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'Just Sit Where You Are.' Poet Nikky Finney Says Your Poem Is Right In Front Of You

Nikky Finney, author of the forthcoming book, <em>Love Child's Hotbed of Occasional Poetry: Poems and Artifacts</em>, helps us celebrate National Poetry Month.
Photo by Forrest Clonts
Nikky Finney, author of the forthcoming book, Love Child's Hotbed of Occasional Poetry: Poems and Artifacts, helps us celebrate National Poetry Month.

Nikky Finney has been writing poetry tied to particular events for as long as she can remember.

When she was 9 years old, a member of her church congregation tasked her with writing a poem for a birthday: Nikki, we need a poem for Mrs. Robinson's 100th birthday next week, can you get to work on that?, she recounted.

She didn't know it at the time, but she was writing occasional poetry — a form written for a specific occasion — "a wedding, a birthday, a new building, a 100-year-old anniversary," she explained.

"I found that I had a stack of poems people had asked me to write," she said. "A lot of those poems are found in Love Child," her forthcoming book, Love Child's Hotbed of Occasional Poetry: Poems and Artifacts.

Finney, winner of the 2011 National Book Award for her collection of poems Head Off & Split, spoke with All Things Considered to help celebrate our spin on an April occasion: National Poetry Month.

Finney scrolled through #NPRPoetry and found one submission from @j_mcentire that caught her eye with its "gorgeous specificity" and its surprise ending.

"You can tell that the poet is lost in the visual," Finney said. "But then there's this colon right at the end that comes before the emphatic statement."

"That's what poetry should do," she added. "There should be an edge that the reader walks, there should be surprise — it has all of that in just six lines."

That final line is no doubt a response to a life altered by the coronavirus crisis. Without our typical routines, many of us might be feeling like one day is just running into the next.

But this writer offers an optimistic take on a challenging time for many, Finney noted, as poets often do.

"In this moment, maybe we do need to remember the cherry blossoms are in bloom, the azaleas are outside the window. Because that world, too, demands our attention," she said. "We are human and we need to go and revive ourselves and remember what is all around us — and not just on CNN."

Finney's advice for our Twitter poets? Don't try to reinvent the wheel.

"Encourage them to choose a topic they're already passionate about," she said.

"For some reason my students always think they have to go find a subject: I want this to be a poem that has never been written before — a subject that's never been discussed. And I say, 'Darling, there are 10 subjects, you know. There's love and death and heartache..."

"Just sit where you are and think about what you are passionate about."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.