Nikky Finney won the National Book Award for poetry this year for Head Off and Split. She is in the English department at the University of Kentucky. Her acceptance speech has gone viral among the literati; the Lexington, Ky. Herald Leader, described it four days later as “a spoken-word poem that has flown around the world and back along digital wires, bringing tears and awe in its wake.” John Lithgoe, the host for the evening, called it the “best acceptance speech I’ve heard for anything in my life.” It is a wonderful encapsulation of the nuanced ways a literary life is born, and in particular a black literary life. It is the moments of inspiration and connection that she evokes that I strive to capture in my writing. It is not just about ideas, but about the way that ideas flow between us, through tiny, almost inconsequential touches, through the persistent, every day choices of friends, parents and teachers, and through myriad pieces of written words.
Dr. Finney mentions sitting on the wall at Taladega College (I’ve been there! I saw the next generation sitting on that brick half-wall) on a Friday afternoon, dreaming about being a poet, and a professor came up and asked her if she had time to do that, had she read all the books in the library yet? May we all strive to inspire like Professor Gloria Wade Gayles inspired Finney. Here is her speech: