that was a long answer but that’s how “hotbed” came into the title and entered the construction of the book. Maybe subliminally I find my garden a very sexy place. [laughs]

 

KNE: I teach a lot of your poetry, but I also teach your prose. Your hotbed of prose. To go back to Head Off and Split for a moment. When I teach my graduate students and I have them write an ars poetica and think about why they write and what they believe in as writers, I use the beginning piece in Head Off and Split, [“Resurrection of the Errand Girl: An Introduction.”] And I’m trying to think of ways now of how to put this book [Love Child] in my syllabus. You say so much about what it means to be black woman writing, and something I also find refreshing, a black girl writing. The germ of that girl who is sitting in the window watching To Be Young Gifted and Black who loves pencils. Those black girl stories don’t get told very often. But let’s come back to that girl writer. First, could you talk about “Hotbed 15”? Because you write in the introduction that the book sort of fell around this moment.

 

NF: It was 1996 and I was is Salisbury, Maryland; I had a reading. It was from Rice. And typically what I did is read from the book and then agree to a Q/A and then people attending would get up and eventually move to another section of the room and maybe, hopefully, go and buy the book. If they liked what they had heard! Usually the person who organized the reading would try and pull the audience and the poet—back to where the table was for the signing because people were always urged to buy a book and support the store or community center or whatever venue [it] was. This moment is always a balancing act for me because I really like hanging around and talking to the people who might not buy a book. They oftentimes slip something precious—that doesn’t cost a dime—into my pockets. I have gotten handwritten poems and letters and seashells and handmade things just by lingering there. Somebody will tell a story or make some connection with something they heard me say in the reading. So I like to linger there for a minute before disappearing into the air of the dutiful poet with books to sell. On this particular night a middle-aged black woman walked up to me as I was lingering. I noticed her eyes were really focused on me and she was looking at me very intensely. I didn’t know her but something about her made me stand up. She walked up as if she might be on a mission, like when somebody in your family walks into the room and you know you are about to hear something important and you know to get very quiet. It may not be something you want to hear but you stand up anyway. So I stood up, and she said, “You don’t have anything to do with how beautiful you look…” or something like that. “Your mama and daddy made you that way. But you do have something to do with having and keeping a beautiful mind…” She said, “I can hear your beautiful mind working in your work and I was not going to leave here tonight until I let you know exactly what I heard.” … And then she spun around and just left. I felt like I had been slapped, stamped, or struck with something I was never supposed to forget or misplace. It was so monumental. I was standing there struck by her words. I kept watching the door, looking for her, for the rest of the night but she was gone.

 

I went back to the hotel thinking about the reading and what this stranger had left in my arms and at my feet. I wrote about the moment in journal book number fifty-one. One of the last lines I wrote was, “Was she real?” “Did that moment really happen?” Oh yes. She was real. And what she brought me I’ve always wanted to thank her for bringing. I began to think about wanting to have and keep and grow a beautiful mind and over the many year[s] that truly became the germ of Love Child. This book is … a minglement of sixty years of my life on this earth. It’s the black line, the birth line, the line[a] nigra, on the belly of the mother about to be, of how I came to be. Love Child is one part memoir and seven parts poetry and three parts artifact. It’s a love song to my father, and to my mother but mostly my father. It’s elegy. It’s a paean. It has the chords and treble clefs of how I came to care as well as what I have always cared about and how all that has influenced my poetry. It has beautiful handwritten things throughout. Things written by my father, including the title on the cover which is in his beautiful handwriting.

 

I remember how he always focused so much time and attention on my quiet interior space long long before anyone else knew and talked about what black girl interior space was. He would pick me up from school or pick me from the house and he’d say “You wanna go to the park?” And this is where the hotbed comes in too. So we would go to the park. Drive around Swan Lake park in Sumter, South Carolina. And he would ask me from his front seat if I was going to climb all the way back in the extra-long window seat, “You getting in the capsule today?” And I would hurry and climb in the back window before he changed his mind. I would get there and lie flat … I don’t remember how this started. I know my mother would never have approved. We would drive around Swan Lake where there were these beautiful black and white swans and I would stare at the canopy of trees above me. My imagination, my black girl genius, in full bloom. And he would say “Love Child what do you see?”

