Nikky Finney on Poetry as Ballet: "The Knees Get Stronger"

Art is not about communication. It's about communion - Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, IdeaFestival 2013

A National Book Award winner for her book of poetry, "Head Off and Split," Nikky Finney talked about her life and poetry in an electric 2012 presentation, and subsequently sat down for the brief interview you can watch here.

Finney compares the practice of writing, which she traces to a very young age, to dance, specifically, ballet. But the comparison only goes so far: unlike the dancer, the writer's "knees grower stronger" over time.

Asked in an October Poetry Foundation interview whether poetry can be taught, she says it can:

It can be taught, yes! It can be learned. What you were born with: sensibilities, maybe, you’re born with spirits, maybe, but one of the things that drives me crazy are students of poetry thinking they can walk from their dorms into the classroom and write poems. There is a discipline of poetry, a study of things to pay attention to. There are also things that you have to come with that have nothing to do with the technical side of it. Recognizing who you are in the world and your empathy, your ability to not just look at your own life but at other people’s lives. Things can be taught and things can be practiced. You need to know that your poetry muscles can get bigger.

The challenge for any self-identified sensitive soul who wants to achieve in the arts is to channel that hyper-empathy in ways that do not come off as simply maudlin or teary. She further identifies "discipline," the often hard won recognition of "who you are in the world" and an ability to empathize, or put oneself in another's shoes, as key to that success.

I suspect that those three elements important to the success in many other fields as well. And while there are no guarantees that recognition for any single insight will be forthcoming, without "paying attention" and a commitment to look for and hear out the "other lives" and the other perspectives that enter our orbit, the creative project is doomed at the beginning. "Who you are in the world" requires each of us to live long enough in the question to recognize the answers when they appear. That process can and will be uncomfortable, but in my view discoveries that do not cost us anything are rarely evidence of promise but of pathologies.

Finney recently returned to her home state of South Carolina to teach at USC, having spent the prior 20 years at the University of Kentucky. It's the commonwealth's loss.

New and improved IdeaFestival Conversations will be posted beginning in January, and will feature some of your favorite 2013 speakers such as Maria Konnikova, Chris Bliss, Oliver Burkeman and Ariel Waldman. Until then, please visit IFTV to experience the IdeaFestival all over again!

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