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  • ✪ A Conversation with Nikky Finney
  • ✪ September 10


ASANTE: Welcome, everyone. More than thirty years ago the Project on the History of Black Writing began its investment in preserving and recovering Black writing. Today we remain committed to creating critical spaces for teaching, learning, researching and presenting Black literature, both in the U.S. and globally. As such, we are very pleased to present our third webinar in Black Poetry after the Black Arts Movement, an institute funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Our special guest today is the poet Nikky Finney, a writer who helps us consider the work and the workings of wholeness, vulnerability, containment, resilience, resistance, and consecration. I am Monfia Love Assante, coordinator of creative writing and graduate studies in the Department of English and Modern Languages at Bowie State University, an institution celebrating its sesquicentennial, in Bowie, Maryland. Thank you all for joining us. A quick logistical note before we get started: In order to facilitate interaction with Nikky Finney today we will be using two of the tools that you will find in the upper left hand corner of your webinar window. We will use the chat tool to provide immediate feedback and think of it as a place for virtual applause and encouragement. And we'll use the Q&A tool as the place to collect questions for the poet to answer in the course of the webinar. You are encouraged to use both actively. It is my aspiration to get to as many questions as time allows, while providing sufficient space for professor Finney to read and for an organic evolution of our discussion. Please feel free to use the chat tool now to offer a special virtual welcome to our guest. Nikky Finney was born in Conway, South Carolina within, as she says, listening distance of the sea and against a backdrop of the human rights struggle in the South. She's the child of activists. Her father, Ernest Finney was a civil rights attorney and retired South Carolina Chief Justice. Her mother, Frances Davenport Finney, was a teacher and community blessing. Finney grew up in a community that honored Black literary traditions and committed that tradition to heart. As a young girl she was identified as a poet and served the community by writing occasional poems. And although she was compelled to leave home to better understand herself in the round world, she was shaped by being a witness to "the incredibly loving people who refused to sleep until they did something to try and change some of the structures that were present in our community." Poet Finney came of age during the Civil Rights and Black Arts movements and she cites the special influence of James Brown's anthem I'm Black and I'm Proud, the FBI search for Angela Davis, visual artists Romare Bearden, Charles White, and writers Gil Scott Heron, James Baldwin, and Nikki Giovanni as special stokers of the flame. At Talladega College in Alabama where Finney earned her undergraduate degree, she began to understand the powerful synergy between art and history. At Talladega she found Margaret Walker, and Gwendolyn Brooks, Toni Morrison, and Zora Neale Hurston. But she was nurtured and compelled by Hale Woodruff's amistad murals in Savery Library. Those murals that commemorate the drive for freedom, self determination, and returning home. It was at Talladega that she met Nikki Giovanni, shared a folder of poems with her, and received confirmation from Giovanni regarding her poetic aspirations. Finney was also mentored by Dr. Gloria Wade Gayles who charged her with swallowing the world of books. After Talladega, Finney moved to Atlanta where she joined the Pamoja Writing Workshop led by Toni Cade Bambara and it was Bambara who helped frame her understanding of being a writer in the world. She joined the University of Kentucky about twenty-four years ago, and in the Fall of 2013 she joined the University of South Carolina as the John H. Bennett Jr. Chair of Southern Literature and Creative Writing. Finney has authored four books of poetry: Head Off & Split, The World is Round, Rice, and On Wings Made of Gauze. She's also authored Heartwood and edited The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South. She's a founding member of The Appalachian Poets and she's a member of the faculty of Cave Canem. Lastly, in 2013, the Clarice Smith Center at the University of Maryland commissioned Finney to complete a work that would be part of a year long series of 2015 programs investigating and learning from the legacy of the Civil War. She completed the libretto, The Battle of and for the Black Face Boy, in 2014, and it was published in Oxford American: A Magazine of the South this fall. Please join me in welcoming Nikky Finney. FINNEY: Thank you so much. Thank you so much. It's so good to be here with you. It's so good to be with everyone. I'm reading your messages as I'm trying to keep my focus on Dr. Love here, and you all are asking much of me today because this is my first webinar. So, go easy on me is all I'm gonna say. ASANTE: All right, our first question: You mentioned in an interview that in high school you had committed In Flanders Fields to memory. There is that line in the poem 'If ye break faith with us who die We shall not sleep.' McCrae was a Canadian physician and lieutenant colonel in the first World War, and he reminds us of that 19th century physician, solider, writer, Martin Delany. If you could tie McCrae's hundred year old idea about not breaking faith with the battlefield and your National Book Award acceptance speech. FINNEY: Wow, that's a great question. I never knew how to be a poet. I was from a very small town in South Carolina, and other people around me, other students, other folks who were growing up with me, some of them had models around them. They could, you know, learn how to be an electrician, learn how to be a teacher, or learn how to be a nurse, learn how to be a