“Pleas Help; Pleas.”
“Regulations require an e be at the end of any Pleas e before any national response can be taken.”
These lines appear in the University of Maryland’s First Year Book, Head Off & Split by Nikky Finney, in the poem “Left.”
Finney, author of four books poetry and winner of the 2011 National Book Award for poetry, visited campus Thursday and Friday to meet with students and faculty.
“Left” tells a harrowing tale about the forgotten victims of Hurricane Katrina. Finney said she saw the word “please” spelled without an e on one victim’s sign during the media coverage of the hurricane.
She decided to use this powerful image throughout her poem, which at one point compares the victims in poor areas of New Orleans with the victims of wildfires in rich California counties. It emphasizes the problems of class and race in this country.
“We always want the First Year Book to challenge students’ ideas,” said Lisa Kiely, the Assistant Dean for Undergraduate Studies, “to then help them have conversations.”
“We really want students to look at history and understand that two people can look at it the same way and have very different perspectives,” Kiely said.
Johnna Schmidt, the director of the Jiménez-Porter Writers’ House, said she hoped students would take away the concept of fearlessness in reading Finney’s book.
“[She gives students] an ability to speak their own truth and wake up to the power and detonation of images from their own lives,” she said. “I hope that she inspires us all to get more intense with our own lives and written content.”
The topics of Finney’s poems range from Hurricane Katrina victims to musings on Condoleezza Rice on a treadmill at 4 a.m. One poem is written about Rosa Parks being a seamstress.
“I knew there was another story about Rosa Parks,” Finney said, “that wasn’t the 18 words or less: ‘she sat on the bus and didn’t get up.’”
“So this language in my head started turning like the needle on a sewing machine, or the stitch,” she said about her poem, “Red Velvet.”
Finney said she receives inspiration for her poems from what she sees.
“My passion for communicating is in seeing it,” she said in a meeting with students and faculty. “My images have to be spot on, how I’m describing people or a scene or even the emotive quality of something, I bring a visual element in it.”
Finney said that on her plane ride to Maryland, the trees were changing colors.
“I wanted to say ‘Stop the plane,’” she said, “so I could just look out of the window and watch the trees.”
She continued to describe the reds and golds she saw. Colors, she said, that you don’t see on the trees in South Carolina, where she lives.
The last poetry book to be chosen for First Year Book at the university was in 2001. The book was Blessing the Boats, by Lucille Clifton.
At beginning of Head Off & Split, Finney includes a dedication to the late Clifton that reads, “dahomey woman of light, laughter, language.”
Lisa Kiely said that books of poetry like those by Finney and Clifton are important in providing a message to students.
“I’m sort of amazed as to how students have responded to [Head Off & Split],” she said. “It’s always a little bit of a risk to do poetry.”
Featured Photo Credit: Courtesy of Rachel Eliza Griffiths via the official press kit.
Alex Carolan is a sophomore journalism major and can be reached at email@example.com.
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