By Max Saltman
Sewanee’s poetry enthusiasts donned raincoats and made their way to Convocation Hall on February 12 to watch poet Nikky Finney receive the Sewanee Review’s Aiken Taylor Award for Modern American Poetry. Review editor-in-chief Adam Ross began the ceremony by reading K.P.A. Taylor’s poem “Prayer,” after which Vice-Chancellor John McCardell presented Finney with the prize.
Noting that this was the tenth and last time he would have “the privilege of giving [the Aiken Taylor Award] introduction,” McCardell praised Finney’s work as a poet, teacher, community organizer, anthologist, and activist, describing her as a “distinguished citizen of the republic of letters.”
After receiving her Aiken Taylor Award, Finney treated the audience at Convocation to a poetry reading, showcasing verse from four of her six published books, including two from her latest book, Lovechild’s Hotbed of Occasional Poetry. In addition to being an awards ceremony, Wednesday evening marked the debut of this sixth book, which was available for purchase at the award reception.
Cover art for Lovechild’s Hotbed of Occasional Poetry.
“I can’t believe this book beat me here!” Finney said, to laughter from the audience, “That’s never happened before.”
The reading and award ceremony on Wednesday were preceded by a Tuesday lecture on Finney’s work delivered by poet Ross Gay at the McGriff Alumni House. The lecture, part of which was delivered as a letter addressed to Finney, delved deep into her ability to confront the brutality of racism and other forms of oppression without exclusively relying on it.
“Nikky is one of the most important poets in my life,” Gay said in an interview with the Purple. Meeting Finney in 2003, Gay continued, “transformed me in my writing, transformed me in my teaching, and in my approach to teaching and writing.”
Speaking with the Purple, Adam Ross emphasized Finney’s character in addition to her talent. “Hearing a reading from Nikky Finney is a chance to be in the presence of a remarkable poet and a remarkable human being,” he said. “Not all poets are great human beings. She is.”
The Aiken Taylor Award was inaugurated in 1987 through a bequest by Dr. K.P.A. Taylor, a surgeon, poet, and the younger brother of poet Conrad Aiken. Past winners include distinguished poets Heather McHugh, Richard Wilbur, Carl Philips, and Louise Gluck. The annual award includes, in addition to its prestige, a cash prize of $10,000.
When asked about how the Review picks their Aiken Taylor poets, Ross described it as a six-month long process.
“We start out with a long list. It may be as large as 60 poets.” Ross said. The Review reaches out to a large network of poets, who suggest other writers. “We look for overlap in those suggestions, create a short list, and the entire staff reads the work of that group, and then we discuss it and decide.”
The Aiken Taylor award is a “capstone award,” Ross explained, meaning that the Review usually gives it to poets after a long and illustrious career. However, Ross has been trying to award younger poets more, “in the hopes that the award… gives them the freedom and time to continue to compose.”
It appears that Finney certainly isn’t finished composing yet. Describing the occasion, only as a poet could, as “foggy mountain reading through 25 years of mindful writing,” Finney thanked the Review and the University before reading her final poem.
“This moment,” she concluded, “will never be forgotten by this grateful poet.”