 

I would tell him that I saw a red bird or a big magnolia blossom or black birds covering the sky. Whatever was there at the time. It’s was just a crazy little moment between a daughter and her father but he really taught me to speak with conviction about what my eyes and ears and nose … my senses … were taking in. He taught me to love the living world, the outside world, the world in motion all around me. He taught me to trust myself.

 

The precious living outside world comes into full view in this book. There are whales in these pages and the fact that they used to talk to each other from one end of the ocean to the other and how now they can’t hear each other. I was born near the ocean and was a black girl who stared at rocks and loved the iridescence of abalone shells and rose quartz. Were it not for my father I’m not sure I would have been a little black girl who was able to continue to care about these very alive things that make and keep the world so special. These are things that remind me of who and whose I am. I am deeply and spiritually connected to the animal kingdom that is slowly disappearing by the warming of the world and the prioritization of people over everything else. I wanted this book to sport the spirit of little black girls who can and do like these natural world kinds of things. I wanted to make a record of my own quirky sensitive-child mind. I wanted to celebrate this original me.

 

KNE: When I was a girl my grandmother taught me to write letters. And in school we were taught to write letters. Personal letters and business letters and my grandmother would buy me stationary. We just lived an hour apart. My mother would say you need to write your grandmother a letter. It would be Little Miss Kelly Ellis. So the letter you have to your mama. It’s one of the first places I first fell when I opened the book. And I know how much you adore your daddy and know you adore her as well, but that letter says so much to me about how much you missed her. And then when you write, “Please write me back!”

 

NF: And don’t forget the end of that same line and “don’t write Daddy!”

 

KNE: Yes! And I love the questions you ask her. Was it intentional that you kept this letter?

 

NF: Kelly, my mama kept everything and I keep everything too. Just like your mother, my mother took me to the little store and bought me stationary and put me through the daily motions of writing letters. I fell so in love with paper back then. Tactile and color-filled. That lime-green color of that stationary in the book was my favorite of the day. I went back to get more when it finally ran out but it was all gone. I was so crushed. I’m still trying to find some lime-green stationary with flowers in the corner. It’s going to happen! Maybe the publication of Love Child will help me find it! Somebody out there knows where it is! The colorful flowers up in the corner. There goes my garden stuff even at the age of eleven! The date on that letter reads July 1968. Dr. King had been shot three months before and I remember the [sadness] that was all in the house and our neighborhood … but I also remember our mother sweeping us up and saying “Okay, it’s time to write a letter…” in order to not allow that sadness to sink too deeply into us as children. I remember her saying, even as sirens filled the air and funerals unfolded, “Alright now, let’s go get the paint. Let’s do something with our hands. Let’s be busy.” Girl, that letter. I had totally lost track of it. I was at my mother’s house a few years ago looking through every piece of mail I’d ever sent her. It was right before daddy died. December. 2017. She said, “You remember sending me this?” And she plopped it down on the table … and I hadn’t thought about that paper or those flowers. The thing that really caught in my throat as I read that letter was that I signed it with her maiden name and not my birth name. I signed it “Davenport” and not “Finney.”

 

KNE: Wow!

 

NF: I said Mom! She said “You used my maiden name from time to time as a child because you were always were looking for your own spirit out in the world.” I didn’t remember any of that. I did remember my first name, Lynn, didn’t seem to fit my spirit. I guess I was moving all the names around like a black girl Ouija board there for awhile.

 

She told me all these stories about the naming of me. How they were first going to name me Davenport, as a first name. It was going to be Davenport Finney. Well, thank you Mom, for not doing that. A black girl in the Deep South named Davenport. I was already sporting hazel eyes and reddish blonde hair. [laughs] [In the letter] I also wanted her to know how much I loved her and I missed her, so I used her name so it would show that I belonged to her and not Daddy. That letter … I hadn’t talked to anyone at the press about that letter. I thought they would make me take it out. I worried about that letter. I still worry about it a little. I’ve never seen a black woman writer put her black girl letters in a book. But it had to be included because it has that crazy silly poem at the bottom of page one. The eleven-year-old girl poet sending a very unoriginal poem to her mother whom she misses so much. I also wanted my letter beside my father’s letters so that the presence of all our epistolary leanings would be together. This letter represents the only time my mother left her children in my father’s care to go away to finish up a second college degree. Daddy was supportive and taking care of us. She had gone to Tuskegee Institute to take a class in early childhood education. It was a really important moment for her and for us as a family.

