It just so happens that poet Nikky Finney’s visit coincides with the giant annual Tucson Gem, Mineral & Fossil Showcase, and when we pull into the entrance to the parking lot for the juvenile detention facility where she will speak to students, a sidewalk sign reads in large red block letters: “NO GEM SHOW PARKING.”
“Now that’s a poem,” she says.
As a commissioned writer for the Art for Justice grant, Nikky will read later that night at the University of Arizona Poetry Center, sharing a powerful long poem that she composed about the life and death of George Stinney Jr., a 14-year-old black child who, in 1944 in South Carolina, was wrongfully convicted of the murder of two young white girls and executed by electric chair. She will read the detail that, because he was so small, officers made him sit on a Bible so that his arms could be strapped to the chair. The room will gasp. But she hasn’t yet read this work and, on this day, is here to talk about poetry with youth in juvenile detention.
Earlier that week when I taught students, I shared some of Finney’s poems. One of her poems, “He Never Had It Made,” is about her father who, despite losing his mother when he was ten days old and growing up in the South—at the same time and very close by to where George Stinney Jr. was wrongfully killed by the state—became the first African-American Supreme Court Justice appointed to the South Carolina Supreme Court.
We talked about what they thought of the expression “never had it made,” and I asked students to write their own poems about obstacles and resilience, about people they knew who never had it made. They wrote about mothers, brothers, grandparents. Some wrote about themselves.
Students had already been convened when we arrived in the space. I introduced Finney to students and reminded them of who she was, because turnover in detention is such that some students might not have been in the class where we discussed her poems. And sometimes students miss class because of health reasons or “keep separates,” when they have a conflict with another student and have to stay back in their dormitory.
Although it always takes students a moment to warm up, Nikky Finney’s presence in the room is like an embrace, like a friend sitting with you in stillness, like a kind auntie who knows about some things and who has no interest in pretense—only being with you exactly how and where you are.
She asks the students what kind of poetry they are into. One student says, “I like real life stuff like Tupac does.”
“Yes,” Finney says, “When poets use word and colors like that they come alive.”
“A poet has to love words,” she continues. “You can’t build without words.”
She asks students if they will write a poem with her and the responses flood back: yes, no, maybe.
“I’ll take maybe,” she says, and writes the words, “I come from,” on the white board, asking students to complete the phrase.
“When I think of it,” she says. “I might say: ‘my grandmother’s grits with a piece of butter in the middle melting.’” She continues, “Why do I say that? Because that’s how she always made grits for me.”
I come from knowledge, they say. I come from nothing, I come from the hood, I come from love, I come from loyalty, I come from unknown, I come from careless, I come from heartless, I come from beautiful, I come from concrete, I come from grateful, I come from poverty, I come from dirt.
She asks why it is important to write about where you are from.
“So you know yourself,” says one student.
“You walk a different way if you know who you are,” says another.
“Yes,” she says. “Knowing where you come from helps you know where you go next.”
Then she asks them to collectively write about where they are going. They talk about leaving detention, about going to college, about moving to another part of the country. One student says, “Far,” which Nikky loves. “That’s amazing,” she says, making eye contact with the student, “That’s definite but also undefined.”
She mentions her poem “Left,” which students had read in class and which she composed after Hurricane Katrina.
“Can I tell you how I wrote that?”
Yeses and nods.
“I was watching TV—there was 40 feet of water. I saw people waiting on a roof. I see black folks who look like my family on the roof,” Finney says. “One had a sign that said: ‘help pleas help,’ with the ‘e’ left off the please. As a poet, I wanted to not forget them. I wanted not to forget like we’ve been forgetting people throughout history.”
“I saw that scene for hours. What I wanted the reader to get was the scene of devastation,” she says.
Later, in the second class, a student asks about her choice to leave the ‘e’ off in the poem “Left.”
“Thank you!” Finney says. “I knew you had a question and were just waiting.”
