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Nikky Finney Appointed Guy Davenport Endowed English Professor

by Sarah Geegan

English professor and 2011 National Book Award winner Nikky Finney was recently appointed the inaugural Guy Davenport Endowed English Professor, an award honoring one of UK's most distinguished professors.

Guy Mattison Davenport, author, poet, painter and critic, retired in 1990 as a UK Distinguished Alumni Professor of English. Throughout his career, he received national and international recognition by several educational and professional institutions for his many achievements. Honoring this legacy, the endowed professorship was made possible through a generous donation to the College of Arts and Sciences, by Davenport's former student, Judith Janssen.

Davenport's most prestigious awards include a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, the 1981 Morton Dauwen Zabel award for fiction from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and the Leviton-Blumenthal Prize for poetry. In 1998, he was elected a fellow in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Cambridge, Mass., which was founded in 1780 by John Adams.

University of Kentucky Libraries honored Davenport in 2001 for his broad contributions to American literature with its Medallion for Intellectual Achievement. Awarded annually to recognize outstanding intellectual achievements by individuals who have worked in Kentucky or are native Kentuckians, the medallion encourages education and the free and creative use of the mind by citizens of the Commonwealth.

Outside of his many accolades, Davenport's legacy continues to inspire UK students and faculty.

"Guy Davenport made monumental contributions to both his field and to the University of Kentucky," Mark Kornbluh, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, said. "He was respected internationally for his originality and creativity, as well as for his dedication to the classroom, and we are very pleased to honor Nikky Finney, another exceptionally creative scholar, in his name."

"Professor Davenport had an extraordinary degree of intelligence, imagination and creativity," Janssen said. "He produced volumes of beautifully written, polished stories, essays and translations as well as drawings and paintings. His unique intelligence made him a fascinating teacher in the classroom and in everyday life. I remember sitting in his living room and listening to him talk about the curious and surprising knowledge of the Dogon tribe in Africa and about the ancient city of Petra and about the classical Greeks."

Janssen said that Finney is an ideal professor to carry on Davenport's legacy through the endowed professorship.

"I have been reading Nikky Finney's poems in 'Head Off & Split,' and I have been very impressed by her use of language and her ability to express unique experiences and to make the read see and feel them," Janssen said. "The seamstress metaphor that runs through "Red Velvet" -- her poem for Rosa Parks -- adds beautiful layers of meaning.  She captures the black experience in America throughout the poems in the book -- and has her own references to the Dogon, just as Guy talked of what he had learned of their lore."

Finney said she was honored to receive the award in the name of Davenport, a scholar she deeply admires.

"There is so much in a name," Finney said. "There is so much when a name is lent to another. There's so much intellectual rigor and artfulness gathered around the name of Guy Madison Davenport. A wonderful teacher. A Southerner who knew so much about the wide world beyond the South. A man devoted to literature and art. A man who partly chose the University of Kentucky because he could walk from home to school and back. A man who didn't drive cars because he didn't like cars. He believed cars were changing the world too fast. He was right. He was a man who liked to slow things down as much as he could. He wanted us to remember our humanity, our humanness. But if you were in his presence his driving mind would take you around the world to people and places you immediately wanted to know more about. A MacArthur Scholar. A genius, they say. A man born in my country of South Carolina. A man who believed in writing letters and holding unforgettable conversations beside his fireplace. A man who looked into poetry to find the great answers in life -- and found them. Endowing a chair in the name of Guy Davenport means that someone wanted the name of a great teacher to live forever at the University of Kentucky, where most of his life was lived. My name with his name now and his name with mine, now intertwined. As long as we are connected at this academic hip,  I will remember the power and presence of a great name. I am honored by this appointment."