lawyer. Models were all around, and I had great models for how to be a human being. I didn't have a model for how to be a poet. And I remember... I mean my family always went to church, and we always did that ... and I always felt even though that very sacred time was happening. We were talking about spirit and spirituality. We were talking about it in a very particular way, and it wasn't until really, ... and this is so perfectly timed ... the Black Arts Movement ... the Black Arts Movement brought into my life the understanding of my heritage, and my connection to my ancestors. I had an uncle, my father's brother, who was very Afrocentric, and lived in L.A. He and his wife adopted African names and taught me about Kwanzaa and taught me about all kinds of things going. I was fifteen, and I was like "Whoa, this is exactly kinda what I need to really keep being in search of who I am" and so the whole ancestral spirit, ancestral connection for me started in my adolescence... in a sort of intellectual way. And once I understood that I was in a family where we sat around the table and ate dinner with extended relatives and grandparents. This idea of ancestral worship wasn't over there - it was in my family, it was in my kitchen, it was at the table where I sat at night. So this was a really important thing for me. Jump forward, National Book Awards. I'll never forget this. I don't think I've ever talked about this with anybody, because it was such an intimate thing. But I have a uncle Junior, maybe we all have a uncle Junior somewhere. But my uncle Junior lived in Washington D.C. Howard University professor, very intellectual. He and I are very close, and he heard that I had made the finalists' list of the National Book awards, and this is way before I wrote the speech itself. And he called me, and he started talking. I thought he was talking out of his head for a minute. He wasn't talking that sorta Howard University professor kinda stuff. He was like, "You know the ancestors wait for you to call their names." That's what he said, and I said "What? Hello? What are you talking about?" He said.. and he went through the list of recent ancestors who had passed and he said, "The ancestors want us to reach for them, but they wait for us to call their name when we need their help." And I thought about that, and before I wrote the acceptance speech. I thought about that for a long time and I thought about how this was a moment where I wanted them around me. And in my journal books I started reaching out to my ancestors in that kinda way by name, and then when I wrote the speech I thought, 'Who else to invite into the room with me but the ones who made it possible for me to be here?' So it was very ... it was an easy decision. And you bringing that poem into this discussion is really incredible, because I hadn't thought about the connection between In Flanders Field, which was a fifth grade poem in Mr. War's class that I had to learn by heart, and the theme of that poem is - don't miss the connection between this. And I don't think we talk about that enough, to tell you the truth. I think we talk about it in a religious way, sometimes we talk about it in a very narrow way. But I am girded on this earth by my ancestors. I am girded in the things that I write about by my ancestors ... the ones I know by name and the ones that I do not know by name. And I tell my students that, and they look at me a little crazy sometimes, and sometimes they get it, and sometimes they don't. But I still say it, because I think in my generation we don't say it enough to the ones coming up behind us. ASANTE: So, do you think that beyond the personal meaning of the ancestor that it influences the form your poems take? I've heard you sometimes bemoan that they're long, but I'm wondering if... FINNEY: I bemoan that for you guys I don't I don't bemoan that for myself. I don't mind, you know, it's just that many of them don't get published in you know journals and things of that sort because they're so long. This last poem ... the one that you talked about, The Battle of and for the Black Face Boy... it's fourteen pages long. Fourteen! And thank goodness, Oxford American, you know, didn't laugh me off the page. Not only did they publish it in this gorgeous beautiful way, but they also added photographs by different photographers to just add heft to it, and I am grateful for that. ASANTE: So we've set aside the idea that you're not bemoaning it. Is there any relationship to wanting to get all the names in? All the history in, in the length of the poems? FINNEY: I don't think it's that. I don't think it's me trying to like stack the poem with that. I think that what I write about is usually a conversation, you know, and conversations take time. Conversations are not short, you know, short matter. They're not eighteen word or less like the American society keeps telling you to shorten it compress that, package that in something that we can understand in eighteen words. I just don't - my heart and my head don't work like that. And so I never thought - if nobody was gonna read it even though I was long-winded. I thought, well, this is how I want to say it. This is the form that this piece takes in me, and I like it, and I hope somebody else likes it. The ancestor piece is a reverent piece in me, but I can write a reverent piece that's short. I have written short poems once or twice in my life, and I'm sure I'll do that again. But really whatever I'm working on, I know that is the energy that dictates how it looks on the page. You know, it tells me how long it wants to be. It tells me how it wants to look eventually. If I work on it and give it time and come and meet it when I say I'm gonna meet it in the morning before the sun comes up, it begins to reveal itself to me in that way. And it just so happens... and this has to be a part of my voice as a poet at this point because it's not just one book that has bloomed in this fashion. There are many long poems that have happened