Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with Nikky Finney, December 16, 1997

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries
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00:00:00 - Introduction and family background

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Partial Transcript: This is an oral history interview with Nikky Finney being conducted by Linda Beattie for the Kentucky Writers Oral History Project.

Segment Synopsis: Finney discusses her background and her parents. She was born in Conway, South Carolina. The family moved to Sumter, South Carolina when Finney was a child.

Keywords: Conway (S.C.); Ernest Adolphus Finney; Frances Davenport Finney; Gullah; Sumter (S.C.)

Subjects: Families.; Genealogy; Sea Islands Creole dialect

GPS: Conway (S.C.)
Map Coordinates: 33.838056, -79.056111
00:05:23 - Childhood

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Partial Transcript: What was your own childhood like?

Segment Synopsis: Finney describes her childhood. She remembers being one of the first three children in her school during the first year of integration.

Keywords: Civil rights; Farms; Integration

Subjects: African Americans--Segregation; African Americans--Social conditions; Civil rights; Farms; Race discrimination; Segregation in education

00:07:37 - Integration

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Partial Transcript: Did you, um, experience integration in the schools?

Segment Synopsis: Finney discusses racial integration, and her experience as one of the first three black students integrated into her middle schools.

Keywords: Communities; Integration; Sumter (S.C.)

Subjects: African Americans--Segregation; African Americans--Social conditions; Childhood; Communities; Race discrimination; Segregation in education.

GPS: Sumter (S.C.)
Map Coordinates: 33.926944, -80.363611
00:12:01 - Reading

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Partial Transcript: Um, do you remember when you first got interested--you talked about, um start--having a diary, started a diary at age ten.

Segment Synopsis: Finney talks about reading when she was young, and loving books. Books were a means of travel for a young Finney.

Keywords: Books; Hardy Boys; Libraries; Nancy Drew; Reading

Subjects: Childhood; Keene, Carolyn. Nancy Drew mystery stories; Libraries; Reading

00:14:57 - Teachers

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Partial Transcript: Um, do you remember teachers who were particularly influential or when English and writing emerged as, I assume, favorite subjects?

Segment Synopsis: Due to segregation, there were barriers to black Americans working in certain careers. Many of these talented people became teachers. Finney remembers great black English teachers as a young child. Later, after integration, there were also wonderful white English teachers.

Keywords: Integration

Subjects: African Americans--Segregation; African Americans--Social conditions; Childhood; Race discrimination; Segregation in education; Teachers; Teaching

00:17:27 - Only wanting to be a writer

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Partial Transcript: When did you think you would become a writer?

Segment Synopsis: Finney recalls being encouraged by her mother to write. The black arts movement was a great influence. She never wanted to be anything else other than a writer.

Keywords: Black Arts Movement; Don L. Lee; Gwendolyn Brooks; Harlem Renaissance; Langston Hughes; Nikki Giovanni; Sonia Sanchez

Subjects: Authors.; Black Arts movement; Brooks, Gwendolyn, 1917-2000; Giovanni, Nikki; Harlem Renaissance; Hughes, Langston, 1902-1967; Madhubuti, Haki R., 1942-; Sanchez, Sonia, 1934-; Writing

00:22:40 - Talladega College

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Partial Transcript: Um, did you go to college right after high school?

Segment Synopsis: Finney wanted to attend a historically black school, as her parents had done, so she decided on Talladega College in Alabama.

Keywords: Basketball; Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs); Spelman College; Toni K. Bambara; Toni Morrison

Subjects: African American universities and colleges; Bambara, Toni Cade; Basketball; Education, Higher; Higher education; Morrison, Toni; Spelman College

00:25:43 - Meeting Nikki Giovanni

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Partial Transcript: While you were in college did you get to meet any of the contemporary writers that--

Segment Synopsis: Finney recalls scheming to get Nikki Giovanni to read her poems. Giovanni read the poems and offered to help improve them. They are still in touch. Ruby Dee published one of Finney's poems.

Keywords: Creative writing

Subjects: Authors.; Creative writing; Dee, Ruby; Giovanni, Nikki; Talladega College; Writing

00:30:56 - Publishing career

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Partial Transcript: So your publishing career has come about as, as most people would fantasize a publishing career would come about.

Segment Synopsis: Finney has continued to have her work published. Her publishing company, William Morrow and Company, lost her book, so that it was not reviewed.

