The Conversation: Poet, activist and athlete Nikky Finney

World renowned poet Nikky Finney explains to espnW's Allison Glock how, as a girl, sports freed her from the constraints society imposes on women.


Nikky Finney's poetry collection "Head Off & Split" won the 2011 National Book Award, and her extraordinary acceptance speech is now part of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington. Finney, 59, who is writing two poems for the 2016 espnW: Women + Sports Summit, talks with Allison Glock about her work, about growing up as an athlete -- she played basketball at Talladega (Alabama) College -- and the unique ways sports fortify women.

Allison Glock: What drew you into sports?

Nikky Finney: I noticed as a girl how my brothers had the freedom to sit in a chair. They could put their feet up. They could lean back. They could stretch. They could do all manner of gymnastic things. I was told, "Be still, keep your dress down, keep your legs closed" -- all of the things girls are always taught. This began to circulate in my mind and heart, the freedom of movement.

AG: Sports allow women to break out.

NF: Yes. If I play sports, I can just move. In the backyard of my mom's house I made a pit for pole vaulting.

AG: Pole vaulting? Wow.

NF: I played basketball. I ran track. And I played tennis. I was the only black girl on the tennis team.

AG: When was this?

NF: I was in high school from 1972 to 1975.

AG: That couldn't have been easy at that time.

NF: Tennis, it's a sport of privilege and money, usually. I was like, "I'm changing this! Let's put a little color in this sport in Sumter, South Carolina." [Laughs] I was determined.

I didn't give up. I was a quick study. I was athletic, I was agile, I was quick. So if I was on your team, you wanted me on your team because I was going to go till the buzzer rang.

Tina Fineberg/AP Photo

AG: What influenced you the most when it came to sports?

NF: Cynthia Nell was my middle school coach, and as a seventh grader she put me on the varsity girls' basketball team. Her doing that changed my life because I knew she saw me. She said, "You're not great yet, but the promise is there." Somebody looking at my promise at that age as an athlete -- it mattered to me. And it still matters.

AG: It goes back to what you were saying about gender expectations and longing to be seen as something more than a just a "girl."

NF: I loved how sport got me out of the house. I loved how it taught me how to take my quiet self and link arms and hands with other people -- how it teaches all of us how to play together.

AG: If you're an athlete, you can expand in every direction.

NF: Yes! But if I'm just a girl in the world, there are rules.

I loved how sport got me out of the house. I loved how it taught me how to take my quiet self and link arms and hands with other people. How it teaches all of us how to play together.
Nikky Finney

AG: Did you like competition?

NF: I don't think I was fierce enough.

AG: That seems hard to believe.

NF: [Laughs] You remember in the Olympics this year, when the runner fell? [American Abbey D'Agostino stopped to help New Zealand runner Nikki Hamblin after a fall during a qualifying heat of the women's 5,000 meters.] That's me. I love that moment. I have replayed that moment over and over in my head 1,000 times because I was not really fierce enough to leave somebody in the dust just to be first place. I was a poet who played basketball. My humanity always pulled me back.

AG: So sport wasn't about victory for you.

NF: No. I played because I loved the feeling of being spent. I loved the feeling of being drenched in sweat. But I don't feel like I'm in competition with another human being. I don't think that's why I'm here. I'd rather be in conversation than competition. Whoa!

AG: That was a good line!

NF: It was! [Laughs] My basketball coach in college told me, "Nikky, you think too much. Shoot the ball." He was right. I would have the ball in my hand and I would go, Well I could bounce it or bank it or twirl it or I could pass it ... Contemplative, my entire life.

AG: Were you unable to get out of your head with other sports, like track?

NF: No. Running is a really different thing. The body is in motion and you just go. For me, running was all body.

AG: Do you watch sports now?

NF: I like to watch tennis. I love women's basketball. I love basketball, period. I love watching athletes compete. The WNBA, college ball. USC [the University of South Carolina, where Finney teaches] has an amazing women's basketball team.

AG: Do you go see the games in person?

NF: Yes!

AG: Do you wear a jersey?

NF: I don't wear a jersey, but I do go and scream for them.

AG: There probably aren't a lot of National Book Award-winning poets screaming in the stands for women's college hoops.

NF: Have you noticed how when it comes to sports, women are always called "girls?" Still. In 2016. In men's sports, they're called men.

AG: Our culture seems to have a lot invested in keeping women in the "girl" box. President Obama said recently, "There's a reason why we haven't had a woman president. We as a society still grapple with what it means to see powerful women, and it still troubles us in a lot of ways, unfairly."

NF: Yes. And it's everywhere, it's not just the presidency. Who's in charge? We have a problem in this country about women being in charge. Can she handle it? Will she fall apart? Gender-ridden questions.

AG: Speaking of, one thing I find uniquely valuable for women about sports and being an athlete is how it alters your relationship with your body -- how it mutes the whole issue of gender.