in all four books, and I like the form. It gives me... I'm a long distance swimmer. I'm a long distance runner. I hated, when I ran track, I hated the hundred-yard dash. You could leave me in the dust with a hundred yard dash, but if you gave me a little time to pick off a few runners, you know, take in the trees a little bit and take in the blue sky, I could pass you a couple of times, and I could before getting back to the end of the track I could have something to say that I thought would might be something interesting to somebody listening to me. ASANTE: Well, we have a related question about process, and the questioner asked, In a recent interview with Sampsonia Way, you described a process of drafting and editing where dates and times are so meticulously noted that you could map how each poem came to be. Do you think that drafting process is something that readers should look at in interpreting your poetry? Or should the final published version speak for itself? And will you eventually turn those drafts over to an archive for study? FINNEY: Great great great question. So I do not think the reader necessarily needs to see all of that. I think the final form and the final draft is really quite enough. I only do that because, as the person who's giving birth to the poem, I often go back, because I can be really, incredibly critical - too critical sometimes when I'm working on something and working on something. And sometimes I'll take something out that I need, actually in the last moment of the poem. Having the map with the date and the times really helps me find it in a way that also lets me know... Had I been working so long I can look at the other drafts and see when that change happened it just gives me a sort of insight into why I took that out or why it's not there now. And so it's really for me as I finish the poem. The second part of that question is so funny. I was in Maryland last week at the David Driskell Center. The University of Maryland voted unanimously actually, which is really kinda amazing, to use Head Off and Split as their first year reader with their freshman class. So you know 6,500 freshman at the University of Maryland are reading Head Off and Split, and so I went up there and I also had to do at the David Driskell Center. And I was talking about the process of writing the Battle of and for the Black Face Boy. And I was telling the audience that I used brown butcher paper on my walls, that I write on the walls and take that off the walls and put it on the desk on a smaller paper. That's part of the process as well. And there was a Black woman archivist, listening to me from the national archives, who had come to hear the talk, and she asked this great question. She was like, "What are you gonna to with those brown pieces of paper?" And I was like, "Well, after I finish the poem, I'll fold them up, and I'll put them in a box and label it." And she said, "Oh, no, no. They have to go in an archival box. We need to get somebody on this right away." So I was telling her that since I knew that I wanted to be a writer, two things happened. The moment I knew I wanted to be a writer wasn't a moment of course. But when I realized that, and when I heard about what happened to Zora Neale Hurstons's papers upon her death, it clicked in me that I would have to be responsible for my own life in terms of what I had written on paper. Nobody was gonna come and, you know, take care of my work. No one was gonna come and take care of my drafts, my pieces of brown paper, my highly decorated draft sheets with time and date stamp. I had to do that, so I have. And I have a bunch of stuff. I mean I have right now probably thirty boxes of papers that go back to high school, and I have a friend in California who is an archivist and who came to visit once and helped me start putting those papers in an archive-like thing. And I couldn't get back to it. It's been two years, but the answer to the question is yes. I would hope my papers would go to somewhere. I've been approached by two or three organizations already. But I hope I have - I have a hundred and sixty five journal books that - this is not show and tell but - that look like this. And they have the number on the spine of the journal - this is journal 107, I'm already up to 125, and they're on shelves in the room, in which I sleep. And I can't give those away right now, because I go back to those books and pull little seedlings of poems out to work on going forward. I'll never go through all of them, but I can't just box them up and give them away. So yes, the answer. I just don't know who that - I'm really curious to know who will have Nikky Finney papers down the line. I don't know. ASANTE: Okay, I'm going to combine a question. One from Cynthia Manick and one from the graceful philosopher, Kevin Quashie. FINNEY: Be still my heart. ASANTE: He says, also, he just taught your poem, "The Making of Paper," yesterday and as it always does, "it made my eyes turn to water." FINNEY: I love you Kevin. ASANTE: I have wondered about the ways, in which you are interested in public history. The poems, the commissioned ones, the first known African American student graduate from Smith. I think a poem from Otelia Cromwell." He wonders, or he states that it reminds him of the moment in the 1980's when historians started to take up the study of history in a more expansive ways. So he sees your work doing that, adding to and expanding what is our national public record, as if you are a cosmic historian, "The Brown Girl with the Pencil," "The One Making Paper." And so his question and Cynthia's is, "Do you think it's the poet's job to witness and report - witness and interpret the world? What is you idea of poetry and public history? FINNEY: It's my job to witness and report. I go back to Baldwin. I always go back to Baldwin. James Baldwin taught us that the poet ... and he meant by that, he meant the artist, but it just so happened he called the artist the poet ... you know the poet is the