Finney teaches in the University of Kentucky English Department and is a Provost’s Distinguished Service Professor.
During her award acceptance, Finney delivered what is now known as “The Speech,” a spoken-word poem that has been shared around the world.
The ceremony’s emcee, actor John Lithgow, said, “That’s the best acceptance for anything I’ve ever heard in my life.”
Her poetry collection’s name comes from a common refrain Finney heard as a child at the fish markets in South Carolina. “Head off and split?” fishmongers would ask customers.
“I’ve been thinking about what we as human beings cut off – fractions, fragments, what we throw away in our lives,” Finney told The Lexington Herald-Leader, when her book was released earlier this year. “It seems to get easier and easier, as our society and culture extends into the future, that we don’t take responsibility for doing the tough work ourselves; we hand that off far too often.”
Finney grew up in the politically charged climate of the 1960s and ’70s, which she says shaped her trajectory as a poet.
“I know the sound of the ’60s and ’70s. There was a lot of standing with signs; there was a lot of shouting,” she said. “I wanted to be a poet who didn’t shout, who said things but said them with the most beautiful attention to language.”
Watch Finney’s acceptance speech at vimeo.com.