“That was the best acceptance speech for anything that I’ve heard in my life,” exclaimed John Lithgow, actor and host of the 2011 National Book Award ceremony, after poet Nikky Finney had claimed her prize.
In her short address, Finney commented on the extraordinary irony implicit in her winning the National Book Award in Poetry since she represented a group of individuals – African-Americans – who “were the only people in the United States every explicitly forbidden to become literate.”
Indeed, in the slave codes of South Carolina, dated 1739, an individual could be fined $100 and sentenced to six months in prison if he or she was found “teaching a slave to read or write.”
So fearful was the minority white population at the prospect of black insurrection that they denied literacy to a whole group of people.
Yet, Finney asks in her speech, “What about the possibility of one day making a poem?”
For her own remarkable career as a poet, the Conway native thanked her parents and teachers. She singled out her father, Ernest Finney Jr., the first African-American chief justice of South Carolina since Reconstruction, and her mother Frances, an elementary school teacher.
It was her mother who once told her in response to Finney’s question why she could not find books about the people in her community, “Well, sweetheart, I guess you’re going to have to write those books. You’re going to have to tell those stories and bring those faces to light in your own work.”
She also gave credit to Gloria Wade Gayles, her mentor at Talladega College in Alabama, where she earned her undergraduate degree in 1979.
It is, therefore, not surprising that Finney would dedicate a good part of her own life to teaching, first as a writer-in-residence at the University of Kentucky and, starting this coming fall, as the John H. Bennett Chair in Creative Writing and Southern Literature at USC in Columbia.
She credited her recent decision to return to Carolina, in part, to the need to be closer to her parents, her earliest mentors, who are now quite elderly (79 and 82, respectively) and, in part, to a personal feeling that it was time to return to her “home soil” where there were “students to nurture and guide.”
This coming week, Finney arrives in Aiken as an honored guest of the James and Mary Oswald Distinguished Writers Series.
During her residency she will be visiting classes (most notably Roy Seeger’s poetry workshop); she will also read from and provide commentary on some of her most recent work in a public presentation on the main stage of the Etherredge Center on Tuesday. I have heard her speak before, and she has a commanding and compelling presence.
Finney believes in living a life. For one thing, she counsels her students to “place a gap” between their undergraduate years and any graduate school experience; in this regard, she feels that students have to spend “some time out in the world,” have “to work some,” in order to figure out their proper path. She worked first as a photographer and a reporter before teaching herself the craft and the art of poetry.
Finney is also a great believer in research. Her National Book Award-winning volume entitled “Head Off and Split”(a fishmonger’s phrase regarding the preparation of his product), for example, includes poems about Rosa Parks, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and the late Senator Strom Thurmond, who appeared suddenly at her youngest brother’s wedding in Edgefield. For each piece, she researched the subject’s biography, uncovering unexpected truths.
Finney’s reading is scheduled to begin at 8 p.m. on Tuesday at USCA’s Etherredge Center.
Admission is free. No tickets are required, but it is suggested that audience members arrive early to get a good seat.
Following the presentation, the poet will be signing copies of her books in the lobby; profits from the sale of those volumes will benefit the USCA English Honor Society Scholarship Endowment.
For more information on the poet, visit www.nikkyfinney.net.
A recipient of the prestigious Carolina Trustee Professorship in 2008, Dr. Tom Mack holds the G.L. Toole Chair at USC Aiken. His new book “Hidden History of Aiken County” (Charleston, SC and London, UK: The History Press) is available at bookstores in this area and online.