one, and it is through my senses and my sensibilities, it is through my heart, and my blood vessels... it is through my salt water tears, it is through all of that that I process this moment that I am living in as a poet - as an American poet. And I take that job so seriously. I take that... I've always taken it seriously. I have been affirmed on that front my entire life, you know, thirty-five years as a person writing in this country. And when Toni Cade Bambara was on her dying bed and she sent me that postcard that said, "Do not leave the arena to the fools," it was done. Everything that I was like shy about or quiet about, or not sure about, or half, half-something about... that was 1995, and that's been twenty years, and everything changed when I got that postcard. Everything that I was going to do for the rest of my life was clear in that realm. Not the nuance part, but the "I will be the witness to this life that I have been called to do." And if anybody dare listen, please listen. There is a cadre of other poets beside me, in front of me, behind me, also giving witness. It's not just me. There are many of us, and we will put our voice into the arena, because that is where it belongs. And these days, these crazy, tear-filled, anger-filled days, we need the poet at the center of the discussion more than any other time that I can remember. ASANTE: Ok, as a segue, Vic Burkhammer asks, "How important is it to you to read your poems aloud and could you please read one?" FINNEY: Oh, it's very important for me to read my poems aloud. I try... you know, Miss Clifton in one of her last interviews ... I had the privilege of interviewing her, a couple of years before she passed away, Lucille Clifton. And she talked about how the aural quality of poetry, the aurality, the way the poem hits the ear is so important ... and how she taught a class at Columbia for a couple of years, and just that, just the aurality, the aural quality of poetry. And I read my poem ... a poem cannot be finished, for me, without it being read aloud many times. And I loved as a girl learning poetry by heart, because I learned what could not be taken from me was in that realm. You can tell me to cut the light out, you can tell me I can't do this. You know, as a graduate student I wanted to pursue creative writing and not the writing of others, and I was told I couldn't do that. But you cannot take the poem, you cannot reach your hand into my heart or my head, and remove that poem from me. It is mine. And so, reading it aloud and learning it by heart are precious factors of how I remain close to poetry. I'm gonna read something that - I never read the poem "Plunder" that's in "Head Off & Split." It's long. It's really, really long, and it's in sonnet-esque kind of sections, but I love the work that I did on this poem. It went through many, many drafts, and I love the sounds that come from it. And so, and I also love the epigraph, which I was on a treadmill in a gym, and I was watching the news and John Seigenthaler came on, and he said that the president had his annual physical today. His heartbeat, at fifty-two beats per minute, is set to rival that of a professional athlete. And I almost fell off the treadmill, because I knew in that way that poets know when they hear something that they have to catch it before it flies away, I had to get off the treadmill and go find a pencil and write this down. And so it became the epigraph for "Plunder." And I just want to read just two - the first and the second stanza, perhaps, of this poem. "i. He has come to give his last State of the Union address. He walks through the Great Hall, one final presidential parade, touching those waiting on both sides. A tumultuous welcome. His walk-in is exquisitely bipartisan. His annual moment of public respect, last chance to make his case to the American public without pokes from pesky reporters. He can say what he wants, it’s live TV, then head home for the evening, eat Stubbs bar-be-cue without being questioned, sleep, a satisfied man. His blue tie is perfectly blue, perfectly tied. His hair has grayed faster than any president in modern history. The applause goes on and on for ten minutes. ii. On and on, the applause loop de loops, making a political pep rally, a Washington tradition; what a show! How very American, how very undivided we are, how we promise on the hide of every endangered polar bear, on the feather of every balding eagle. Everything we think and do is absolutely not made in China. The clapping hands die as if ruled by baton. It’s time—. He opens up his brown folder. He takes longer than he should. He looks up and finds the First Lady sitting beside a woman in a gray burka. Women in Afghanistan have rights now. He believes he is responsible for this. On the other side of the First Lady is a large German shepherd, the other war hero." And so the poem goes on and on and this is George Bush and his last state of the Union address, and I always watch the state of the Union address because I'm fascinated with the American history and how it continues to happen. And I thought, and it was a moment where I also grabbed the pencil to take detail notes about how the address actually happened, the envelope that comes with the speech, who's is in the, up in the stands, looking down. There actually was a German Shepherd for this occasion. And I just wanted to talk about ... I wanted to walk a fine line between my rage and my understanding of this moment and being a witness to it. And so I had to walk that fence again about, you know, ranting about what a poor president I thought George Bush was. Nobody wants to hear that. That's not a poem. That's something that you can get on CNN and be a talking-head and do. So I wanted to do something else with that information. And I also wanted to do something else with the information about Condoleezza Rice. I'm more curious as a human being than I am disturbed. I'm much more curious than I am worried, I think. I think that my curiosity