Lexington poet Nikky Finney named National Book Award finalist

lexington poet sees honor as a validation

ctruman@herald-leader.comOctober 13, 2011 

  • National Book Award Finalists

    Finalists for the 2012 National Book Award, announced Wednesday:

    Fiction: The Sojourn by Andrew Krivak, The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht, The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka, Binocular Vision: New and Selected Stories by Edith Pearlman and Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward.

    Non-fiction: The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism by Deborah Baker, Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution by Mary Gabriel, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable and Radioactive: Marie and Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout by Lauren Redniss.

    Poetry: Head Off & Split by Nikky Finney, The Chameleon Couch by Yusef Komunyakaa, Double Shadow by Carl Phillips, Tonight No Poetry Will Serve by Adrienne Rich and Devotions by Bruce Smith.

    Young people's literature: My Name Is Not Easy by Debby Dahl Edwardson, Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai, Flesh and Blood So Cheap: The Triangle Fire and Its Legacy by Albert Marrin, Shine by Lauren Myracle, Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt and Chime by Franny Billingsley.


Lexington poet Nikky Finney was named a finalist Wednesday for the 2011 National Book Award in poetry.

Finney, who teaches in the University of Kentucky's English department and is a Provost's Distinguished Service Professor, was cited for her poetry collection Head Off & Split.

Finney is a member of the Affrilachian Poets group that includes Frank X Walker and Kelly Norman Ellis.

Finney said she got word of her selection Tuesday morning but was pledged to secrecy until the formal announcement Wednesday.

"I was in the kitchen making oatmeal, and I fell out on the floor," she said.

Even so, she said, Wednesday's announcement felt like a validation.

"I heard yesterday, but I didn't really believe it until today," Finney said Wednesday. "I just knew that I love this book a lot, that it meant a lot to me ... and I just hoped it would have an audience."

Readers have told Finney it is her finest collection, she said.

Winners in National Book Award categories, which include fiction, non-fiction and young people's literature, will be announced Nov. 16 in New York. Other books nominated in the poetry category are: The Chameleon Couch by Yusef Komunyakaa, Double Shadow by Carl Phillips, Tonight No Poetry Will Serve by Adrienne Rich and Devotions by Bruce Smith.

When Finney's book was released earlier this year, she told the Herald-Leader, "I've been thinking about what we as human beings cut off — fractions, fragments, what we throw away in our lives. It seems to get easier and easier, as our society and culture extends into the future, that we don't take responsibility for doing the tough work ourselves; we hand that off far too often.

About the poems included in Head Off & Split, she said, "A lot of the poems focus on being mindful of what we do step away from or deny, what we keep and what we toss away."

The collection's name comes from a common refrain she would hear as a child at the fish markets in South Carolina, where she grew up. "Head off and split?" the fishmonger would ask customers.

Finney, 54, grew up in the politically charged climate of the 1960s and '70s, which she says shaped her trajectory as a poet.

"I know the sound of the '60s and '70s. There was a lot of standing with signs, there was a lot of shouting," she said in March. "I wanted to be a poet who didn't shout, who said things but said them with the most beautiful attention to language."

UK President Eli Capilouto said Wednesday that Finney "is a university treasure .... and fearlessly represents the best of the commonwealth."

Reach Cheryl Truman at (859) 231-3202 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3202 or follow her on Twitter at @CherylTruman.

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