NF: Yes! Holy moly. Because the world is telling you one thing about your body. And the game, the sweat, the activity, is telling you another thing.

AG: When you play sports, your body is something you control and test. It is not about being received by a gaze. It's about what it can do.

NF: As a finely tuned instrument. That's important. Again, movement, the freedom to move, a reason to move -- to be a girl and to be active was really against the grain that I was taught, and what I saw around me.

AG: When you were coming up, did your mother make you wear tights?

NF: Ohhh, yes: tights and little lace dresses I couldn't stand. I had a Christmas muff that you put your hands in. That I lost.

AG: The muff went missing.

NF: I think I buried it in the backyard.

AG: As a young adult, did you have any preoccupation with your appearance or beauty?

I don't feel like I'm in competition with another human being. I don't think that's why I'm here. I'd rather be in conversation than competition.
Nikky Finney

NF: Oh, my God. My mother is the most beautiful woman in the world, period, end of story. She would just come in a room and the room would go: [Gasps]. I didn't see myself in that lane at all. I was plain and a tomboy.

AG: Yeah, you were real plain.

NF: [Laughs] I just wasn't any of the things that they tell girls to be. I was a nerd. I was square. I was always with pencils and books. I wasn't like, the cool girl, you know. I hated makeup -- never wore it. There's a Def Jam Poetry reading where they told me I couldn't go on TV without wearing makeup. I had flown up from Kentucky to New York and I was like, "OK, let's do it." And then I couldn't get the makeup off. [Laughs] I went in the shower, I was scraping. This isn't who I am. I've always liked to be my natural self.

AG: That's a really hard thing for women to do. Not just about appearance but in general.

NF: That's why sports are so important. I wish we lived in a society where all girls got access to sports activities. It troubles me that we don't. It makes me mad as hell, actually.

AG: Do you think back on certain games or plays from your competition days?

NF: Yes! One game in particular. Alice Drive, junior high school. The game is tied 43-43. Someone fouls me. I go to the foul line to shoot two free throws. To the left of me is my father. I look over at him standing at the line and he goes, [holds up two fingers.] And I go, "I only need one." And he puts two fingers up. So I make the first one. I'd won the game! And I look at him, and he mouths, "Two."

AG: What did that communicate to you?

NF: The lesson for me was, it's not about winning the game. It's about doing your best in every situation, even after the game is won. My father still talks about that game. He's been diagnosed with dementia at 85 years old. He's lost some memory of more recent things. But that game? That game he remembers.

AG: Was your family as supportive of your becoming a writer as they were of your athletic pursuits?

NF: They supported it, but they were also fearful because it took me out of pocket.

AG: It made you different.

NF: Because a girl wasn't supposed to be that curious. People were like, "Why are you always asking questions?"

AG: [Laughs] I can relate. Tell me the first time you had to read out loud. When was that?

NF: My early 20s. I was in Atlanta, reading alongside the great short story writer Toni Cade Bambara. We were in a community room and I was sweating bullets.

AG: What got you through it?

NF: I'd been used to pressure from playing basketball. I did ask my grandmother for advice. I said, "I'm always nervous. How do I stop this?" And she said, "Why would you want to stop it?"

AG: Ooooh. That's good.

NF: Right? She told me when that happens, you know you are doing what you are supposed to be doing.

AG: I might take that one home with me.

NF: You may have it. My grandmother gave me a sense of myself in the world, and I always go back to that. She told me to listen to my belly, that there is wisdom you get from your body. That's why I believe so powerfully in taking care of myself because if I don't do that, then none of this other stuff works. I walk 5 miles every morning.

AG: At your house you have your old basketball trophies: Most Valuable Player. Most Improved ...

NF: That's my favorite! MVP, you know, it's nice. But most improved? That's what I took to poetry: Keep working. I'm not the poet I want to be yet. And that most-improved tag reminds me every time I look at it that I can keep getting better all the way to the end.

AG: How are you not the poet you want to be yet?

NF: My desire as a poet is that I want you to see what I'm writing. If I fail at that, then I feel like the poem has failed. This isn't just for me. I'm really working on the exchange. I'm very visual. I watch a lot of movies.

AG: Do you watch much television?

NF: Like what?

AG: Anything. Pop trash?

NF: No. I don't have the patience for it. I love cooking shows. [Laughs] But I don't have the patience for the low-brow stuff.

I believe what we take in, we put out. [Laughs] That's a bad line. Last night, oh my God, I had this most amazing dream about two red peacocks walking in a forest and there's a young guy who is shooting a bow and arrow, and he shoots them by mistake. And I am trying my best to save the two red peacocks. And I wake up, drenched. I'm just spent. Where did that dream come from? I don't know. I'm still trying to figure it out.

AG: Maybe the dream is about your parents.

NF: My mom loves peacocks. But I don't think it was that. I think it was about how I'm feeling about America, how mad I am at us.

