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National Poetry Month: Nikky Finney

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

It's April, and that means it's time for one of our favorite things here at ALL THINGS CONSIDERED - poetry. Today is the start of National Poetry Month. And every April, we celebrate by asking our listeners to submit Twitter poems that we might read on air. And this year, to get things started, we have called renowned poet Nikky Finney. She won the National Book Award for her collection "Head Off & Split," and she is here to kick off National Poetry Month. Welcome back to NPR.

NIKKY FINNEY: Hey. Thank you, Scott. Thanks for the invitation. It's good to be back.

DETROW: When did you first fall in love with poetry?

FINNEY: Oh, maybe when I first heard another human's voice. I think that - I mean, I don't know the detail of the answer to that question. I do know that, for me, the orality of language, what I can hear. I often remember staring at somebody's mouth when they were talking. I feel like I came from a family of storytellers. I came from a community of storytellers. And there was always language in the air. And there was always rhythm in that air. And there was always - there was a quiet voice or a louder voice or laughter, and I think that brought me directly to poetry.

DETROW: I love that answer because my infant daughter is just starting to make sounds and mimic our speaking patterns. And I wonder so much what is going on in her head as she's trying to repeat what she's hearing and what she thinks of all of this.

FINNEY: Yes - and before, Scott, she gets corrected.

DETROW: Yeah.

FINNEY: You know what I mean?

DETROW: Yeah.

FINNEY: Like, part of my journey as a poet with gray hair is to remember those moments that were just wondrous, that I kind of wandered through, you know, as a new human being with language and things around me. You know, we get our children into these training zones, right? Like, this is correct. And this isn't correct. And, no, you can't say, walk me to the distance. You have to say, walk me to the tree. And those kind of wondrous moments that I think mean so much to me as a poet and a curious mind get trampled, unfortunately. So I'm always looking for ways to trample those footsteps and those that's wrong and that's right because I think part of the journey of being a poet for one's life is surprise.

DETROW: That's interesting because I feel like so many students think about poetry or are taught poetry as a system of rules. It has to rhyme. You have to do the couplets. You have to do this. You have to do that. And you are saying the exact opposite.

FINNEY: I'm saying the exact opposite. And I'm not saying that couplets aren't fantastic or rhyme cannot be wonderful. But I am saying that system of legislation about what's allowed is awfully wrong because there are so many wondrous things about an original mind, a creative mind that wants not to follow the path in that kind of way, but also wants to create a new sound, create a new way of saying. And so sometimes I think we teach our young artists and young writers off that path so that so much work begins to sound like work that's already been out there for a long time. And they are a little afraid or a lot afraid to, like, jump off that diving board. I like to jump off the diving board myself.

DETROW: It is the beginning of National Poetry Month. And one of the things we wanted to ask you to do was help us kick it off by reading us a poem. Do you mind introducing this poem, telling us a little bit about it and reading it for us?

FINNEY: Not at all. I wrote this poem several years ago, when I was a visiting writer at Smith College. And they were celebrating their first Black graduate of the college. Her name is Otelia Cromwell, and she was born in 1874, and she passed away in 1972. And I love what I went through researching Otelia Cromwell. And the name of this poem is "Maven." And I'm just going to read the first stanza because I'm that long-winded poet that never knows when to put a period at the end of something.

DETROW: (Laughter).

FINNEY: But I love what it says about how I'm thinking about the girls of today and young women that I meet and what it says to them, what I want to say to them through nurturing their love of the arts and their love of finding out who they are. This is the first part of "Maven."

(Reading) When you are a thinking woman, neither violence nor sugar plums can muzzle the power of thought. Imagine, hatch, comprehend, apprehend, know the inside and the out. You are just a girl when your mother dies, left to tend the rest of the flock. You, the oldest, the one most like your father, taught to leave no stone unturned, marry thrift and industry while burying your head in the stacks. Sang-froid (ph) but never silent. Inquire, picture, ponder, think over, think and think again, giddy with your own mind.

I love that last line - giddy with your own mind. That's what I try to do as a teacher is to try and - whoever is in front of me, male or female, other, you know, just become giddy with your own mind. Back - you know, this conversation circles back to, you know, getting off the path of what somebody wants you to be and being on the path of what you want yourself to be and becoming giddy with your own mind, to me, you know, really is the first step in that direction.

DETROW: Well, let's bring some of that giddiness to others. We are going to be encouraging people to send us poems on Twitter. What advice would you have for somebody who hears that and thinks, I don't know, that seems hard, that seems intimidating?

FINNEY: They should go stand in the mirror and smile at themselves and think of a moment that made them smile back at someone, at a stranger. I was on a path this morning, walking my 5 miles. And, you know, there was somebody who was looking at me who - and I thought they were afraid. You know, they were - here was this 6-foot-tall woman with dreadlocks coming down the path. And I just, like, burst into smile with her and her dog. And she smiled back. And it was a perfect human moment. And so do something that you've never done before with language. Do something that you've never done with words. And try out a few couplets - back to couplets. It doesn't have to be iambic in any way. But just, like, be surprised at what you can write down on the page and see how much light it gives you as a human being, and then let it go.

DETROW: That was National Book Award-winning poet Nikky Finney. Her latest collection is called "Love Child's A Hotbed Of Occasional Poetry: Poems And Artifacts." Nikky Finney, I loved this conversation. Thank you so much for joining us.

FINNEY: Thank you so much. Have a beautiful day.

DETROW: And we would love for you to follow that advice and participate in our National Poetry Month celebration. If you'd like to hear your original poem on the air, tweet it to @npratc with the hashtag #nprpoetry. Each week for the rest of the month, a professional poet will join us on air to talk about some of the submissions that caught their eye. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.