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UK Professor Nikky Finney Wins National Book Award for Poetry

By Erin Holaday Ziegler

nikky finneyUniversity of Kentucky creative writing Professor  Nikky Finney has won the 2011 National Book Award in Poetry for her recent work, “Head Off & Split.”  Finney attended the award ceremony last night in New York City, where she accepted the highly prestigious honor.

“Head Off & Split” was published by Northwestern University Press in February of this year, and Finney has been touring with the book since late winter.

The National Book Award website says the poems in Finney's "Head Off & Split" "sustain a sensitive and intense dialogue with emblematic figures and events in African-American life: from Civil Rights matriarch Rosa Parks, to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, from a brazen girl strung out on lightning, to a terrified woman abandoned on a rooftop during Hurricane Katrina. Her poet's voice is defined by an intimacy, which holds a soft yet exacting-eye on the erotic, on uncanny political and family events ... Artful and intense, Finney's poems ask us to be mindful of what we fraction, fragment, cut off, dice, dishonor, or throw away, powerfully evoking both the lawless and the sublime."

In an interview on the website Finney explains what she hopes readers take from her latest book of poetry.  "From this particular collection, I am hoping that the reader realizes we are standing at an incredible moment in time — a moment when so much of what we do and don't do matters," Finney said. "I believe more and more our beautiful language is being hi-jacked by those who care nothing about language, those who care only about winning and acquiring and stockpiling and protecting their own interests ... I believe our many beautiful ways of saying and communicating and the telling of our stories has been taken for granted and we can't let that happen. All of us who make something with our hands and hearts must step into every arena that we possibly can and bring with us the most eloquent, charged, radical (radical only means grabbing it by the root), tender, truthful words spilling from our arms. Our children deserve this from us."

Finney was recently interviewed for WUKY's weekly program "UK Perspectives."  You can hear the podcast of the interview here.

Finney, a Lexington resident, has taught at UK for decades and is a member of the Affrilachian Poets group that includes Frank X Walker and Kelly Norman Ellis.

When Finney was named a finalist for the National Book Award in October, Mark Lawrence Kornbluh, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, noted Finney's contribution to UK's English department. "She is an asset to the university and has been a first-rate teacher and scholar throughout her career," Kornbluh said. "Her work is an exceptional source of inspiration for the community and will undoubtedly continue to inspire future generations."

The National Book Awards began in 1950, and for 61 years, a committee of writers has convened annually to judge the work of other writers and to recognize literary excellence.  National Book Awards are conferred in four genres: fiction, nonfiction, children's literature and poetry. Five finalists are named in each genre. For a list of all winners, visit the National Book Award website at

Finney is the author of three previous volumes of poetry, "The World Is Round" (winner of the 2004 Benjamin Franklin Award for Poetry); "Rice" (winner of a PEN America Open Book Award in 1995); and "On Wings Made of Gauze" (1985). Recipient of the Kentucky Foundation for Women Artists Fellowship Award, Finney is also the author of "Heartwood," a collection of stories, and she edited "The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South."

MEDIA CONTACT:  Erin Holaday Ziegler, (859) 257-5365 or