Keywords: Eunice Redell (??); William Morrow

Subjects: Authors and publishers.; Authors.; Publishers and publishing.; William Morrow and Company; Writing

00:35:48 - Memorizing poetry

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Partial Transcript: I read somewhere that in the 1890s, as recently as that, ninety percent of the public school curriculum was poetry.

Segment Synopsis: Finney remembers memorizing poetry for school, and how this act of memorization helped Finney internalize rhythm and rhyme.

Keywords: Memorization; Poems

Subjects: Childhood; Education; Poetry

00:36:46 - Graduate school

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Partial Transcript: Um, going back to, to your schooling for a minute, did you go to graduate school directly after college?

Segment Synopsis: Finney was very successful in her graduate school program, studying African American Studies. In the end, she was not permitted to write the thesis the way she wanted to write it, so she did not finish her degree, but left the college.

Keywords: African women writers; Creative writing

Subjects: African American studies; Atlanta University; Education, Higher; Higher education; Writing

00:39:20 - Photography

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Partial Transcript: How had you learned photography?

Segment Synopsis: Finney looks at photography as a metaphor for writing.

Keywords: Creative writing; Gurney Norman; Photography

Subjects: Atlanta University; Norman, Gurney, 1937-; Photography; Writing

00:45:50 - Return to Atlanta

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Partial Transcript: When you returned to Atlanta, what did you do?

Segment Synopsis: Finney went back to Atlanta, where she had a job at Kinko's so that she could have access to a computer and copy equipment.

Keywords: Creative writing

Subjects: Atlanta (Ga.); Kinko's (Firm)

00:47:48 - California

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Partial Transcript: In fact, I lived in Atlanta, um, 'til the end of '85, and that was when I moved to California.

Segment Synopsis: Finney moved to Oakland, California and got a job in another Kinko's. In the meantime, her book was published. During this time, Finney was able to give readings at colleges.

Keywords: Creative writing

Subjects: Authors.; Kinko's (Firm); Oakland (Calif.); Publishers and publishing.; Writing

00:50:48 - Community of writers

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Partial Transcript: Uh, did you ever encounter, uh, oh, uh, um, trying to think of the name of the, uh, Kentucky writer, it just went out of my head, uh, from New Haven, Fenton Johnson.

Segment Synopsis: Finney did not find another community of writers in California. Finney decided not to stay in California, and took a job as an instructor at the University of Kentucky.

Keywords: Percival Everett; Writers groups

Subjects: Education, Higher; Everett, Percival; Higher education; Teachers; University of Kentucky

00:55:04 - Teaching

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Partial Transcript: I came for one, for nine months as a visiting writer in 1989, totally terrified about teaching writing.

Segment Synopsis: Finney recalls being terrified in her first teaching experience. She finds that teaching is so powerful. Beattie and Finney talk about the part of writing that they have difficulty teaching to others. Writing comes naturally to each of them, and it is difficult for them to break down the process of what comes naturally. Finney feels that creative writing has to be taught using broad guidelines that allow for intellectual differences.

Keywords: Creative writing

Subjects: Education, Higher; Higher education; Teachers; Teaching

01:06:07 - Creativity

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Partial Transcript: Uh, do you have any idea yourself of what the notion, or, what, do you have any notion of what the, uh, uh--of what creativity itself might be?

Segment Synopsis: Finney thinks we all have creativity, and that it branches into a specific kind of creativity. Creativity will find a way out, even if it is oppressed somehow.

Keywords: Creativity

Subjects: Creative ability; Walker, Alice, 1944-

01:10:18 - Sister Vision Educational Press

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Partial Transcript: Um, in your 1995 beautifully designed, I might say, book, "Rice," uh, it was published by Sister Vision, Black Women and Black Women of Color Press.

Segment Synopsis: Finney tells how she submitted her work to a small press. She chose five publishers to submit the work, and Sister Vision took on "Rice."

Keywords: "Rice"; Bernice Johnson Reagon; Sister Vision Educational Press

Subjects: Authors and publishers.; Authors.; Publishers and publishing.; Reagon, Bernice Johnson, 1942-; Writing

01:15:00 - Her book "Rice"

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Partial Transcript: The cover of the book, there is an artist in town, there is a sculptor by the name of LaVon Van Williams.

Segment Synopsis: Finney explains how she got the cover design for her book "Rice." Finney briefly sketches the historical link between rice and the black people imported to cultivate the rice.