 

KNE: I hadn’t noticed specifically that you signed it Davenport … but it makes sense. As I was reading the book, I also thought these are occasional poems but the epistolary form plays such an important role. It’s like these people communicating through time. Right?

 

NF: Yes. Yes. That’s so true. The epistolary … it was important to me then and important to me now. We live in a very sad time when my students are no longer being shown and taught the rigors and importance of cursive writing. I think its criminal. My students don’t know how to write cursively. Many feel ashamed of their handwriting. I was taught to pay very close attention to handwriting. I was taught that it spoke volumes about who I was in the world.

 

KNE: And did you ever change hands? Sometimes, I would write with my left hand.

 

NF: My dream was to be ambidextrous.

 

KNE: The letter the woman wrote to your mother after his death about first witnessing him as a judge was brilliant. Her recording of that moment. She did such a fine job of recording that moment. Also the human tradition of reaching out to folks in a community when someone has passed. How did these written artifacts inform your poetry? And also sometimes your poems feel like letters. Have you thought about that?

 

NF: I love the intimacy and focus of a good letter. To this day a letter sits me down and quiets me. I feel as if it is from another time. A more thoughtful time. I get letters from people I don’t know. I am moved by the fact that they took the time to sit and scribble down their thoughts by hand and long writing instrument. Each one glides in and holds me. I also have hundreds of letters from my mother and father. I counted up one day all my different addresses where I had lived over time. At each address there were dozens of letters from my mother and father. My father always stuck in a ten or twenty dollar bill. In addition to her personal letter my mother always cut articles out of black publications; Jet, Ebony, The Crisis, or the local black newspaper. She would fold it up—airplane skinny—and there it was found by me long and horizontal just like money. Better than money. And I still think about all that black history information that my mother was feeding me in that hotbed of a growing poet moment. I can still hear her saying, “Don’t you dare forget who you are. Don’t you ever forget the love you come from because this world and those in it will try to take that from you and make you someone else.” My mother was not subtle. She stood her black mother fertile ground at all times. She did not let her guard down with people easily because there was too much at stake. She’d send me an article about Althea Gibson [and say] “You like tennis don’t you?” [laughs] “Oh look! Another article about Alice Walker … I never heard of her but maybe you might think of finding her new book?”

 

KNE: That’s the schoolteacher in her. The schoolteacher, especially with young kids, I don’t know what grade she taught but schoolteachers are real adept at, or good ones, observing a child and saying “I don’t know much about that but I read somewhere about a little boy who likes to crochet. Don’t you like to knit.” So I think that’s the issue I’m sensing here. You can tell my touchstones in your work for me … But your uncle…Uncle Bobby the doll maker and the family meeting. [“Abalone 2]

 

NF: Kelly, I knew I wanted to dedicate this particular book to Uncle Bobby. He was such a tender loving uncle to me. I found a picture of him in Ebony magazine circa 1969. They did a special on Shindana toys, Operation Bootstrap, Los Angeles. He was the project manager for the Tamu doll. He worked for Mattel toys also. Tamu was the one that when you pulled her cord she would intermittently [say] sixteen different things. All sixteen were variations of very hip black speech of the day; “Can you dig it?” “Tamu means ‘sweet’!” [Swahili] [laughs] The only photo I could find was of him and a doll [in the photo] was the doll with straight hair but look at this doll he gave me when I was twelve. [shows me Tamu doll with an afro]

 

KNE: [gasps] I think I may have had that same doll.

 

NF: Tamu?

 

KNE: Tamu! Yeah!

 

NF: So he brought Tamu home to me before that visit that appears in the poem, “Abalone 2,” when he brought his boyfriend home for the first time to meet the family. Uncle Bobby refused to go to the Vietnam War, he was considered a conscientious objector. He was made to do community service. And so they found a small business for him to work and devote time to in Los Angeles. Shindana Toys. Where he designed and made black dolls. The black doll that truly changed everything about the world of dolls and toys. I often think about this great opposite of a decision. Go fight in a war that nobody back home was telling the truth about or go to work every day to make one of the most beautiful dolls that had ever been imagined. Imagine being a little black girl of the Deep South who up until that moment thought dolls came only with blonde hair and blue eyes. Then Uncle Bobby changed all that when he walked in the door and put one in my arms. Bingo!

