Saturday, April 2, 2011

Nikky Finney and her Audience

Wednesday night, I got a chance to catch poet Nikky Finney giving a reading at a bar in Lexington, Kentucky. She's been at the University of Kentucky for years now, and she's become a fairly well-known figure in the community.

Finney's powerful reading style and the strong following she has built here really stood out to me.

[Related: Nikky Finney's Reading Style]

Finney teaches class on Wednesday night so she was not at the bar when the event started. Still, when the evening's emcee mentioned that Finney would be arriving and reading later that night, there was a loud approving roar from the crowd. It was strange and intriguing to hear that kind of boisterous reception for a poet. A black poet. A black woman poet.

Ok, to be fair, it was a bar. And folks were drinking. But still. There was something endearing in the way that the crowd expressed excitement about the evening's featured poet.

Before Finney's reading, several poets read individual poems. Some of those poems were more like "performances," and so by the time the main speaker was introduced, the crowd was primed and ready, anxious even.

The emcee read off some of Finney's accomplishments, and near the end, he held up the issue of Poets and Writers with Finney's face on the cover. The audience cheered. Their cheers were so loud that the emcee had to shout his next statement about the existence of a facebook page petitioning for Nikky Finney to be nominated as the next U.S. Poet Laureate.

Finney was really grateful and gracious for the reception. Perhaps, I've seen too many folks who think they deserve more praise, because for whatever reason, I was moved at how much Finney appreciated and valued her audience.

She read a couple of poems from her first book and spent the remainder of the time reading poems from her most recent collection Head Off & Split.

[Related: Nikky Finney & Nikki Giovanni]

It might be worth thinking about the racial demographics of Finney's audience that night and the implications of the racial makeup of poetry audiences in general.  For the most part, white audiences support white poets, and black audiences support black poets. Let's be clear that "support" is a relative term too since I think poets of all persuasions will  tell you that in comparison to other genres such as fiction and rap music, the audiences and support for poetry is really small. 

The majority of the audience for Finney's reading was white, although there were many African Americans in attendance. All the poets who read before Finney at the bar were white.  Many of the black folks in attendance  had come out to the bar to see and hear Finney, which suggests the audience would have been far less racially diverse if she was not the featured poet. 

So in some regards, Finney was a connector--this magnetic figure pulling together typically separated, if not segregated, people. Finney's ability to connect a racially mixed audience may be, quiet as it's kept, as important as her talents pulling words and phrases together for a poem.

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