​Finney to Receive Aiken Taylor Ward

by Bailey Basham,Messenger Staff Writer

When Nikky Finney was younger, she wanted to be a paleontologist. She can remember carrying a tiny book about dinosaurs in her back pocket everywhere she went. She made a point to memorize what era each dinosaur was from, how large its brain was and what it ate.

Many years later, as she prepares to accept the Aiken Taylor Award in Modern American Poetry, Finney still credits her work to her penchant for unearthing bones—not of dinosaurs but of stories neglected, forgotten or distorted.

“The thing that has survived from those days collecting rocks on my grandparents’ farm is the desire to not harm the thing I’m digging for, but to lift it out of the earth as it is and to lightly brush it off. Not to change it to be what I want it to be, but to report on what I have found,” she said. “That protection and desire has transpired and folded into the language I work with and the stories I tell and the characters I create or illuminate, be they fictive or real.”

Since 1987, the Aiken Taylor Award in Modern Poetry has been awarded to a distinguished poet in the maturity of their career. Next Wednesday, Feb. 12, Finney, author of “Head Off & Split,” which won the 2011 National Book Award in poetry, will be presented with the Aiken Taylor Award. The event begins at 4:30 p.m. in Convocation Hall.

On Tuesday, Feb. 11, at 4:30 p.m., Ross Gay will lecture on Finney’s poetry in the McGriff Alumni House. Gay is the author of three books of poetry, including “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude,” winner of the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry, and “The Book of Delights,” a collection of essays.

Finney has long been a collector of information and became a writer at first without fully realizing it — filling notebooks with her observations of the world, her answers to the why questions that hung over her. She said it was growing up in the 60s when this all began.

Finney lived in a predominantly black community in South Carolina. She remembers existing in two different worlds: the world at home and in the community she knew, and the world that did not know what to do with her.

“Children take in these kinds of things differently, and I couldn’t let it go. My parents were protective of me growing up too fast and wanted to keep me from being hurt by racism and segregation and those things that were so present in the world where I grew up. I had to go looking for those answers myself, and, as a result, I began to jot down and scribble down what I felt about my journey into understanding that piercing hatred, that violence, that world where people were harmed,” she said. “Some of that human condition I didn’t like, but I wasn’t trying to like everything. I was trying to understand. Writing pencil-to-page really helped me interpret worlds from which most of the adults in my life were trying to protect me. I still feel 30, 40 years later that I am trying to understand how we treat each other and the unconsciousness involved in our daily routine as human beings. I find that is still a great motivation to sit down with the page and my pencils and still try to get some answers to rise off that paper,” she said.

Finney is the author of “Rice,” and “The World is Round” and next week, she will debut her newest work, “Love Child’s Hotbed of Occasional Poetry,” a collection of works about the love songs humming throughout 400 years of Black American life.

Adam Ross, editor of The Sewanee Review, said it is in those works that Finney challenges what we think we know about the human condition and personal histories.

“The Aiken Taylor Award is what we like to call a capstone award. It is an award that recognizes a long career of producing the highest quality work. In Finney’s case, she’s not only written books that have been nationally recognized, but she is also considered by her peers to be a poet of groundbreaking influence,” he said. “All of her work is astonishing, but we’re most excited about her new book, “Love Child’s Hotbed of Occasional Poetry,” which is a collection of poems, artifacts, and what Finney calls hotbeds. Think of the last as origins of poems, points of inspiration.”

Finney said being born a Black American comes with a double consciousness, referencing the work of W. E. B. DuBois, and it is with the wholeness of lens that she approaches the Aiken Taylor.

“I look at the list of all the folks who have come before me and won this award, and speaking out of that double consciousness, this feels like someone has given me a butterfly or a moth. The magic of the wings themselves requires that you be careful with how you hold it because you do not want to hurt it. You know what an honor it is to hold it. There is a feeling of honor and gratitude that someone hears you, folks who have loved modern poetry for a long, long time, and also a feeling of great power being able to stand and read my work perhaps in a community that has not heard a poet like me before,” she said.

Her advice to young writers? Read everything — books, comics, recipes, how-to guides, history, science, everything you can get your hands on.

“Your job is to know how long a butterfly lives. Your job is to know what it looks like under the hood of a 1953 ford. You have to know what makes a banana pudding fail or succeed. You have to know who won the Pulitzer in 1965. You have to know why turtles can live on land and water. You never know what you will need to know to write the next thing you need to write. You must read comic books, popular mechanics, and how to put up drywall,” she said. “The biggest influence is and continues to be being hungry to learn everything I can about the world around me.”

Finney will receive the Aiken Taylor on Wednesday, Feb. 12, at 4:30 p.m., in Convocation Hall. Her new work, “Love Child’s Hotbed of Occasional Poetry,” will be available for purchase at the reading following the event.