 

KNE: And this is such a beautiful picture of him…

 

NF: You talking about one gorgeous man—inside and out.

 

KNE: I see your daddy [in his face].

 

NF: Oh yes. Four boys. My father was the oldest who was sometimes like a father to the other three. I had always wanted to write about the day when Uncle Bobby came home with his boyfriend. I didn’t know it was his boyfriend at the time. But something was different. Just like I didn’t know my own life would mirror this moment in such profound ways. It’s not an easy moment for me to look at as a poet or as my father’s Love Child. I had to try and write deep into it. I wanted it to be in this book that has so much to do with love. It was a moment in my family of unspoken but incredibly loud homophobia. So I had to report Daddy’s homophobia and also his great capacity to love beyond it. That was my charge. My father’s fear of accepting his brother’s announcement that this was the man he loved was palpable. Not only had Uncle Bobby defied Southern norms by bringing a man home, instead of a woman, but that man was also not black but white. There were so many taboos broken in this one moment. But at the time I’m only thirteen or fourteen. Uncle Bobby is not a man to hide anything about himself—especially anything about love. So the children are kept away from this announcement. I know something’s up but I don’t know what exactly. I’m trying to piece it together. I’m looking at these two men and I’m thinking they’re special friends. They are kind of leaning into each other the whole time unlike the men I have ever known. My father was extremely protective of his family. He was afraid of what Bobby had come to tell the family so whatever he wanted to say he decided to take it outside underneath the pine trees. Just in case. Because the house was full of kids. So he felt like he was protecting us … from the news about to be released. It took me many years to figure out what that meeting was all about. So then twenty years later I worried mightily, when I came home too … with my girlfriend … to make the same announcement under the same pine trees. But it was a different scene entirely.

 

KNE: I love that this poem is an occasional poem. Because we English majors are trained to think of occasional poems as Lord So-and-So speaks to the whatever, or George Washington speaks at the … but the occasional poem can record the little black girl who is asked to write a poem for Miss So-and-So at Women’s Day at the church. Or this moment which makes this poem so pure, you there with the stick under the tree trying to figure out what’s going on over there with the adults. You render it so beautifully and compassionately. Compassion for your father.

 

NF: Yes. Compassion. I am ruled by it. Empathy. My compass. None of us starts out necessarily where we wish we were. I believe love pushes us to a greater understanding of ourselves and the world we live in if we would just allow love to do what it can and does do. It sounds trite, but it’s so true.

 

KNE: It is true.

 

NF: He never turned away from me even after I said to him what I needed to say to him while holding my girlfriend’s hand. He said, “Well, dear, you were always doing something different. You had your big afro when nobody had an afro and you were always scribbling in that book when everybody else was watching TV…. He needed to line it up judiciously with everything else that was quirky and different about me … [laughs]…. Which was fine with me because I really only ever wanted to be myself.

 

KNE: When you describe that moment, I was thinking that even though he’s trying to move it out of the house … ultimately he moves it into this space that is actually kind of more beautiful … right? He moved it outside…

 

NF: Yes! Remember in Beloved when we move to the trees to pray and hold on to what we need to hold on to…?

 

KNE: Yeah, Baby Suggs…

 

NF: Baby Suggs makes church under the trees … where we are closer to God and the angels.

 

KNE: Which is actually a beautiful place to share this information about love. Even though that may not have been his specific intent. He couldn’t control the love. Right?

 

NF: Yes. Kelly, yes. That natural canopy of the world [was] immediately Uncle Bobby’s witness. That natural world that my father nurtured and allowed me to take in as a child, is a bigger witness than the inside of the new house could ever be. Because the natural world was happening all around. Nothing could stop the birds from singing or the leaves from falling or the wind from blowing. I was there—across the way—playing with a stick in the earth. And I remember actually seeing the beauty of the world all around us. A beauty my father had first given me. And Kelly, you were talking about the occasional poem a while back? One of the things I love about the title of the book, [is that] occasionally I’m poet in this book and occasionally I’m a prose writer and a keeper of the sacredness of black life. Miss Clifton said in her poem, “Children, keep this in the place you have for keeping things.” I took that as a charge from her. I really love how in this book I feel like I’m keeping things. Black keepsakes. I’m using both those definitions of “occasionally” as the book blooms.

