Nikky Finney in Conversation with Jericho Brown

Nikky Finney and Jericho Brown are two of the most renowned poets of their generation. Their works have been celebrated for their lyrical beauty and powerful messages of social justice, love, and identity.

Recently, the two sat down for a conversation about their writing, lives, and shared passions. Finney and Brown discussed their respective journeys, the power of words, and the importance of using art as a platform for positive change.

They also shared stories of their creative processes and how they strive to create works that honor the beauty of the human experience. Through their conversation, Finney and Brown made a solid and inspiring case for the power of poetry to bring about social change.

Nikky Finney’s Background and Journey

Finney was born in Jamaica and moved to the United States when she was five. She grew up in New York, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina and has always been a writer.

She studied English at Yale University, where she met her husband, the poet, and scholar Robert Hill. Later, she received her MFA in Poetry from the University of Iowa. Her work often explores themes of race, gender, identity, and social justice.

She is known for her lush language and narrative approach to poetry. Finney has published six books of poetry, including her most recent collection, Blood Trees. She is also the author of two books of creative nonfiction, Kitchen Table: Women Writers on

Growing Up and Mother Love: Natural Birth and Breastfeeding. She has received numerous awards, including a MacArthur Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Pushcart Prize, a Whiting Award, and a PEN/Voelcker Award.

Finney currently teaches at the University of Michigan as the Robert and Virginia McCulloch Professor of English.

Jericho Brown’s Background and Journey

Brown was born in Kentucky and raised by his grandparents in Mississippi. He grew up in a housing project and suffered from poverty, racism, and a lack of parental support. When he was ten years old, his grandmother passed away, forcing him to fend for himself.

He started selling drugs at age 16 and was arrested for murder at 18. After spending two years in prison, he decided to change his life. He returned to school and received a B.A. in English from the University of Mississippi and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Washington.

He credits poetry with saving his life, saying it was “the first time I put words together in a way that made sense to me.” His work often explores themes of black masculinity, childhood trauma, and the burdens of history.

He has published four books of poetry, including his most recent collection, What the Great Have Wrought. He has also edited and co-edited several anthologies on poetry and race.

He currently teaches at the University of Pittsburgh as a Distinguished Associate Professor of English.

The Power of Words

Finney and Brown discussed the power of words and how they are central to their identities and work as writers. Finney explained that she always gravitated toward language and words and that words were the first things she ever loved.

Brown noted that the power of words to change lives is most evident in the cases of children. He said that reading to a child could profoundly change their life and give them a much better chance at success.

He also said that he has never had a poem that he liked but has loved almost every word he has written. He and Finney agreed that the power of words could come from almost any genre, as long as they are genuine and genuine to the author.

They discussed the power of words to break the silence, silence often caused by trauma, and how the written word is often a way of “breaking the silence and saying, ‘I’m here, and this happened to me.’”

Finney and Brown also discussed the importance of balancing anger with love in one’s work, and they noted that sometimes the best way to deal with anger is to channel it creatively.

Using Art as a Platform for Positive Change

Finney and Brown discussed how they use art as a platform for positive change. They both acknowledged that artists and poets often face criticism for being political. They noted that the critics often fail to understand that social justice is not an agenda, but rather it is the very fabric of life.

Finney and Brown discussed how their work often explores themes of blackness and Southernness. They explained how many people from the South, particularly black people, could imagine a better world.

They discussed how the current political climate has been deeply challenging for both of them and that they have tried to use their art to engage with the public and share their visions of a better future.

They said that they both have been drawn to themes of resistance and survival in their work and that they have also tried to embrace the beauty in their lives as a way of fighting back. They noted that the poets are responsible for speaking out since words are central to their work and identities.

Creative Processes

Finney and Brown discussed the different approaches to writing poetry they have developed over the years. Finney said that she often has a clear sense of the poem she wants to write but that getting there is difficult.

Her process tends to be very organic, and she often writes without a plan. She said that her style is very intuitive and that she usually doesn’t even know what her poems are about until they’re finished.

She said that she always writes with a pencil and has boxes full of poems that she has written and re-written but has yet to publish. Finney noted that she is a perfectionist, and that sometimes this works in her favor, but other times it can be a considerable obstacle.

Brown, on the other hand, said that he was not a natural poet and that he came to the craft of poetry very slowly and with a great deal of difficulty. He explained that he usually begins with a very concrete idea and then tries to find the language for it.

He said he sometimes has the language first and then tries to find the idea to fit it. Brown added that poetry is a craft that you have to learn and that it is something that you can always be better at.

He said that he sometimes writes with a plan but has often learned where a poem goes when it gets there.

Honoring the Beauty of the Human Experience

Finney and Brown discussed themes of identity and beauty in their work. Finney said that she often writes about the black female experience and that she does so to highlight its beauty.

She noted that society often places a high value on whiteness and Western culture but that we don’t often acknowledge the beauty of blackness. She said that she wants her work to reflect the beauty of blackness and the beauty of womanhood.

She noted that sometimes people are surprised by her inclusion of beauty, particularly while discussing themes of social justice and racism. Finney said that she writes about beauty because it is a human experience and beautiful to her.

Brown said that he writes about the beauty in the struggle. He noted that he sees beauty in the hustle and in the moment when someone can overcome something that feels insurmountable.

He said he often writes about people who don’t expect to be celebrated but who he thinks to deserve to be celebrated.

The Power of Poetry to Bring About Social Change

Finney and Brown discussed the power of poetry to bring about social change. They both acknowledged that poetry doesn’t always bring about the change we want but is often used to spark dialogue that leads to change.

Finney said that poetry allows people to slow down and listen to each other and is often the only place where people can find language to express their experiences. Brown added that it is often difficult for people to see themselves or their experiences reflected in the news or fiction.

He said that poetry is often the most direct and honest way to share one’s experiences and that it often leads to change that is difficult to quantify. Finney and Brown discussed how poetry could bring about social change by giving voice to often voiceless populations.

They discussed how poetry has the power to reach people on a deeper level than other genres can and that it can bring about a sense of empathy necessary for change.


Throughout their conversation, Finney and Brown made a solid and inspiring case for the power of poetry to bring about social change.

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