On Feb. 28, the Lewis & Clark English Department welcomed National Book Award winner Nikky Finney for a reading from her latest book “Love Child’s Hotbed of Occasional Poetry.” Finney is also a John H. Bennett Jr. Endowed professor of creative writing and southern letters at the University of South Carolina.
Held in Smith Hall, the event was standing room only and hosted over 120 attendees. Finney’s reading is the first of the LC English Department’s Spring Reading Series, all of which the department expects to be well attended after nearly two years of virtual events.
Finney was originally scheduled to appear on March 17, 2020, just four days after LC students received an email from Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Bruce Suttmeier announcing that the rest of the year’s classes would be virtual, and that all in-person events were canceled, effective immediately. Though Finney did deliver a virtual reading in November 2020, attendees and poet alike agreed that it was not the same experience as reading in person.
Amy Baskin, administrative coordinator for the English and History departments and co-organizer for last week’s event, said it was amazing to finally have Finney on campus.
“To be able to commune and experience the spoken word in person is a really different experience than reading it individually, or even reading it in a book collectively,” Baskin said. “And I think when we get together for events like this, we remember our community more. It feels more participatory, just because it’s poetry and a speaker like Nicky requires such deep listening, it makes it a really connected experience.”
Associate Professor of English Mary Szybist introduced Finney at the event, and emphasized that this reading was special because it was both LC and Finney’s first in-person poetry reading since the COVID-19 pandemic. This made Palatine Hill the first in-person stop on her book tour for “Love Child,” published in April 2020.
“This was the first in-person reading we’ve been able to host since the pandemic began, and it had that sense of sacred listening and shared energy that is very hard to approach via Zoom,” Szybist said via email. “Part of what I loved about the evening is that it felt like Nikky really showed up for us — she was really present to her poems and to us — and we showed up for her too. We put our phones away. Many of us closed our eyes. Many of us cried, laughed, were moved, listened. It was an experience we had together.”
Finney began the reading not with one of her own poems, but one written by Ukrainian author Taras Shevchenko in 1859 entitled “Calamity Again.” The poem is about the cycle of never ending violence plaguing the Eastern European country, and Finney discussed how it remains true in light of current events.
However, Finney cautioned the audience against abdicating their role in the conflict.
“Don’t let anyone tell you this is a Russia-Ukraine issue,” Finney said. “This is about humankind.”
This introduction was the perfect segue into “Love Child,” which from the very beginning embodies the concept of finding beauty in pain. Though originally nothing more than a book of poems, the concept for “Love Child” became something more when Finney returned home to South Carolina in 2013 to take care of her father, who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. She found in her childhood home a box of 400 letters she and her father had exchanged over the years, and knew that he had to be represented in the book.
The published version of “Love Child” includes some of these letters, along with photographs, journal entries and other artifacts that help explain some of the poems contained within. The publishers also surprised Finney by including a memory of her father on the cover of the book: the words “Love Child” are scrawled in his handwriting.
According to Finney’s website, the book also contains “hotbeds, a horticulture term introducing Finney’s readers to her journals, the place where most of her poems have always found their calcium and strong knees.”
Finney read only six poems at the event, but due to her unique performance style of engaging the audience, this took nearly 30 minutes. Between each poem, and sometimes in the middle of one, Finney would stop to tell the story of one of the hotbeds, or just an amusing anecdote. For example, she described a man she saw carrying a dead deer on his back on the side of a highway, as well as the tongue in cheek tale of why she no longer has any problems because she “cried them all out.”
Lizzy Kolb ’23 attended and was particularly moved by these behind the scenes anecdotes.
“I think the parts for me that felt the most special were the stories that she told in between,” Kolb said. “About her father and her experiences with him, or just about any of the context leading up to any of the poems. Because that is the juicy fruit that you don’t necessarily get a glimpse of when you just read the poem.”
Baskin also felt drawn to Finney’s reading style, and connected it to what she believes to be the deeper meaning of poetry.
“Nikky just channels her work and manifests it through her core,” Baskins said. “And watching her read, she made the whole room electric. And that’s the point of poetry, it really is, touching people and connecting back and forth.”
Finney closed her reading with “Miss Polly Is Akimbo Underneath the Mother Emanuel Collection Table,” a poem about a mass shooting that Finney turned into art, and used it to speak about how she sees the vocation of poetry.
“I have to say the things that CNN won’t show, but are still human,” Finney said. “My job is to make something as beautiful as this building, that will stand the test of time.”
Following a round of applause from the crowd, Finney took four questions and then moved to the back of the room to sign copies of “Love Child,” as well as her 2011 National Book Award winning collection “Head Off & Split.”
The Spring Reading Series continues on March 16 at 6 p.m. in the Gregg Pavilion, with a poetry reading from Stegner Fellows Jacques J. Rancourt and Corey Van Landingham.