 

KNE: Yes … absolutely. Let’s talk about Lorraine Hansberry, and I’ve always known your love for her and it’s amazing how legacy is handed down. You told me many years ago in class that “a classical people deserve a classical art” was from Hansberry and you also said “in the specific [of your life] is always the universal.” I now tell my students what you taught me. Lorraine Hansberry and Toni Cade Bambara make appearances in this text.

 

NF: Yes … indeed.

 

KNE: For me, this is clearly a writer’s book in that sense … can you talk about Lorraine Hansberry and your formation and why you pay such tribute to her [“Inquisitor and Insurgent”] and this is not the only time you pay tribute to her in a book.

 

NF: To be fourteen and fifteen—and to be so consumed, in the best way, by books and the music of words and language and the sounds that words make … to live in a small town where there did not appear to be any black poets … or writers … that I could go to and say … “Excuse me, could you please tell me how do I do this thing called writing? How do I set my life on that kind of course?” I mean, I saw people doing that modeling thing with Mr. Brown who was an electrician … and with all the other traditional jobs, but I didn’t see anybody doing that with little people who wanted one day to be writers. So the moment comes when I am in that window at that off-Broadway production and Hansberry speaks her young life through those off-Broadway actors. She says, “I am a writer and I am going to write.” And I sit up straight. She says, “A classical people deserve a classical art” and I feel my legs lifting off the windowsill. That book of her life, with all its photographs and vignettes, To Be Young Gifted and Black… really became a young poet field guide and a passionate black girl writer’s handbook for fifteen-year-old me.

 

KNE: Yeah. Yeah it is.

 

NF: I hadn’t thought about this before. Unconsciously perhaps. She really—artistically speaking, gave me the permission to include the actual material of what is found in Love Child. The photographs. The vignettes. The excerpts of her work. To Be Young Gifted and Black really became a sacred text for me. Here was the first time a black woman writer spoke directly to me and this is long before Alice Walker or Toni Morrison and way before Lucille Clifton. This was the black woman writer of my adolescent day professing her love for writing and black people. Come on … I kept that book inside my coat like a heater. I still have my first copy. It’s a bit worn [laughs] and torn up … and I remember going to college that first year and putting a cigarette to my lips just like Lorraine had done at her typewriter…

 

KNE: In that famous picture…

 

NF: Yes. Girl, I coughed so long and hard [laughs] and I never put another cigarette to my lips. I said, “Okay, you don’t have to do everything she did.” [laughs] And then to find out later how she eventually also came to realize her lesbian sexuality and lean toward it with great passion even though she didn’t have much time left on Earth. There were so many points of light in her life for me.

 

KNE: You’re right … that picture of her at the typewriter … a typewriter isn’t it, and she’s smoking. There’s so much in there … in that photograph for a black girl … I had Alice Walker … I still have some of those books. I have my first copy of Meridian that I bought at Kmart when I was fifteen years old and it’s in a sealed bag because it’s falling apart. But it’s that same looking and saying … this could be me…

 

NF: This could be me … at a typewriter? We didn’t see black women in front of any typewriters. Not unless they were a secretary. There is nothing wrong with being a secretary. I just didn’t want to be one.

 

KNE: Yeah, right…

 

NF: Creating a book…

 

KNE: You wanted imaginative work…

 

NF: Think of another black woman who had photographs of themselves sitting and pondering at a typewriter? … Tell me you know of any other black woman writer of the 1960s sitting at a desk about to create or bring that next impactful line. It was incredibly formative for me to see her at that desk, at that typewriter, mining her interior space!

 

KNE: Because that also signifies work. Just like the photo of Langston Hughes at the typewriter. That photo says this is me and this is my work. This is what I do.

 

NF: Yes and this is where I do my work.

 

KNE: I love the way you tie pencils into the work of a writer. You know … everybody who was working around you always had a pencil … [laughs]

 

NF: Come on Kelly, you know those people, too. They raised you, too. They raised so many of us.

