Nikky Finney knew she was going to write about the slaughter in Charleston, and she kept trying to find a way into the horror.
“I had been trying to write about the Emanuel Church murders for two years, but I didn’t want to come in through the front door,” said Finney, 61, speaking from the sunny confines of the Agnes Scott College campus.
A National Book Award-winner, Finney is one of three notables appearing this week at Agnes Scott as part of the school’s Writers’ Festival.
The shootings at the black church had been “talked about and talked about,” she said. “I wanted to come in through a window.”
That opportunity came when she was commissioned by the Southbound Project to respond to some of the project’s photographs of the “new South.”
(The Southbound enterprise, a photography collection and exhibit, is curated by the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art in Charleston.)
One of the photographs showed a tanker ship bleeding a sheen of coppery oil across acres of ocean.
“I realized the orange and red from the oil spill was exactly what I had imagined in my mind, what the basement of the church must have resembled,” she said.
The poem that resulted is chilling and unforgettable.
“Miss Polly is Akimbo underneath the Mother Emanuel Collection Table,” begins:
The one who came to start the
next Civil War
speaks to her directly. “Have I shot
There is no one else left to answer.
In the church
basement all are dead or bleeding
Finney offers a free public lecture 4 p.m. Thursday, April 4, on the Agnes Scott campus. (Also appearing at the Agnes Scott’s Writers’ Festival is Kenyan author Ngῦgῖ wa Thiong'o and novelist and educator Gillian Lee-Fong.)
Finney has been meeting with students this week to talk about the discipline of poetry and to suggest a radical idea to young writers:
Don’t throw your stuff online at the first opportunity.
“I caution them,” she said. “I’m not a teacher that believes that publishing should be the first thing on a young writer’s mind. They should be focused on craft, and creating community with other young writers.”
According to Agnes Scott, its Writers’ Festival, now in its 48th year, is the oldest continuous literary event in Georgia.
In the past it has welcomed to the Decatur campus such writers as Eudora Welty, Reynolds Price, Richard Wilbur and Margaret Atwood.
Nikky Finney was born in Conway, S.C. Her father, Ernest A. Finney, Jr., served as the chief justice of the Supreme Court of South Carolina, and both of her brothers became attorneys. She holds an endowed chair in creative writing and southern studies at the University of South Carolina.
In 2011 She won the National Book Award for her book of poems, “Head Off & Split.”
If you go:
The Agnes Scott Writer’s Festival continues through Friday, April 5. Nikky Finney reads at 4 p.m., Thursday, April 4; Ngῦgῖ wa Thiong'o will read 8 p.m., Thursday, April 4; Gillian Lee-Fong will read at 2 p.m. Friday, April 5; all readings take place in the Winter Theater, Dana Fine Arts Building, 141 E. College Ave., Decatur.
The readings are free and parking is free at the West Parking Facility. Information: agnesscottwritersfestival
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