It’s been 15 months since Nikky Finney won the National Book Award for her poetry collection “Head Off & Split.”
Since then, the South Carolina-born writing professor from the University of Kentucky has traveled the country, sharing her words with a new crop of admirers. One thing she hasn’t done a lot of?
That’s going to change soon, said the writer, speaking by phone last week from Charleston, S.C.
“June 1, 2013, I’m stopping this locomotive in its tracks,” she said. “I’m taking a year off from this. I hope only to read and write again.”
Fortunately for Spokane, the train will stop after she makes a visit to Gonzaga University on Tuesday, where she’ll read from “Head Off & Split” as part of Gonzaga’s Visiting Writers Series.
Don’t think that Finney has come to regret taking this ride. On the contrary.
“Winning the National Book Award really took me by great surprise and I had no idea what kind of impact it would have on my life,” she said. “I was doing readings, but on an entirely different scale. … What I finally had to do was understand that this was a time I was honoring the honor, and I had to give time to traveling and having conversations, and giving interviews and being present in ways that I really haven’t had to negotiate before.”
But as much as she may have missed spending time with her beloved pencils and paper working on her poetry, she sees great value in her past year of travels.
“I think it’s important to do that if you can because it teaches you about yourself. It makes you stretch if you are not an incredibly public person, like I am not,” she said. “It also lets you meet people, students and writers that you have not had the pleasure of meeting and engage in conversations with them.”
Finney’s poetry is deeply personal with a sharp eye to the larger world around her. It is informed by her race and her gender, and by her Southern roots. She is just as comfortable writing about an aunt’s funeral (“Alice Butler”) or buying fish (“Liberty Street Seafood”) as she is in seeking – and finding – the universal truths in the stories of other people.
A woman, her child and her grandmother stranded on a New Orleans roof are the central characters in “Left,” Finney’s searing indictment of the slow rescue response in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. An old woman Finney saw interviewed on TV as Hurricane Rita stormed toward Texas is the inspiration behind “My Time Up With You.” She takes on former President George W. Bush (“Plunder”), gets into the mind of Rosa Parks (“Red Velvet”) and wrote “The Condoleeza Suite,” a series of poems about former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice.
Finney’s words have great power on the page, but it’s almost better to hear her read them. Videos of her reading her work are readily available on YouTube and her own website, nikkyfinney.net. There is a musical quality in her voice, in the cadence she uses to read her poetry – if she’d taken half a step in a slightly different direction as a child, she’d be on stage singing her words rather than reading them.
Reading her poetry aloud is not something she practices, Finney said. She reads her work in the way that seems most natural to her. “I don’t figure it out,” she said. “If you figure it out, you’ll stop doing it.”
With her whirlwind year of travel nearly behind her, Finney is gearing up for another transition. In June, she’ll leave Lexington and the University of Kentucky, where she has taught for 20 years, to accept the John H. Bennett Chair in Creative Writing and Southern Literature at the University of South Carolina, in Columbia, S.C. This homecoming is in part inspired by a desire to be closer to her aging parents.
“It’s really big news. I left when I was 17. I’ve always come back home, but I’ve never come back home in this capacity,” she said. “Things aligned in this most perfect way to make this happen and I’m still in a bit of a shock about it. A good shock.”