 

KNE: Yes. They’re in their overalls or they are teachers grading papers. I love the way you embody these artifacts … pencils. Something that could be seen as a small little thing but you see the democracy of a pencil. Everybody’s using a pencil! All the people who are hand workers from attorneys to the carpenter to the shoemaker … everybody’s got a pencil. Which brings in the work of the writer. Because sometimes people think of writers as outside of all that. Y’all just having fun and games over there writing poems and stuff. But you add the writer, thinker, creator into that mix. It’s work…

 

NF: That’s what Toni Cade taught me. You don’t do your work over in a corner, alone, and isolated. The writer of the community steps from her desk out into the world to see what that world needs from her. The western concept of a lone writer writing out of some manic-depressive aloneness always bothered me as a view of how a writer writes. That’s not how I learned what a writer was. I am alone sometimes working but I am never by myself. There are ancestors and the living about me at all times. And I have come from people who have always written and read or wanted to and cared about the written word. And that’s … really important…. I know I didn’t invent anything on my own. I hope I have an original way of saying, but I don’t have to separate myself from those I love and care about, and those who helped make my voice and sound what it is. My sound does not come from any great solo intelligence. It comes from a collective knowing and a great choir of people, always close by, who regularly put their hands on their hips, or on my hips, and make me a sweet potato pie filled with African magic. People who sent me some lime green stationary to write my first letters on.

 

KNE: Yes! I was having a conversation with another poet recently and we talked family stories. And he told me about his mother’s story from New York to Trinidad and [I] shared my family stories. In that conversation I said black people’s stories worldwide have been so reduced to the most inane narratives you can think of by Hollywood. Our stories are so complex and layered and sophisticated and plain and all of the things that a human story can be. And when black people are allowed … and I shouldn’t say allowed … when we do tell our stories with all of those many, what’s the term you just used? My teacher mind wants to say aesthetics … when we tell our stories the way they deserve to be told, the complexity and richness, it brings us so much joy. And your work, especially this book, is that it’s so layered. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone back and read your letter to your mother just because … [laughs]

 

NF: I love that.

 

KNE: I go back to that’s the stuff that informs what we do … a sweet potato pie or your mother clipping some black history information. And truth is way stranger than any fiction or way more exciting or interesting than any fiction. Again that’s one of the reasons I’m so attracted to this work. There’s one poem that was so difficult for me to get through, and I’m still rereading it over and over. I think one of the reasons [is] because of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown and the plethora of black children that we are losing on a daily basis. “Black Boys with Cows: A Still Life.” As a native of South Carolina, I know you had probably heard this story. What kind of research did you do to be able to tell this story? To tell it this way? And were you thinking about those children I mentioned?

 

NF: I carry the wanton and senseless murder of black children in my body 24-7. The deaths of black children in modern America is always with me. There is no place to unload them or to leave them beside the road. I never know where the dial is going to stop and I’m going to begin to write something new. I know their faces and shortened lives will always appear. I never heard the story of George J. Stinney, Jr. while growing up in South Carolina. I only heard the story when I became adult. When the University of Arizona wrote me to me saying I had been chosen as one of their Art for Justice fellows in 2018, some things started clicking for me. I knew I wanted to write something about Stinney. One of the requirements was to compose a new poem for the fellowship. It had to be based on some aspect of justice or the penal system in America. This is exactly how my folder of occasional poems came to be. I would accept such overtures from different organizations and people and then get to work. The 60th anniversary of the Stinney execution happened to be in the news in South Carolina during this same moment. George J. Stinney Jr., at fourteen was accused of the rape and murder of two white girls in 1944. There was never any evidence that Stinney committed this crime. The jury decided his guilt in ten minutes. He was brutally executed. The youngest ever to be executed in America. To this day. The family was asking the state—seventy years later—to rule on a motion of coram nobis which says the state of South Carolina “made a mistake” in executing Stinney. They knew they could not bring George back, but they wanted the state of South Carolina to admit to the fact that a mistake was made. The University of Arizona wrote to me and I had just come back from sitting in the courtroom for six days listening to the testimony of the two white attorneys who had decided to take up the coram nobis case pro bono for the family. I had all these notes scattered through my journal book and on my desk. I decided, because it’s always been really important to me that I be a poet of my time, to write about Stinney. I often write about the world around me as it happens. Sometimes I feel chosen in those moments. I feel that a particular call has been put out for me to step into this history and create something for George J. Stinney, Jr. even though he has been gone for seventy years. As I did my research I discovered—I simply had not thought about the fact that my father was alive and almost the same age [as] young George. My father was a black boy just like George Stinney but he one year younger and his father had a car, not a cow like George’s father.

