National Book Award Winner Reads at 21C

Lexington poet Nikky Finney has been on the road, visiting 20 cities in three months. It’s her second tour for “Head Off & Split,” her fourth collection of poems that won the National Book Award last fall.

Finney will read in Louisville tonight at 21C Museum Hotel.

Throughout her tour, Finney says she’s heard from people who saw her powerful acceptance speech during the November awards broadcast and went wild.

“It was so personal and so many people really took it in, in such a public-personal way, and really claimed it, and maybe it’s because we all have stepped across and stepped onto the shoulders of others who have helped us get to where we’ve gotten,” Finney says.

Watch Finney’s acceptance speech at the 2011 National Book Awards:

(Full transcript – PDF)

Even in the book world, it was a rare moment of attention for poetry.

“Very often, we only see the poet who’s pulled forward at the presidential nomination,” says Finney. “I’m hopeful that as a society we will begin to call on the poet more in public spaces.”

Finney has ideas for how that can happen—like having poets stand up and read before the legislature is called into session.

“Poetry reminds us about the things politicians never say, cannot say, feel like they can’t say. Poetry reminds us of how alike we are. All of the walls fall down,” says Finney. “Poetry is the most powerful language we have as human beings to express our joy, our sorrow, our hope and the possibilities of what’s going to happen when we wake up tomorrow.”

Tonight’s event is part of the monthly Sarabande Series in Poetry. Finney will read with Chicago poet Bruce Smith, whose collection “The Other Lover” was also a finalist for the 2011 National Book Award.

Finney’s influence is felt in Kentucky and beyond. She’s professor of creative writing at the University of Kentucky, a founding member of the Affrilachian Poets collective and a faculty member of Cave Canem, a prestigious poetry workshop for African American writers. She says it was important for her, a solitary writer, to find groups like these to work with.

“Seek out people who are as serious as you are, people who have things to give you, things to share,” she says. “Absolutely, we need to find our community. As the great poet Lucille Clifton would say, you need to find your tribe.”

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