Nikky Finney, the 61st National Book of Poetry Award Winner “Honoree,” Taught me how to “Honor” when she “Honored” Toni
I want to join the chorus of the many in honoring Nikky Finney for being awarded the National Book Award for Poetry. Her written words and the recounting of her words in her own voice are amazing. And, I use the term amazing not in the typical ways in which we use it to objectify some thing or someone, but amazing in the flesh and blood sense of the word. I must say I had the privilege to know of her as a student at Spelman College. I use the phrasing “to know of her” because it allows me to say I know her without transgressing the intimate boundaries of knowing her as sister-friend on the couch knowing or as cousin twice-removed knowing. Yes, I know of her.
Many years ago at Spelman College I was privy to be within earshot of her words. Privy, not privileged not blessed, but privy denoting the sharing of some secret knowledge to describe my somewhat commanded and providential attendance at Spelman’s Annual Toni Cade Bambara Writers Activist Collective Conference where Nikky Finny with the care of a well-seasoned mid wife delivered words in honor of Toni. Toni? Toni? At the time I did not know who Toni was beyond the 1990s R&B songstress. I knew only that the future old woman of my heart commanded (as she so often does to this day) my attendance and so I sat next to her (i.e. old woman of my heart) completely impervious to what was about to unfold. Yes, unfold like removing sheets from the dryer only to find tucked within the fitted sheet the sock you thought was lost.
Nikky Finney helped me and others in the audience find the true meaning of honor of honoring those who without measure of quantity pour generously into our lives. Nikky honored Toni. And the story goes as most stories commence, Nikky said, [paraphrase because as I get older memory fails] “Toni wanted paper to write as she lay in the hospital bed. Toni wanted paper. And, for Toni I would kill a whole forest so that Toni had paper to write.” Yes, that one phrase, “I would kill a whole forest so that Toni had paper to write,” touches me deeply within. Matter of fact, I believe it resonated with everyone sitting in the lobby. Not simply because of the perfectly crafted whittled words that seem to capture the moment of devotion between mentor and mentee, but that this woman, fighter of injustice and lover of the earth, is willing to commit a morally detestable crime against Mother Nature herself in order to provide her beloved, Toni, writer, with paper goes beyond literary devices like metaphors.
I can only describe it as a “samara” moment between a mentee and her beloved mentor. Samara is a Buddhist concept that connotes a spiritual commitment between teacher and student. Nikky spoke a covenant, a spiritual covenant made between her and Toni. I tell you, that one sentence, “I would kill a whole forest so that Toni had paper to write,” literally, hushed breathing in the room. And, so I honor Nikky Finney today not only because she has achieved a great literary honor, but also because she taught me that day in Cosby’s lobby how I must honor the old woman of my heart. I must honor the old woman of my heart’s investment in me with a spiritual covenant that if she needed paper to write (metaphor) I would be willing to jeopardize my eternal soul by slaughtering countless trees (metaphor) so that SHE could write (metaphor).
“I will kill a whole forest so that Toni could write” . . . amazing simply flesh and blood amazing.