Nearly three years after poet Kwame Dawes left the University of South Carolina for the University of Nebraska, one of his publishing projects is getting a second life. The current rendition of the Palmetto Poetry Series just released its first book — “New and Selected Poems,” by South Carolina Poet Laureate Marjory Wentworth — under its new editor, Nikky Finney. The selection process for future publications is under way, guided by Finney and a five-member board: Dawes, Wentworth, Terrance Hayes, Charlene Spearen and Ray McManus.
“It seems to me that South Carolina is particularly known for fiction writers,” said Wentworth. “We have many who are New York Times best-sellers. But we have poets. To have Nikky Finney and Terrance Hayes win the National Book Award back-to-back says something about the quality of those poets.”
Jonathan Haupt, director of the University of South Carolina Press, agrees. He’s credited with reviving the series. “I believe that a state that boasts the oldest poetry society in the nation and two recent National Book Award winners in poetry deserves this kind of opportunity for its current and future poets,” he said. “I chose the board in consultation with Nikky. We wanted a group of diverse talents with a likeminded commitment to supporting the accomplishments of South Carolina’s established poets while also discovering new voices as-of-yet unheard. This is that group. There’s no question about it.”
Among the criteria for publication in the series is a tie to South Carolina. “You might have been born and raised here,” said Wentworth. “Nikky Finney is definitely a South Carolina poet, though she’s lived in Kentucky. Terrance Hayes is rooted here.”
Another criterion is excellence. Haupt describes Finney’s participation as a key indicator of the series’ ambitions. In a press release, he noted: “As with last year’s announcement that Pat Conroy was joining us as editor of our fiction imprint, Story River Books, Nikky Finney’s appointment as editor of the Palmetto Poetry Series solidifies USC Press’s commitment to finding and fostering exceptional literary talents here in our home state.
“Nikky’s monumental skills and unparalleled instincts as a poet make her an ideal choice for reinvigorating our poetry series. Moreover, she brings to the Palmetto Poetry Series undeniable evidence of the power and responsibility of poets to reshape lives, both at home and elsewhere.”
Wentworth says that Finney exemplifies the goals of the series. “Her work is grounded in this place and in history and social justice. Though we don’t necessarily associate those themes with experimental form, her last book in particular is incredibly innovative.
“That’s such a perfect fit for what we’re trying to do: looking at history in new ways, looking at experience in new ways. In many ways, that’s the type of work we hope to publish. Nikky’s personality and warmth will attract a lot of people in. You make an immediate connection with her. Poetry series can seem elitist or skewed a certain way—Nikky is the last person you’d see that way.”
Wentworth also explores themes with a broad reach, as her “New and Selected Poems” shows. Along with pieces from her collections “Noticing Eden,” “Despite Gravity,” and “The Endless Repetition of an Ordinary Miracle,” the book contains 28 new poems. For her book launch at the State Library on April 18, she read a variety, among them “Newlyweds,” which has become a popular choice for weddings and was turned into a choral piece by composer Nathan Jones. She also read a few works based on short newspaper stories that caught her eye—such as “Runaway Cow Tracked Down in Germany,” which begins:
A cow named Yvonne, whose escape
kept a corner of Bavaria
on tender hooks, has turned herself
in after three months on the run.
“I shape them, put a form on them, and whatnot,” she said. “They’re either very funny or very dark.”
What makes poetry the art perhaps most relevant to daily life, said Wentworth, is the way “it shapes our collective experiences. Everyone is struggling with making sense of things. Reading poems is a great way to discover meaning. There’s a redemptive quality to finding your own experiences, whether love or profound loss, reflected in someone else’s words. You don’t feel so alone when you find a poem that articulates what you’re feeling.”