AG: It's an incredibly divisive time.

I'd been used to pressure from playing basketball. I did ask my grandmother for advice. I said, 'I'm always nervous, how do I stop this?' And she said, 'Why would you want to stop it?'
Nikky Finney

NF: We don't talk about things enough. We don't have dinner at the same table anymore. We have to not be afraid of each other.

AG: It seems like there's a whole movement where we're putting people in really tiny boxes.

NF: Yes. On all sides. I hate boxes.

AG: What do you tell the women in your poetry writing class about holding onto their voice?

NF: Every time I go into my classroom, those students are sitting there and I want to give them the right thing. I had a student years ago, for instance, who came into class with a very, very short skirt on, and she was uncomfortable. She kept crossing her legs and pulling her skirt down. So after class I said, "Sweetheart, if I'm out of line tell me, but you seem a little uncomfortable." And she said, "This skirt is just so short and I wish I had a pair of pants." So, we went to Target. And we bought a couple pair of pants. Forty bucks. Somebody else might need my philosophy on Buddhism ...

AG: ... and somebody may just need permission to wear pants. You've said you don't write for applause, that it is about sharing something that matters.

NF: Yes! So I'm in Philadelphia, doing a reading. I finish and a woman comes up and she goes, "How many black women are there like you?" She has bruises on her arm, like she's been in abusive relationship. She's been standing in the back of the room. "How many women are there like you? Who didn't have to go through what I went through?" She says, "Your voice is so tender. You're so soft. Tell me the secret of that."

AG: Wow.

NF: Holy moly! And so I went back to the room and I wrote a poem for her.

AG: I know that poem: "The Girlfriend's Train."

NF: [Nods] I had to capture that moment, outside of my body. I had to give that back to the world.

AG: You did your first book signing at the Kroger grocery in Sumter in 1985, when you were 28.

NF: Yup. I had a table in between the milk and cheese section. People would come by and ask, "What are you selling?" And I'd say, "poetry."

AG: Let me get some yogurt -- and the meaning of life. How did it go?

NF: I sold out. [Laughs] I'll do a reading almost anywhere. It doesn't have to be Barnes & Noble. I'd do a wrestling match. Poetry belongs everywhere, not just at the presidential inauguration, not just at these special things. But everywhere, because ...

You need to know what fear feels like. But you can't let it stop you. There's something bigger than fear. Courage is bigger than fear.
Nikky Finney

AG: ... because it is everywhere.

NF: Yes!

AG: I also read that you were the neighborhood poet as a kid. Was there much call for a neighborhood poet?

NF: Oh yeah: church, Easter poems, birthday poems, Valentine's Day. It was the worst poetry ever. Horrible. I buried those in the backyard, too.

AG: With the muff?

NF: With the muff. But it was early training for people giving me permission to love language and words and to call me into action. I was 13, 14. My name had been called. I had to answer the call.

AG: Tell me about the poems you're writing now.

NF: I'm working on two poems for espnW for the Summit. I'm thinking a lot about Paulette Leaphart and her walk across America, because that visual of her is one of the most important, profound visuals I have ever seen in my 59 years. I want to celebrate and honor her, but I want her walking to be central to what I'm writing about. To walk, you need a pelvis. And to have a pelvis means you rotate. So many human beings do not want to rotate. They want to go in the same direction. They don't want to be challenged. And you have to ask yourself, Am I willing to rotate? It's called "Topless in America."

AG: And the second poem?

NF: The second poem will be called, "Ode to the Girl on a Wheel." I'm not just talking about bicyclists -- I'm talking about girls who play, who got the wind in their faces. Girls who, like me, sat on that chair and wondered, How can I move? How can I get out of this box that as a girl I've been put in?

AG: I hear you. But it remains distressing to think that even speaking your mind is still considered by so many a ridiculous thing for a woman to be able to do.

NF: True. But don't give up. Find somebody else out in the world who's fighting with you. I wouldn't be sitting here with you if 2,000 people before me had not stood in picket lines. I don't know their names, but I know they stood there. That's where I get my juice to keep going, because I'm not going let a bigot or hate stop me. I have a pelvis. I am not giving up. I'm not going away. I'm not going to be silent. I'm full of fight.

AG: Do you consider yourself fearless?

NF: I'm not fearless. That slogan -- no fear -- I wish it had never appeared. You need to know what fear feels like, but you can't let it stop you. There's something bigger than fear. Courage is bigger than fear. We just have to keep fighting for humanity and for kindness and for tenderness and for empathy and stretching into new spaces. I think of myself as creative. I think of myself as bound and determined to find something wondrous in the world. But that's not special. That's just bullheaded.

AG: Some even might say, inappropriate.

NF: Yes. [Laughs] And I couldn't say it when I was young, but every time I was inappropriate, I was joyous. I was like, this is who I was made to be.

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