 

KNE: Oh my goodness…

 

NF: I started thinking about differences in the lives of these two black boys. Why did my father … excel and make it in the same South Carolina where George Stinney did not? I started thinking about the power of education and the freedom that comes from knowing how to read and how poverty and injustice and literacy are still the factors that separate us in this highly Have-and-Have-Not society. So as the poem unfolds this becomes my through line. George Stinney couldn’t leave the South. His father was illiterate. He ask[s] these penetrating questions as a young boy who is trying to not be illiterate in a world that wanted to keep everything including information and self-expression from him. Nobody he knew had a car. He only had a cow. My father’s father had a car. My own family, my own self, my own father, whose historical portrait, as the first black Circuit Judge in this small South Carolina town is hanging directly in front of me in this courtroom as this new George Stinney, Jr. trial begins. Then I look up and see my beloved older brother, who is the state’s solicitor in this courtroom, who is simply (but it’s never simple) doing his job by saying, “Your honor, the State of South Carolina feels that George Stinney, Jr. had representation.” It’s complicated, Kelly. And why should black people be any less complicated than anybody else in the world. We are not. And with what we have been through in this America—it will never be simple. So I had to decide if I could even write what I wanted to write about this case. Could I pull my beloved older brother into this fray … could I look across the courtroom every day at my father … who is whispering to me as I scribble…. Could I hear James Baldwin, who is always buzzing in my ear … say “Poet, you are a reporter and remember you must report on when we came to earth did we survive this madness.”

 

KNE: You know who else that reminds me of? Gwendolyn Brooks as the recorder…

 

NF: Report from what?

 

KNE: Part One. And this poem feels very much like this tradition.

 

NF: You know Miss Brooks so well so that’s such an honor for you to say. We are indeed “each other’s magnitude and bond …”

 

KNE: I don’t know if my questions have done this book justice or not. When I was girl I used to take the Ebony and Jet magazines and just look through them. I wouldn’t read it. I was just looking at the picture of Lola Falana or something. Thinking, “oh, she looks cute,” or “how she do that?” [laughs] So when I wasn’t reading the actual poetic text [of Love Child] … I was reading the flyers… “Come Meet Nikky Finney, the poet, at Kroger’s” and looking at the artifacts … or the notes from your Daddy with “Hey Baby!”… It just felt like a real book in that sense. Reading the poems, reading the prose … but having the other there as well, the visual things together. It really added another layer of who we [black people] are.

 

NF: We both have those things, Kelly, in our lives as treasured black girls from the South. We don’t all have them but maybe we have something that is truly ours—that we hold on to as the world rocks us from side to side. Maybe we don’t consider them treasures but maybe we should.

 

KNE: You grew up like me with hundreds of pictures of ancestors and family around and when we moved into this house the first thing I wanted to do was hang pictures up the stairwell, and then we got a piano and I filled that wall and my mother said, “You have every inch of this house filled with pictures of people you love.” I was like, “Yeah, that’s right…” Sometimes I worry my own child hasn’t processed who these people are around her, but I’m a repetitive storyteller [about family history] and I think I have to have faith that even if she doesn’t remember someone’s specific name, she knows that person belongs to her. These artifacts document a life that some will tell you never happened.

 

NF: Yes…

 

KNE: That these people didn’t exist…

 

NF: But they did. They wondrously did and that is why you and I had to have this interview/conversation together. Another interviewer may have asked me a different kind of question. A good question. But these are the kind of questions I wanted this new book to first be bound to as it flew out into the world. Thank you, Kelly. Trust that.

CategoriesInterview
Kelly Norman Ellis
Kelly Norman Ellis

Kelly Norman Ellis is the author of Tougaloo Blues (2003) and Offerings of Desire (2012). Her poetry has appeared in Sisterfire: Black Womanist Fiction and Poetry, Spirit and Flame, Role Call: A Generational Anthology of Social and Political Black Literature and Art, Boomer Girls, Essence Magazine, Obsidian, Calyx, and Cornbread Nation. She is a recipient of a Kentucky Foundation for Women writer’s grant and is a Cave Canem fellow and founding member of the Affrilachian Poets. Ellis is an associate professor of English and creative writing and chairperson for the Department of English, Foreign Languages and Literatures at Chicago State University.

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