and my belief in us as human beings always brings me back to the surface. ASANTE: Thank you. Let's stay with "Head Off & Split" in that text, you explained what it means to be taken apart, to take things apart, and to be about the work of reinvention. And to me, this is also part of the mission in "The Battle of and for the Black Face Boy." So I was wondering if you could speak a little bit about your exploration of head, heart, and face, and what you're sorting through in that process. FINNEY: Well, "Head Off & Split" was such an amazing book to work on. As a poet, and this being my fourth book, and looking at how books come together, and when you know you have a book and those kinds of questions. This came together in such an odd, different way than in any of the other books. It was in me for long, long time - this title, since I was a girl we would go to the fishmonger, and he would say that. It didn't register until many, many years later. And then, when I knew that I wanted to title the book that, I wasn't sure I had the poems to match what I wanted to do on the title page. And so, one of the last things that went into this book is that last line. I had this last poem Instruction, Final: To Brown Poets from Black Girl with Silver Leica. And yet, the line "careful to the very end, what you deny, dismiss, and cut away", that was like one of the last things that went into the book. And it was because I kept trying to deal with - knives kept coming up in the book, but knives that the young, Black men had and were gutting the fish with. So, I was looking for some kind of image, some kind of symbol to sort of rest what the rest of the the poems were saying upon. And as I - you know, you write the poems and then you have to pull back in order to - you know, I put them on the wall and I was like, "What is that poem saying? What is that - oh, that needs to go over here." And so, once I understood that, when I went back as a woman, not as a girl, I did not want anybody to cut away something from the picture that I needed to see. And I feel very keen about that still. I feel like we live in a world, where lying is so everyday, you know. We catch people in lies, and they apologize or nod, and then they go back and they lie again. And it's like, this is what they feel they have to do to keep going or to be whoever they think they need to be, and... I came from a world, where my grandmother would say that lying was akin to murder. I mean you just, you didn't do that. And so I wanted to really - you know, I love core Black culture. I love what I learned about being a Black girl in one part of the Black diaspora when I was a girl. I love how that centers me and keeps me on my path no matter the wind, no matter the rain, no matter what comes in and tells me I should be this, or I should wear my hair this way, or I should ... this is good, I like who I am. And I like meeting young people, my students, and affirming who they are, because they don't get that affirmation enough. They're constantly trying to say, "I have to change, don't I?" And I'm like, "No, you have to be who you came here to be." That's really what this book was about. It was about I'm not gonna cut away who I am. I'm not gonna dismiss who I am. I'm not gonna lie about who I am in order for my poems to meet somebody's expectation of them. And it's really one of the amazing things about this book that it has gotten the kind of readership that it's gotten. And I just never thought in a million years that it would. I thought it, probably out of all my books, it would not do - it would not do this. It would probably do something worse, because I had put so much of my heart and courage and honesty out with it. But that's not what came back. A great lesson for me, and I tried to talk to my students about the same thing. ASANTE: Dr. Meta Jones has a question for you. FINNEY: Hey, Meta Jones. Oops, I'm not supposed to say that. ASANTE: She says you mentioned Baldwin and we know you wrote a brilliantly evocative introduction, "Praying for Rain" to the Jimmy's Blues poetry collection. I just taught "Head Off & Split" in concert with Jimmy's Blues. Could you talk a bit about how Baldwin's poetics and "poetry of witness" ... as opposed to his novels that get so much attention ... is linked to your own poetry specifically? Much has been written about Baldwin, but you helped me and my students especially hear him anew. FINNEY: Oh wow, you know, I love telling what has happened to me as a result of the National Book Award. I love, like, saying how amazing the last four years - actually this week is the fourth year - the National Book Award happens next week, and this was my fourth year living in the spirit of what happens to you when you win. And I would never have been asked to write Baldwin's introduction to his book of poetry had I not won the National Book Award. I know this. And many things came my way as a result of winning that I did not know how to do. And so when Beacon Press called and said, you know, "We'd think you'd be great to write this." I was, you know, I think I cried for two hours, went and looked at my ... I don't know if I can do this, but I'm doing it ... Behind me on the wall are my Baldwin pictures, you know. I have a series of them. And I had to go talk to him, and I had to go say, "Can I do this? I love your poetry. I love you. Can I have permission, right, to write what I feel like I want to say about your work?" And, this goes back around, Monifa, back to what I wanted to say about ancestors, right? So he gave me permission, and I want to say that to that class, that Meta had. And Meta, I can't talk to you, but I'm blown away that you would teach "Head Off & Split" and that essay, because they are connected by ancestral spirits. And so, I looked at his work and I looked at his films. I looked at his beautiful eyes. I looked at his voice. I looked at him standing in the rain. I listened to him talking, you know, hours. It takes hours and hours of researching