NPR National Poetry Month: Nikky Finney Finney, author of the forthcoming collection, Love Child's Hotbed of Occasional Poetry: Poems & Artifacts, picks her favorite #NPRPoetryMonth listener-submitted poems and talks occasional poetry.
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'Just Sit Where You Are.' Poet Nikky Finney Says Your Poem Is Right In Front Of You

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

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

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And now for our continuing celebration of Poetry Month. And yes, we're starting a little early this year, but we think we need it. And from now until the end of April, we're asking listeners to tweet us poems. Every week, we'll read through some submissions with a celebrated poet.

This week, we're joined by poet Nikky Finney. She is the winner of the 2011 National Book Award for her collection "Head Off And Split." She's the author of the forthcoming book "Love Child's Hotbed Of Occasional Poetry: Poems And Artifacts."

Nikky Finney, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

NIKKY FINNEY: Thank you so much for calling, Michel.

MARTIN: So your upcoming collection focuses on what you call occasional poetry. Would you tell us what that means?

FINNEY: Well, occasional poetry is a form of poetry that really is written for a specific occasion like a wedding or a birthday, a new building or a hundred-year-old anniversary. And it's a very old form of writing. In the past, it's been thought of to be a bit stuffy. I've - hope I've done some (laughter) - some work in that arena.

I've been writing occasional poems my entire life. When I was 9 years old, I remember going to church one day with my little poetry notebook in my pocket. And somebody in the congregation said, Nikky, we need a poem for Mrs. Robinson's (ph) 100th birthday next week. Can you get to work on that? And, of course, I got to work on that.

I didn't know that that was called an occasional poem then, but I found that I had a stack of poems that people had asked me to write. A lot of those poems find themselves in "Love Child."

MARTIN: I love it. I love it. Well, let's get into some of the poems that the listeners were nice enough to send us. Will you share one that caught your eye? Tell us one that caught your eye and why you liked it.

FINNEY: The first one is a tweet poem by J. McEntire.

(Reading) Spring forth. Jonquil, single bloom. Iris buds. Larkspur, leafing green: I don't know what day it is.

I just think that was so - there's so much gorgeous specificity about the spring and the flowers here. And you can tell that the poet is lost in the visual of that. But then there's this colon that comes right at the end before the emphatic statement - I don't know what day it is. That's what poetry should do. There should be opposites. There should be an edge that the reader walks. There should be surprise. It's just - it has all of that in just six lines.

MARTIN: I like it because I think we're going to read this very differently a year from now because right now I'm feeling like, oh, my gosh, one day is running into the other because we can't leave our house (laughter).

FINNEY: Right. Right.

MARTIN: And - but next year, it might feel differently. It might feel like, oh, it's just spring.

FINNEY: Right. But, you know, that's what poets do. Poets, like, get our minds off the trouble in the world sometimes. I mean, sometimes the poets put our minds on the trouble in the world in the best way. But in this moment, maybe we do need to remember that the cherry blossoms are in bloom. The azaleas are outside the window - because that world too demands our attention because we are human, and we need to go and revive ourselves and remember what is all around us, not just on, you know, CNN.

MARTIN: I think you have one more for us that you picked.

FINNEY: Yes. This one is by Amy Rutten.

(Reading) Yesterday my high school senior shaved off all of her hair, and that is how I know she is ready for college.

MARTIN: (Laughter) OK. And why did this one catch your eye?

FINNEY: I crave poetry that surprises me. And I crave people, adults, parents that aren't asking their children to fit in but to stand in the full light of themselves, so that - not to be in the popular light, you know, but in the light that is their truth. That's why we put our words out in the world, to remind us that, you know, we don't have to be like everybody else. We don't want our kids to, like, follow that line. We want them to follow the light in their own spirits. And I just thought Amy did a beautiful job of saying that there.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for that. I'm sure she'll be delighted to hear that you liked it too. Well, before I let you go, you've been writing, as you just told us. I mean, you've been writing in poetry forever and teaching poetry for a while. Do you have some advice for folks who might just want to get started, who just want to try their hand at it? What would you - how would you encourage them?

FINNEY: I would encourage them to begin with something that they might already be passionate about. For some reason, my students always think that they have to go find a subject. I want this to be a poem that has never been written before, a subject that has never been discussed. And I say, darling, there are 10 subjects. You know, there's love and death and heartache. And just sit where you are and think about something that you are passionate about.

You know, I had a student who had rocks in his room since he was 4 years old. He loved rocks, quartz and all kinds of things. And he never wrote about them, but I've discovered this by interviewing him. And I said, how come you never wrote about rocks? And he said, I didn't think anybody would find it important or interesting. And I say, well, if you find it interesting, then you relay that to the reader and to the rest of the world. So I love saying to people, begin where you are, no matter where that is.

MARTIN: That's poet Nikky Finney, winner of the 2011 National Book Award for Poetry. She's author of the forthcoming collection "Love Child's Hotbed Of Occasional Poetry: Poems And Artifacts." Nikky Finney, thank you so much for joining us.

FINNEY: Thank you, Michel. Have a great day.

MARTIN: And if you'd like to hear your original poem on the air, tweet it to @npratc with the hashtag #nprpoetry. Each week through the end of April, a professional poet will join us on the air to talk about some submissions that caught his or her eye. And even though Twitter has changed its character limit, we're sticking with the original rules. Poems must be 140 characters or less.

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