Poet Nikky Finney hopes prestigious award illuminates arts' role in Kentucky

Poet Nikky Finney summoned the souls of slaves of her native South Carolina, who were forbidden to read or write, in her acceptance speech.
Poet Nikky Finney summoned the souls of slaves of her native South Carolina, who were forbidden to read or write, in her acceptance speech. ASSOCIATED PRESS

Nikky Finney didn't know whether she would win the National Book Award for poetry on Wednesday night in New York. But she wanted it, and she wasn't going to be ambushed by false modesty.

"I knew I would sit there and I would have everything prepared so if the door opened I would walk through it and say I am here, I am prepared to be here, and I have worked to be here," she said Friday after she returned to Lexington. "It's not a haughty thing. ... I knew I belonged there, I didn't know if my name would be called."

Then her name was called.

Her head dropped in her hands, "half prayer, and half-stunned joy, and I suddenly felt my mother's arms around my head and she was screaming, 'You won, you won!'" Finney said.

She walked up to the stage to accept the prize for Head Off & Split (Triquarterly, $15.95), the fourth book of poetry by Finney, who teaches poetry at the University of Kentucky.

Then came the moments now known as The Speech, a spoken-word poem that has flown around the world and back along digital wires, bringing tears and awe in its wake.

First, Finney summoned the souls of the slaves of her native South Carolina, those forbidden by law under threat of death from learning to read and write.

The laws were "words devoted to quelling freedom, insurgency, imagination, all hope," she said in the speech. "What about the possibility of one day making a poem? ... Tonight these forbidden ones move around the room as they please, they sit at whatever table they want, wear camel-colored field hats, tomato-red kerchiefs. ... Some have just climbed out of the cold, wet Atlantic just to be here. We shiver together. If my name is ever called out I promised my girl poet self, so too would I call out theirs."

Finney also thanked her partner, A.J. Verdell; her parents, who were at the ceremony; and her teachers, one of whom found her as she was daydreaming in the library as a college student. "Do you really have time to sit there?" the teacher asked. "Have you finished reading every book in the library?"

As she walked back to her table after her speech, she could hear the ceremony's emcee, actor John Lithgow, clapping. Then he said: "That's the best acceptance for anything I've ever heard in my life."

Finney concedes that the "acceptance speech has become bigger than the poetry award. It's now bigger than me, and that's what I wanted," she said. "When you're talking about language and literature, it's got to encompass more than our solo selves.

"That's the power of good writing ... to bring many to the table — that's what's happening now."

Finney said she prepared for the speech by reading past acceptance speeches for the National Book Award by writers such as W.H. Auden and Rachel Carson, one of the nation's first environmentalists and author of Silent Spring.

"I decided this acceptance speech had to be about more than me," she said Friday. "It had to be about something bigger than me. I wanted to talk about South Carolina history because that's my home."

Now she's back in Lexington, still revelling in one of her field's greatest prizes, an award previously won by such notables as Auden, W.S. Merwin, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, Frank O'Hara and fellow Kentuckian Robert Penn Warren.

"It's a good tsunami, and I'm trying to ride it," she said.

Finney, 54, has been writing poetry for 30 years, working and teaching, but as any writer does, always hoping for this kind of recognition. "I am not tired of this. This is really good, I'm trying to honor this moment."

South Carolina and its history informs so much of Finney's poetry, but she also accepts that she is now part of Kentucky, where her friends and fans have welcomed her back.

"I have spent 20 years of my life here," she said. "It's correct that I should be adopted in this place where I've spent so much time coming into my own. I became a writer in Kentucky."

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.

The Carnegie Center's director, Neil Chethik, said Finney's win cements Kentucky's reputation as a place that produces and honors writers.

"We get overshadowed by our one-and-done basketball players, but what we find here is the people who stick are writers, and professors, particularly in that department," Chethik said of UK's English faculty. "Nikky is the latest example of that, so we hope we can keep her and make that school part of the whole literary-arts-capital scene."

Finney's prize is a huge kudo for UK, particularly as it appears to be the first National Book Award ever given to a UK faculty member, said Provost Kumble Subbaswamy.

"When something of this extraordinary nature happens, it draws attention to the particular individual, but in some larger way, it draws attention to all the other good work that goes on here," Subbaswamy said. "More so than winning an NCAA championship, this has an equivalent effect on our profile in humanities and literature."

Subbaswamy said Finney has long been recognized on campus, not just for the quality of her writing, but her dedication to teaching and all the other service work required of faculty.

"She brings the same passion that she brings to her poetry, to her teaching and all the work she does," he said.

She also has served as acting director of African-American studies at UK, and she runs youth poetry workshops in the summer. Two years ago, Finney was named a Provost's Distinguished Service Professor.

If Finney can help UK move toward a more arts-centric point of view, then she's happy.

"I know people love basketball — that's great — but I also know that I have been waiting for almost 20 years for there to be as much emphasis on the arts as there is on athletics, and I will be very candid and say that has not happened in my tenure here," she said. "I really hunger for a community that cherishes the arts as much as it does athletics, a vision at the top that understands how the arts changes a human life."

For now, Finney is fielding congratulations yearning to get back to her desk. She has received three requests from literary agents and is finding her way carefully in a new world of fame.

"There's lot of knocking at the door," she said. "But it's a kind of music, and I'm enjoying the music."

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