She continues: “I was trying to figure a way to talk about how some people are saved and some people are not saved. Some people don’t spell the best and they aren’t saved. Somebody judged her. Has anybody ever felt judged?”
“We all are.”
"In that second class, Finney talks about her father, how he died a year earlier. “Have you heard of Alzheimer’s? When people forget?” She shared with students about how before she left for Tucson, she went to his grave and left him a bitter black coffee, the way he drank it. “Have y’all ever done that?”
A few students nod and one student says, “Yeah, for my mom. I drew a picture of her and left it.”
“Same thing,” Finney says.
She writes the word CHARM on the board in all caps and holds onto the pendant around her neck before asking students, “What is a moment that, if you could, you would wear around your neck like a charm?”
“When my brother was alive.”
“My house before things changed.”
“My first pair of shoes.”
“Y’all gonna leave me on a limb?” Finney asks. “I’m trembling—help me out?”
One student—who wrote a lengthy and powerful response to the “never had it made” prompt-- says respectfully, “I’m thinking.” Then he shares, “The first song I wrote coming from my heart.”
“Amazing,” Finney tells him. “And why did that matter?”
“Because I made it from something that happened in my life,” he says.
A serious, smart, but shy student speaks from the back of the room. “My baby brother’s smile,” she says.
“I knew you had something in you you wanted to say,” Finney says. “Thank you so much for trusting me with that. I just met you, you don’t have to trust me but I thank you for trusting me.”
“And why his smile?”
“Cause I never really liked babies,” she says. “But when he smiled at me, I knew I loved him.”
Finney is interested in the teenagers’ questions, about poetry and language and anything they want to know.
One student asks, “What inspired you to do poetry?”
Finney tells them how as a young person, she was told to be quiet a lot but she had so much to say. So she decided to put a pencil to paper to write down what she felt. She said that practice really helped her communicate and get to know herself.
“I also think writing poetry gives you courage,” she says.
“What was your first poem?” another student asks.
“Thank you! I still have it in a little notebook,” she says. “It was terrible. But I got into rhythm. It was about being on the bus. I didn’t like rhyming cause I just wanted to tell the truth."
She continues, “My favorite poets were the ones that said the hardest things. Part of the job of the poet is to say hard things in a beautiful way.”
When time is almost up, we pass out copies of one of Finney’s books to each student.
One student decides he wants Finney to have his poem that he wrote inspired by her poem about her father. He hands me the folded loose leaf paper to give to her, makes me promise.
Later, at her reading at the Poetry Center, Finney talks about her visit to detention and the students there. Slowly and deliberately, she shares DeAndre’s poem with the crowd:
“I never had it made
But tried going for it.
Some to fail
Got back up
Some to succeed
But I never had it made.”
When I return to detention the following week, I tell him that Finney shared his poem with the group and, with his permission, we watch the video of her reading. He gives us his email because he wants his mom to see it.
Some of the places students said they were going:
I’m going to the sky
I’m going to the stars to shine
I’m going to family
I’m going to a better person
I’m going to a better life
Lisa M. O'Neill is an essayist and journalist who writes about social justice issues, politics, and popular culture with an intersectional lens. She is the founder, host, and producer of The MATRIARCHITECTS, a podcast and platform which highlights change-makers who are building a culture that respects, values, and celebrates women. A native New Orleanian and current desert dweller, Lisa received her MFA in nonfiction writing from the University of Arizona, where she taught writing in the English Department for a decade. She teaches in-person and online community writing workshops and designs and leads classes as a teaching artist in juvenile detention. She also works with writers as an editor and creativity usher, helping them discover their stories and and usher them onto the page. Her writing has appeared in Bitch Media, Bustle, Diagram, defunct, Edible Baja Arizona, Everyday Feminism, The Feminist Wire, GOOD, Good Housekeeping, Salon, Terrain.org, and The Washington Post, among others.