somebody's life to write those four-thousand words or so, and I had no idea what I would say about it. I just wanted to honor his spirit and his life in a way that, you know, basically says thank you for everything you did, because I would not be a writer had I not been able to access James Baldwin when I was a younger person. And so, Baldwin was a poet. I think Baldwin was a poet before he was any other writer. I think that his perception of language, what he understood about the power of language, what he understood when he took Bessie Smith, you know, up in Europe, up in the mountains to write "Go Tell It on the Mountain." I mean, he had a poet's sensibilities. He understood the power of language, and that comes across to me when I read his very finite volume of poetry. And I think he also knew, ... I mean he was always - ... he's also trying to make a living, and trying to make a living as a writer. He wasn't romanticizing this. Baldwin could write anything. He could write essay. He could write short story. He could write novel. He could write anything. But I really feel like, the kernel of his being rested in being a poet. And so I was honored to write that introduction and honored that he gave me permission to say what I wanted to say about him. ASANTE: Making a little segue from the idea of being a young poet. Jeffrey Mack asks or states, "Last year, you spoke at the Albany State Poetry Festival, and one point you made during your talk with students was that 'modesty is a lie.' Do you have any advice for aspiring poets?" FINNEY: Stay right there on that one, Jeffrey Mack. ... and those aren't my words. When I was talking at the great Albany State, I was saying what the great Maya, Dr. Maya Angelou, had said to Oprah Winfrey in an interview. And, you know, she'd come to town to do her thing, and the pianist didn't show, and they were looking in the crowd for someone to play, and they saw this fifteen-year old, young Black girl, and they said, "We hear you are a virtuoso. Come and open for Dr. Angelou." And the young girl says, "What? I cannot open for Dr. Angelou. Are you kidding me? My mother taught me to be modest, and I cannot do this." And Dr. Angelou said, "Modesty is a lie." And there's no greater ... I mean stay right there, with that. If you have done your work in the world, if you have studied and read the great poets, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, Gwendolyn Brooks ... if you've done the "Harlem Renaissance," and you've studied the poets of the Black Arts Movement, and you start putting your work out into the world, believe in yourself. Do not shy away from calling yourself a poet, once you've done the work. Do not shy away from doing the work that can put you in this amazing continuum of Langston Hughes and all of these great voices that have helped shaped who we are. Don't shy away from that. Claim it. Embrace it. That short little phrase can change a life. I have seen it do that. And I think if you hold on to that ... Modesty is not what you want, humility is what you want, but not modesty. ASANTE: Okay, we have another question about students, and it's from Althea Tate. She says, "How do we impart that core of Blackness, that rootedness to our students that you just spoke about? Many of them are trying to embrace their vision as young Black poets in institutional spaces that intentionally and unintentionally attempt to silence them. I feel we have failed this generation to a certain degree in this respect." FINNEY: Right, I think you are absolutely right. And I think, look, the thing we have to do is not leave the arena to the fools. We constantly think there's one arena. And our students are there, and we can't be there at all times. So we just ... we wipe our brow, and we walk away. There are ways that you can bring in students to a different arena. You can have another arena that doesn't go on at the same time. You can say, "I'm gonna get together ten or fifteen Black students and just talk, and bring in some core Black culture, and talk about the affirmation of that. But if you just let everything keep happening in the way it's happening, and you don't use any subversive tactics that were taught to you, taught to me, taught to my generation about not allowing what is told to our young Black students, to be the last word. It doesn't always work, but I'm telling you right now, I got three young students at the University of South Carolina of 26,000 students on fire in a new way, because I refuse to give them up. I refuse to not put my hand on them and say, "Come by my office at three o'clock, please. I need to talk to you about something." I don't have time to do that. But they need this. And they need our extra help. They need that second arena in order to understand what to do when they walk into that other arena. And we as Black faculty, we as Black parents, we as Black aunties and aunts, of any geration cannot, cannot, cannot give up on our young people. We cannot. We were not given up on. Ancestor spirit, ancestor ties - yes, we lose some, but we have to do our part, be it one or ten or a hundred. But I passionately believe that there is a way. We just have to figure it out. ASANTE: Okay, is there another poem that you would like to read? FINNEY: I've gotta come out of the... okay. I wish I could see ya'll. This is crazy, you know? It's like virtual applause. Hey Sharan Strange. My sister, I miss you. I just want to say that. I know you, I see your name here. I gotta see you soon. Beautiful poet, stunning, my sister from Orangeburg, South Carolina. Gorgeous poet. So here's another poem that I never read from, right? So Hurricane Rita. This is after Katrina hit New Orleans, and then Hurricane Rita came through lower Mississippi, Texas, and I'm walking by the T.V. one night and there's this Black woman standing on her shotgun porch, and she's surrounded by reporters and cameras and lights, and the whole town has been evacuated, and she's standing there saying, "I'm not going anywhere." And