Nikky Finney, winner of the 2011 National Book Award for poetry and one of Lexington's most beloved literary figures, is leaving the University of Kentucky to return home to South Carolina.
The decision to take a job at the University of South Carolina in Columbia is based on spending more time with her aging parents, according to an entry on her website.
"My decision to leave UK at this time is a daughter's decision," she wrote Monday. "My mother and father are 79 and 82 respectively, and in need of more and more of me as time flies. ... After 38 years of being away from South Carolina it is time to go home. I feel there are projects waiting on me there, books to write on that home soil, and students to nurture and guide. The University of South Carolina, graciously, made me an offer I could not refuse."
That offer includes the John H. Bennett Jr. Chair in Creative Writing and Southern Literature, a joint appointment in the English language and literature department and the African American Studies program. Finney said she also would be teaching in USC's creative writing program.
UK President Eli Capilouto said he was deeply saddened to hear of Finney's departure.
"It is a tremendous loss for the university and for the entire commonwealth that treasures her as one of its own," Capilouto said. "For many people, Professor Finney is most significantly known as a National Book Award Winner, one of writing's most important honors. But for a generation of students, she is simply known as a giving teacher, someone who painted unforgettable portraits with her achingly beautiful poetry depicting a past and, at times a present, that we should not repeat, but never forget. As her Kentucky family, we all understand her desire and longing to return to her native home."
Mark Kornbluh, dean of arts and sciences, said Finney was not looking for a counter-offer and did not give UK the opportunity to give one.
Finney came to Lexington about 1990 as a one-year visiting professor at UK. She wrote her second book, Rice, in a cubbyhole desk at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning downtown. Last year, she was named UK's Guy Davenport Endowed Chair in English.
She has written four books of poetry: Head Off & Split (2011), for which she won the National Book Award; The World Is Round (2003); Rice (1995); and On Wings Made of Gauze (1985). Her work is heavily influenced by her childhood in South Carolina, its landscape and her upbringing as the daughter of civil rights activists. Her father, Ernest Finney, was appointed in 1994 as South Carolina's first black chief justice since Reconstruction.
Finney is a founding member of the Affrilachian Poets, a group of writers based in Lexington.
Finney said she would finish out the school year at UK and begin at USC in August.
One of her last public appearances in Lexington will be at the annual Literary Luncheon fundraiser for the Carnegie Center on June 8, said director Neil Chethik.
"We're immensely happy for Nikky and feel really grateful she's given Lexington 20 plus years," Chethik said. "She is one of the reasons we have become the literary capital of our region, and it's not only for the quality of the writing she produces. She shows a goodness of heart with her students, with leaders, colleagues, friends. Kentucky has been lucky to have her as she reached her full power as a writer. South Carolina is lucky to get her back."
Capilouto noted that place was a powerful presence in Finney's poetry: "She departs UK in the same way in which she has honored us with her presence — graciously, writing that 'Kentucky will forever be the place where I became a writer but South Carolina is the only place that I have ever called home.'"
Linda Blackford: (859) 231-1359. Twitter: @lbblackford.