Poet Nikky Finney poses on the marble steps of the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning. It is a place she will miss when she returns to South Carolina to be closer to her aging parents. Photo by Tom Eblen
Nikky Finney has always been drawn to buildings and neighborhoods with a sense of history and community. When she joined the University of Kentucky’s English faculty in 1993, she got to know Lexington by walking and biking through the city’s historic districts.
One day, Finney happened upon the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning in Gratz Park. She thought it was the public library, which, until recently, it had been. It reminded her of the Carnegie library in Sumter, S.C., where she spent so much time as a girl falling in love with literature. After looking around the beautiful old building and being warmly greeted by the Carnegie Center’s staff, Finney realized she had found a home away from home.
There were several study carrels in the Carnegie Center, and she claimed one as an informal office. Each morning that she wasn’t teaching, Finney sat in the carrel writing her second book of poetry, Rice, published in 1995.
So it seems almost poetic that as Finney prepares to leave Lexington after 20 years to take a faculty position at the University of South Carolina, where she can be closer to her aging parents, her last scheduled public appearances will benefit the Carnegie Center.
Finney, who won the 2011 National Book Award in poetry for her fifth poetry collection, Head Off & Split, will be the keynote speaker June 7 at the Carnegie Center’s Books-in-Progress Conference. The next day, she is to speak at a literary luncheon benefiting the center, whose mission ranges from showcasing Kentucky’s most accomplished writers to teaching children and adults how to read.
“For many reasons, the Carnegie Center is one part library and one part community center,” Finney said last week. “I believe really passionately that public spaces should also have at their heart a sort of intimacy for other things. And here I found the intimacy of the imagination, the intimacy of books.”
Besides finding it a peaceful place to write, Finney was inspired by the literary community that gathered in the building for readings, classes and celebrations.
“It was a hub of activity, and this activity seemed to have an artistic drive and also a community drive,” she said. “In its own way, it feeds back around to the quiet work we do in the carrel the next morning.”
It is amazing, Finney said, “for a city this size to have a place like the Carnegie Center, not just here but more viable today than I’ve ever seen it.”
Finney has gained fame since winning the National Book Award and giving what actor John Lithgow, the award ceremony’s host, called “the best acceptance speech for anything that I’ve ever heard in my life.” The video of that speech became an Internet sensation, introducing many people who don’t often read poetry books to the power and mastery of Finney’s writing.
Earlier this year, the National Civil War Project commissioned Finney to write a piece with jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard that they will perform in October 2015 on the Antietam battlefield in Maryland, with the Kronos Quartet and a 500-voice choir.
Another big project is a memoir of essays that she is calling The Sensitive Child. The title is how her mother often referred to her, “which did not always have good connotations.” But that sensitivity is what led her to writing, she said.
Finney has described her move back to South Carolina as “a daughter’s decision.” In addition to the Carnegie Center, she said, there are many things about Kentucky she will miss. She plans to keep her home and studio in the Bell Court neighborhood.
Finney said living in Kentucky for two decades helped give her the distance and perspective she needed to write about South Carolina. Once she’s in South Carolina, Finney said, she wouldn’t be surprised if she starts writing about Kentucky. She already has some ideas.
As she was moving into her UK office two decades ago, fellow writer and professor Gurney Norman, whom she had never met, welcomed her with a box of books and manuscripts about the black experience in Appalachia. It is a rich but little-known legacy.
“That’s one of the questions I’ve wanted to pursue: Why is that not at the heart of some great American novel?” Finney said about black Appalachia. “There is a bounty of information and history there to pull from. I’m leaning there.”
If you go
Carnegie Books-in-Progress Conference
When: June 7-8
What: Keynote address by Nikky Finney, workshops and activities for those considering a book project or engaged in one.
Where: Carnegie Center, 251 W. Second St.
Registration: Call (859) 254-4175, Ext. 21, or go to Carnegiecenterlex.org.
Literary Luncheon with Nikky Finney: Benefiting the Carnegie Center.
When: 1 p.m. June 8.
Where: Elmendorf Farm, 3931 Paris Pike, Lexington.
Cost: $80 (includes lunch).
Registration: Call (859) 254-4175, Ext. 25 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.