everybody's thinking, 'Is she crazy? Why won't she leave?' And what they don't understand is what they never understand. It's how a Black woman's life is different from their life. So she's standing on her porch, because she's not leaving her house, because if she has to go up to that bank one more time and be embarrassed and feel like a fool, she's not doing it. So she would rather go through a hurricane and take her chances that her house will still be standing, rather than leave and have to go back to that bank and ask for another loan. So here she is on the porch. "Miss Monroe, please come with us, everybody has been evacuated - but you. We need to get in the car now and go. We really need to go. If we leave you, we will not come back for you. He means well. He has a kind voice. Wearing those You Can Trust Me I Served In The Peace Corps eyes. He has seen the inside of a church twice, walking all the way up to the front both times, surprising even his mother as he dropped to his knees." We're talking about the reporter. "The old woman, three times his age, points, then claps her hands like a much younger woman. When she does, her top teeth shift and slip. She stands up. Using both hands she smoothes down the cotton fabric from hipline to another invisible mark just above her knee. She does this in one fluid motion. This is the oldest signal in the Western Hemisphere between an old Black woman and whosoever her company shall be." Core Black culture, ya'll. My time up with you her standing-up legs and smoothing-down hand signals say. But the young "tom brokaw" has not studied his field guide to Black women. With help of the feral wind Mayree Monroe comes to her highest height. He continues to pan & zoom, finding the strip of duct tape holding crooked the one arm of her black-rimmed glasses. She kisses her fingers then waves to his curvy green glass. Imitating the long-legged Black girls from the Ebony Fashion Fair, found in her monthly JET magazine, she arcs her thin arms toward the giant orange 621 as pointed on her door. Before the deputy arrived, while Oakland Road piled into SUVs & flatbeds, Mayree Monroe hunted for her paintbrush, so she could write her house number on her door. She turns and walks inside her shotgun house, pushing and latching the screen door so hard until the picture of her wavy blond Redeemer goes wavy - shakes, but does not fall. The camera keeps churning. The old woman starts her roll call, using her fingers to count. The patrol lights on the Sheriff's car twirl in front like the vehicle that has come to escort a person of importance to the County Fair. Come and See the Disappearing Lady! Here one minute and gone the next!" I had to capture Miss Mayree Monroe, because I don't know what happened to her. And that's my job. I'm the witness. I'm the camera. I'm the microphone. I'm the camera that doesn't go to the popular place. It goes to the real place. And I have to be camera. I have to be microphone. I have to be hummingbird. I have to be can of paint. I have to be ... I have to hold my ancestors' hands. I have to ask for permission. I have to love myself. I have to love those who look like me and who do not look like me as Baldwin taught us. And I have to believe that what I'm doing will matter to someone out there, who needs an anchor, who needs to love themselves, and who needs to know that I am not special, that we can all do this for ourselves, and we can all do this for our community. And we need to link arms and see each other and give each other that boost up, because this was passed to us by people who believed in themselves so much that even when enslaved, they were thinking of ways to not be enslaved. ASANTE: Oh, you know, you have said so much, and it seems like we've just really started. So moving towards closing our conversation, I'm going to try to combine some of the questions that have been asked into one that we had discussed earlier. And that is - you've been writing poetry now for thirty years or more, and in that process of coming to mastery, if I can use that phrase, of being inspired by other art forms, the love of Black culture - in that, over the course of those thirty years, you've gained something or some things, and you've probably lost some things about the writing. And if you could talk about what you think you've lost and gained in your process as a poet - what you feel you do really well now and what you had to relinquish in order to do better what you do. FINNEY: You know, Monifa, I don't, some of that is like ... it's really hard for me to talk about being a poet. I came here today because you were over there and because the institute was over there, and I have such great respect. But I'm not the expert on me. I'm really not. I'm really ... I'm the expert on, you know, how I feel. But I don't know what I do really well. I don't know what I don't do well. I'm not so focused on that. I think that one of the things that I have really tried to do as I have stayed ... I met John Oliver Killens when I was nineteen years old. And he's had a great... I have two letters from him, and in the letter he says, "You know what you have to do to be a writer? It's like ridin' a racehorse. You gotta sit in the saddle, and the horse is gonna fly and buck and move. And guess what you gotta do girl!" And I'm drivin' him to the airport, and I'm listening to this story. I was like, "What!" And he said, "You gotta hold on." And I'm... I'm, thirty-plus years, holding on to that harness, that thing. The horse is running, and I don't want to ... the horse to out... to run without me. So I get in my seat everyday, and I write. And I write the next piece, and I write the next piece. I hope I'm growing. I hope I've lost my fear in some ways, to say things that I need to say, because I want to be... I want to... I don't want to be fearless. I just want to write with the fear standing right there, and I want to say to the fear, "I'm better than you." And know that it's real but know that I can