Keywords: "Rice"; African slaves; Book covers; Slaves

Subjects: African Americans--Social conditions.; Rice; Slavery; South Carolina

01:20:36 - Sense of place

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Partial Transcript: Um, I would say that sense of place plays a strong central role in your poetry, and that, and that that place is the geographical place of the South Carolina low country, as well as the genealogical place of your own family and racial heritage.

Segment Synopsis: Finney finds sense of place very important in her work. Kentucky has had a profound effect on her writing.

Keywords: Kentucky

Subjects: Authors.; Kentucky; Place attachment; Writing

01:24:17 - Author's purpose

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Partial Transcript: Um, what would you say distinguishes your poetry from any else's, or what do you most hope to achieve in your work?

Segment Synopsis: Finney does not know what distinguishes her work from others. She wants her poetry to communicate something her reader did not realize. She discusses her poetic vision.

Keywords: Audience; Poems

Subjects: Authors.; Poetry; Writing

01:27:23 - Grants

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Partial Transcript: Uh, I know you've received grants from the Kentucky Foundation for Women and from the Kentucky Arts Council.

Segment Synopsis: Finney is grateful for the grants she received from the Kentucky Foundation for Women and the Kentucky Arts Council. The grants provided a way for Finney to live while she was writing "Rice."

Keywords: Kentucky Arts Council; Kentucky Foundation for Women

Subjects: Authors.; Writing

01:32:10 - Affrilachian poets

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Partial Transcript: Um, actually going back to that Appalachian discussion, I know you are a founding member of Affrilachian poets.

Segment Synopsis: Finney explains how she became involved in the Affrilachian poetry movement. She had been invited to participate in a Kentucky writer's conference, where Frank X. Walker was inspired to coin the term 'Affrilachian.'

Keywords: Affrilachian poets; Kentucky writers; Southern writers

Subjects: African Americans--Appalachian Region; Authors.; Norman, Gurney, 1937-; Walker, Frank X., 1961-; Writing

01:40:21 - New Books For New Readers project

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Partial Transcript: What are your own work habits?

Segment Synopsis: Finney writes every day, including journals. She is both a night person and an early riser. Finney has picked up her longer work of fiction, and is back to working on that. She also discusses the editing process for the New Books for New Readers project. She has become interested in adult literacy.

Keywords: Adult literacy; Journals; Literacy students; New Books For New Readers

Subjects: Authors.; Diaries; Functional literacy.; Illiterate persons.; Writing

01:48:33 - Identity

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Partial Transcript: And, and speaking of that, in terms of your identity as a writer, um, how important how important is it to you, do you think, or to your audience, that you be identified as a black writer, or as a woman writer, or as a black woman writer?

Segment Synopsis: Finney finds it extremely important that she be recognized for who she is. She feels that if someone does not recognize that she is a black woman writer, she is invisible. The differences are positive.

Keywords: African American women writers; Black women writers

Subjects: African American women; African Americans--Social conditions.; Authors.; Identity (Psychology); Women and literature.; Women, Black; Writing

01:52:11 - Finney's vision for her future

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Partial Transcript: Um, where would you like to be and what would you like to be doing in a decade?

Segment Synopsis: Finney would like to return to the land sometime in the future. She talks about the importance of taking care of the land and a writer's responsibility to address tough issues.

Keywords: Farms; Future; Goals; Issues; Land; Limited resources; Natural resources; Nature; Passion; Responsibility; Students

Subjects: Authors.; Land use; Moral conditions; Writing

01:55:08 - Her community of fellow writers

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Partial Transcript: Uh, what haven't we discussed that you think is important for people to know about you as a poet or as a person?

Segment Synopsis: Finney talks about some of her fellow writers who provide support, including the Affrilachian group as well as people like Wendell Berry and Bobbie Ann Mason, among others. She talks about the climate in Lexington in regard to art, and specifically Black artists.

Keywords: Affrilachian writers; African American artists; African American community; Audiences; Awareness; Black artists; Bobbie Ann Mason; Civil rights; Climate; Colleagues; Communities; Difficulties; Frank X. Walker; Gurney Norman; Help; Inspiring; Kentucky; Kentucky Writers Coalition; Lexington (Ky.); Support; Wendell Berry; Writers; Young writers

Subjects: African American authors.; Art.; Authors.; Writing