Lexington poet Nikky Finney wins National Book Award

Nikky Finney teaches in the English department at the University of Kentucky.
Nikky Finney teaches in the English department at the University of Kentucky.

Lexington's Nikky Finney won the 2011 National Book Award for poetry Wednesday night for her collection Head Off & Split.

The 62nd annual awards were presented in four categories at a ceremony in New York.

Finney teaches in the University of Kentucky English department and is a Provost's Distinguished Service Professor.

The poetry collection's name comes from a common refrain Finney 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.

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."

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

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."

The three other National Book Award winners Wednesday were Jesmyn Ward for Salvage the Bones, fiction; Stephen Greenblatt for The Swerve, non-fiction; and Thanhhai Lai for Inside Out & Back Again, young people's literature.

Winners each receive $10,000.

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