Nikky Finney on Mentorship and Permission

by Imani Benjamin-Wharton  ·  December 17, 2019

Nikky Finney, whose new work as well as an interview with Dr. Elizabeth West appears in Vol. 19, no. 2, grew up in an environment that wasn’t focused on developing writers. She recalls a small Southern town in South Carolina with “no writers” and a school that certainly didn’t focus on teaching her about women writers, although she does suspect there were some writers living in town that she didn’t know about. Finney may not have had a focus on these women in school, but she discovered her mentors at home in the form of the Negro Digest, Essence, and other magazines. They were her introduction to the wider community of black women writers, including poets like Nikki Giovanni and Gwendolyn Brooks as well as lineage of black women writers that extended to the Harlem Renaissance. According to Finney, they were her models in success, success that she needed to reach with her own individual path: “I would not be a writer were it not for the black women models that I discovered, found, that were given to me, that I heard about, that I studied, that I attached myself to. I would not be a writer had they not been there.”

Finney’s hometown was populated by unique individuals and hard working people. They were people who worked with their hands to contribute to a community that thrived on independence and self-sufficiency. She was encouraged to contribute in her own way and committed herself to writing poems for the people in her town:”I wanted to be somebody from my community who made things with her hands…Being useful in the community meant alot to me. I thought a lot about how I could be useful as a poet…I am a poet who wants to write in a way that adds something to the story and adds something to the landscape.” 

Toni Cade Bambara, her most significant mentor while she was an undergraduate at Clark Atlanta University, helped her to further understand her place in the world as a black female writer and in her she found the permission to put aside the domestic roles expected of her that included cooking, cleaning, and maintaining a house, in order to write full time. 

Permission, encouragement, and example is how we learn to succeed in the world. Without these, it is difficult to advance or achieve one’s dreams. Finney herself reminds us how mentorship is so necessary for a poet’s development. It’s sometimes hard to find it and hard to understand what it is. But permission itself comes from seeing, hearing, and knowing that you still have a chance to succeed against the odds.

Be sure to tune into the inaugural episode of the Five Points podcast, to hear Dr. Elizabeth West’s discussion on Finney with her students. The episode will be available wherever you get you podcasts later this month.

Imani Benjamin is a graduating English major looking to enter the publishing field.