Q-and-A with Nikky Finney

By Chase Sanders

Nikky Finney, a UK professor in the English department, recently won a National Book Award in poetry for her work titled, “Head Off & Split.”The nationally recognized book is her fourth collection of poetry.

Less than a week after her highly-praised acceptance speech, Finney participated in an interview with the Kernel to discuss the award and her passion for poetry.

Q: How long have you been a faculty member at the UK?

A: I arrived at the University of Kentucky in 1989. I left and returned in 1993. I’ve been here ever since.

Q: What made you want to work at UK when you first came here?

A: I thought I was coming to the University of Kentucky for only one year. My hope and plan was to try and finish work on my second book, “Rice.” The job that was offered was conducive to the work I wanted to do and the department of English at UK was wonderfully supportive of that.

Q: When you were a child what did you want to be when you grew up, and why?

A: I was a terribly curious child. I still believe my curiosity is what keeps my imagination sparking and alive. I loved many subjects as a child. For some reason I was drawn to dinosaurs and paleontology. I was also deeply interested in anything that had to do with the moon and the stars but I really only wanted to be a writer. I think it was because I knew if I became a writer I wouldn’t have to choose between any of the things I loved. I could incorporate all of my favorite things into my life. I could write about any and everything. I loved books and loved creating characters and worlds with language. I fell particularly in love with poetry in the sixth or seventh grade. I had a teacher who made us learn several poems by heart. I learned my poems and then decided to take it a step beyond leaning another poet’s work. I decided to write and craft my own.

Q: What made you want to become a poet / writer / teacher?

A: I think poetry is the most beautiful, honest language that has ever existed on the face of the earth. There are so many different kinds of poetry. There are so many different poetic voices. We, as human beings, reach for poetry when we seek understanding of the difficult moments in life. We also reach for it when we need to try and describe something spectacularly beautiful, special or unusual. Poetry is a way of communicating, purely, emotion and information that also includes music and listening and truth.

Q: What is your favorite piece of literature by an author besides yourself? Why is it your favorite piece?

A: I was a book worm as a girl and I still am. Books spill out of every room in my house and are often stacked high on every floor around me. My life and work has been inspired by the work of many many other writers. I don’t have one favorite author or one piece of work. That list of inspiring authors changes as my life changes. Some of those I am reading now include Rita Dove, Suzanne Gardiner and James Baldwin. I am always re-reading James Baldwin. I look for authors that write beautifully and are not afraid to speak of difficult subjects.

Q: What was your initial reaction once you found out you won the National Book Award for poetry last week?

A: It was a very emotional moment. My mom and dad were with me. Dad is 80 and Mom just turned 78. They don’t travel as much as they use to, so the moment was especially tender for me. That scream that you can hear on the C-SPAN recording after my name is called as the winner is my mom’s. I was stupefied. I was thrilled. I was deeply humbled.

Q: How would you describe “Head Off & Split” in one word? A: Veritas. Q: What type of effect do you hope your most recent achievement will have on students at the University of Kentucky?

A: I hope this solo win for me is a collective open door for others. I would like for students who love writing, but who might not think they can imagine a life as a writer to perhaps think that all things are possible with passion, dedication and hard work. I would like for the creative writing at the University of Kentucky to be cherished and wonderfully celebrated. We have an amazing creative writing program at UK. There are so many strong and beautiful writers in this state. The history of strong and necessary writing has been a part of Kentucky for many generations.

Q: What advice do you have for students who want to become writers when they graduate?

A: Don’t be afraid to get off the beaten path. And read! To write well one must read, read, read. Reading teaches the beginning writer so much. Reading teaches the accomplished writer so much. Reading, not for entertainment, but reading as a professional activity, is a very important component of the education of the writer. Also, it’s important to care about some part of the planet that is being destroyed and/or silenced. Get involved in saving something. Don’t fear the word activist. Don’t hide behind your smart phones or the internet. Explore what it means to be a human being at this particular time in our history.