On November 16, Nikky Finney received the 2011 National Book Award in Poetry for her book Head Off & Split. Political, sensual, historical, imaginative, Finney’s poems speak of struggle, beauty, love, and race with passion and tenderness. The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, where she has been teaching for several years, congratulates her on her wonderful achievement.
Finney, Provost’s Distinguished Service Chair Professor of English at the University of Kentucky, has been on the faculty of the Schomburg-Mellon Humanities Summer Institute since 2008. One of the students’ favorites, she brings passion, warmth, and inspiration to her creative writing seminars. As the director of the Institute, I’m always excited when I get her e-mail simply saying, “yes, yes, yes” to my invitation to come back.
I met Finney in New Orleans in 2007. We shared a room at Tulane University during a week-long conference. The city was still reeling from Katrina. As she read her poem Left, about a young woman who had taken refuge on a roof during the hurricane, there was palpable emotion in the room. When she stopped, everyone gave her a standing ovation. I did not. I remained on my chair in the first row, too overcome to move.
The daughter of civil rights activists (her father was a civil rights attorney,) Finney, who grew up in South Carolina, was immersed at a young age in African Americans’ fight for human rights. Asked recently if she is an activist poet, she replied, “Absolutely, absolutely — but I think that I consider myself an activist, and that makes it into my work. I also consider myself a lover of beautiful things and lyrical languages and empathy, as well. I definitely believe that the word 'activism' and the ideals of activism are at the core of what I do.”
Finney is no stranger to applause. Her beautiful book The World Is Round won the 2004 Benjamin Franklin Award for Poetry, and Rice was the winner of a PEN America Open Book Award in 1995. Finney is also the author of Wings Made of Gauze (1985); Heartwood, a collection of stories; and she is the editor of The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South.
And, yes, yes, yes, she will be back at the Schomburg–Mellon Humanities Summer Institute in July 2012, inspiring a new crop of fellows.