After poet Nikky Finney’s reading at the 2012 National Book Festival, an aspiring poet came to the microphone to ask how to avoid censoring herself when writing about difficult topics.
“Be willing to say the hard thing in the most beautiful way,” Finney told her.
This is certainly something that Finney achieves in her latest book, Head Off & Split. Poem after poem addresses the hard things both in her own life and in the collective lives of Americans. She addresses race, sexuality, family, and growing up in her lyrical, imagistic poetry, never failing to face hard things head on. Head Off & Split is not a comfortable read. During recent class discussions of the book, it seemed that the poems were a hard thing for everyone. Those who had little in common with Finney felt attacked. As I read her poems about sexuality, particularly “The Aureole,” I found that the things Finney and I share in common were difficult to read. Seeing my own troubling topics discussed so openly was painful, yet Finney’s words made them beautiful and keep me returning to the book again and again.
This week, I worked with a fellow student to help him polish a personal narrative that dealt with one of his most painful experiences, something he had hardly shared with anyone. He’d started out with a different topic, he told me, but this story wouldn’t go away. His piece was a touching, enthralling read, and when he made revisions to delve into the darkest parts, the story became much stronger. While he was emotional discussing it, and while he was nervous about sharing it with his workshop, this was a story that he needed to write. We walked away from our discussions rattled by the intensity of his experience and the way he expressed it.
After my most recent encounter with him, I found myself thinking back to Finney’s advice. Personal narrative and poetry both thrive on the hard things that the writer doesn’t really want to say. Finney doesn’t edge around the pain in her poetry the way that I and many other student writers do. She delves into the hard things until they’re uncomfortable and unsettling, but the beauty of the language and images in her poems makes the discomfort worth enduring.
Excerpt from “The Aureole”
I stop my hand midair.
If I touch her there everything about me will be true.
The New World discovered without pick or axe.
I will be what Brenda Jones was stoned for in 1969.
I saw it as a girl but didn’t know I was taking in myself.
My hand remembers, treading the watery room,
just behind the rose-veiled eyes of memory.
Finney will appear along with Brian Turner in “Red, White, and Blue: Poets on Politics” at the Folger Elizabethan Theatre on Monday, November 5th. More details.