write through it. And I just want to hold on, and I just want to keep writing the things that matter to us and to my people and to me. Do what Morrison says is my job, which is to write the books that I want to read. And I'm really trying to do that. ASANTE: In the closing few minutes - a choice for you. FINNEY: Uh oh. ASANTE: If you'd like to read another poem, or since we began with the ancestors, it seems only fitting to kind of close with them, if you have some thoughts about Lucille Clifton, or Toni Cade Bambara. - however you would like to close out this little glimpse into your world. FINNEY: Yea, I gotta go with the ancestor one. For those of us teaching, for those of us who think we are not, you know, that this generation is not paying attention, I beg of you, and I ask you - bring Lucille Clifton into the classroom. Not one poem - ten poems. Situate young people in Lucille Clifton's lap. Let them drink from her bounty. Don't just give'em a little bit. The same with Gwendolyn Brooks, the same with Toni Cade Bambara. Go to Toni Cade Bambara's essay, "The Education of the Storyteller." When a little girl comes home, put her hand on her hips, talking to her grandmama sayin', "I know something you don't know." And the grandmama says, "That's not wisdom. That's not education. Education and wisdom is what I know you know." And it's just... it's a beautiful personal essay. We have... we have the material to bring our young people into the fold. I don't know if we have the understanding that it's right there at our fingertips, if would but take the time to do it. So use Black literature, Black poetry. It is the... it has the... the path has already been struck for us. We're just not... we're just using other stuff, when we could be using the stuff that got us here. And I'm asking us, "Listen to the ancestors. Call their names again. Let them guide us into the next part of this century. Because we need their guidance. We cannot go there without them. And they are waiting for us, as Uncle Junior said, for us to call their name. ASANTE: Thank you so much Nikky. It's been beautiful being on the adventure with you. FINNEY: We did it. I don't know what we did, but we did it. Guys out there, you guys were amazing. You were so quiet. I don't know how you managed to be so quiet through all of this talking. ASANTE: It's been beautiful. I apologize to all those who wrote questions that we just didn't get a chance to get to. FINNEY: Part two! We gotta do a part two or something ASANTE: Part two indeed. So please, all of you out there, join us for our fourth webinar. It will be with Jericho Brown on Tuesday, November 17th at two p.m. We thank you so much again. So many of you offering insights that we just didn't get to bring forward. We'd like to thank KU's Ermal Garinger Academic Resource Center's staff for making today's webinar possible. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. And of course, Nikky, you're just fabulous and so giving. Thank you so much. Most of all, thanks to each of you for sharing this exciting event with us. A downloadable podcast for today's webinar will be available on our website soon. In the meantime, don't forget to follow us online on the HBW website, on Twitter, and on our blog about events related to Black Writing. See you on Tuesday, November 17th, at 2 p.m. Central Time for Jericho Brown. Thanks everyone.


She was born in Mount Carmel, Baltimore County on November 14, 1883, daughter of Jordan B. Cole and Nancy Ellen Wheeler. In Reisterstown she graduated from Franklin High School. Spending one year at Baltimore Business College, Cole graduated in 1903. She first began by working for Merck & Co. as a stenographer. She subsequently left Merck to attend the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy, receiving a Doctor of Pharmacy in 1913, and graduating with the highest grade in her class.

Three years after graduating, she received a job working at the Solway-Annan Company, and working part-time at the War Risk Department in Washington, which she would hold for four years. Following her departure from her public work, she was employed at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy as Secretary of the faculty, until retiring in 1953. The same year she was hired by the University of Maryland, she also enrolled in the University of Maryland School of Law, becoming the first female to receive a degree from that school. Though she never used it, she was a licensed attorney for many years. Additionally, from 1948 to 1949, Cole was dean of the School of Pharmacy.[1] Throughout her life, she studied (at various times) English, history, and economics at Johns Hopkins University.[2]

She was a member of Maryland Pharmacists Association, the American Pharmaceutical Association and the Epsilon Chapter of Lambda Kappa Sigma pharmacy sorority. She served as President of the Baltimore Branch of the American Pharmaceutical Association. The B. Olive Cole Pharmacy Museum was founded in her memory. She died on June 5, 1971.[3]

Tonight we honor one who has achieved many unique distinctions. She was one of the first women to graduate from the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy; First woman to receive a law degree from the School of Law at the University of Maryland; First woman to be Acting Dean of our School of Pharmacy; First woman to hold a full professorship at the School of Pharmacy; First woman Honorary President of Maryland Pharmaceutical Association; First woman Honorary President of Alumni Association, School of Pharmacy; and First woman to receive the Alumni Medal. Hail to the lady of many firsts—the first lady of Pharmacy in Maryland

— Francis S. Balassone


  1. ^ "Bessie Olive Cole, Maryland Women's Hall of Fame". Retrieved 2017-11-14.
  2. ^ Stegman, Carolyn B. "Women of Achievement in Maryland History" (PDF). Maryland State Archives.
  3. ^ "Bessie Olive Cole - Maryland State Archives". Retrieved 2017-11-14.
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