"You never know where a poem will begin or the idea of a book will begin," Lexington poet Nikky Finney says about the genesis of her latest poetry collection, Head Off & Split.
The title of her fourth book of poems, which will be launched with a event Friday at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning, might sound like an allusion to spontaneous travel, but it's drawn from a phrase she heard during her South Carolina childhood.
"Head off and split?" the fishmonger would ask when she was sent to buy fish for the family dinner as a young girl.
Finney, who also is a professor of English at the University of Kentucky, forgot that phrase until about seven years ago when she visited her mother, who sent her on the familiar errand to the fish market.
To her adult poet ears, the phrase led her toward her next artistic thesis.
"I've been thinking about what we as human beings cut off — fractions, fragments, what we throw away in our lives," Finney says. "It seems to get easier and easier as our society and culture extends into the future that we don't take responsibility for doing the tough work ourselves we hand that off far too often.
"A lot of the poems focus on being mindful of what we do step away from or deny, what we keep and what we toss away."
Like many of Finney's previous collections, the subject matter of her latest book is largely drawn from African- American culture, extending instances from personal experience and African-American history to make larger statements about humanity's plight as a whole.
She researched civil rights icon Rosa Parks, discovering many aspects of Parks' identity that the history books, like the fishmonger, had discarded. Parks was an avid seamstress, for instance, a theme Finney explores in the book's opening poem, Red Velvet.
Other abandoned parts of our cultural legacy — such as a New Orleans woman stranded on a rooftop during Hurricane Katrina — also are highlighted as haunting reminders of the human ramifications of the stunted 21st-century attention span.
"My job as an artist," Finney says, "is to ask, 'Where is she; what happened to her; why was she up there like that?'"
Finney also tackles difficult and complex personal subjects, such as the surreal moment at her brother's wedding when she saw her mom dancing with noted segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond.
Tackling hard-to-swallow topics with beautiful language and careful curiosity is one of the hallmarks of Finney's work, an artistic goal she has worked toward during her entire career as a poet.
"One of the things I always thought about when I was very, very young and dreaming of being a poet was, 'Is it possible to write something absolutely beautiful about something absolutely heartbreaking or absolutely difficult or painful?'"
Finney, who was born in 1957, grew up in the polemical '60s and '70s. The cultural climate shaped her trajectory as a poet.
"I know the sound of the '60s and '70s. There was a lot of standing with signs, there was a lot of shouting," she says. "I wanted to be a poet who didn't shout, who said things but said them with the most beautiful attention to language."
"I've been really working on this for 30 years," she says, "exploring how those two paths intersect, the path where the beautifully said thing meets the really difficult-to-say thing, and that's where I think this book finds its light."
Finney tackles the subject of former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice in a suite of poems dedicated to her peculiar place in African-American history. One striking poem is from the point of view of a box of expensive shoes that Rice reportedly was shopping for in New York shortly after Katrina struck.
Alongside high-top work boots and Kmart
house slippers there was debutante satin
and new bride peau de soie. My Lord —
the cross-mixing that was going on! Back
and forth we wondered what it must have
been like just to float away in the gushing
arms of the ultimate separation — Left shoe
stranded forever from her Right.
Candace Chaney is a Lexington writer and critic.