Tuesday, November 22, 2011

From Lucille Clifton to Nikky Finney: Achievements of Black Women Poets

Lucille Clifton
Years from now, when and if people write literary histories of black women poets in the early 21st century, they will likely mention Lucille Clifton's and Nikky Finney's receipt of National Book Awards in Poetry in 2000 and 2011, respectively.

Over the years in interviews and public presentations, Finney has expressed her admiration for Clifton's work. So receiving the National Book Award in Poetry had to be especially important for Finney as it linked her in a distinct way to one of her revered literary models.

For some time now, I've been taking note of the impressive rising visibility of black women poets, from the black arts era to the present. If there was more conversation about black poetry in the scholarly and popular discourses, we'd certainly have a more complete record of the many accomplishments and developments among African American women poets over just the last alone.   

Consider, for instance, some of what we've seen transpire from the time of Clifton's award in 2000 to Finney's recent accomplishment on Wednesday night. Over the last 11 years, several black women poets have been quite productive and some have earned accolades and recognition for their work. 

In addition to winning the National Book Award for Poetry for her volume Blessing the Boats, Clifton received the prestigious Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize in 2007. In 2002, Tracy K. Smith won the Cave Canem Prize for a first book of poetry for her volume The Body's Question. In 2005, Smith won the Whiting Writers' Award, the James Laughlin Award in 2006, and an Essence Literary Award in 2008. Patricia Smith's volume Teahouse of the Almighty was a National Poetry Series in 2005.  In 2007, Natasha Trethewey received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for her volume Native Guard, and Elizabeth Alexander won the Jackson Poetry Prize.

Judy Valente noted in 2007 piece for NPR that "Something extraordinary happened in the world of poetry this year. Four of the most prestigious poetry prizes went to African-American women. For many poetry lovers, this represents long overdue recognition." The four women were Tracy K. Smith (James Laughlin Award), Clifton (Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize), Trethewey, and Alexander. 

Perhaps no African American poet has received as many honorary awards and certificates of appreciation as Nikki Giovanni. The list of honors and awards on her web-site for the last ten years alone is quite extensive.

Interestingly, "Nikky" is "Nikky" Finney's nickname given to her after she was repeatedly linked to Nikki Giovanni when she was growing up in South Carolina.  

Historically, it's been rare for African American poets to win major awards. Nikky Finney's National Book Award for Poetry and the achievements of her fellow poets over the years suggest that although it is still uncommon for black women to win the biggest awards in poetry, it might be a little less rare.  

Related content: A Notebook on the work of Nikky Finney

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