At a New York restaurant just blocks from Occupy Wall Street headquarters, Nikky Finney Wednesday night received the 2011 National Book Award for Poetry for “Head Off & Split.”

Published by TriQuarterly, an imprint of Northwestern University Press, her book of poetry has been described as an impassioned summary of African-American history.

The $10,000 National Book Award is, along with the Pulitzer Prize, the nation’s most prestigious literary honor.

The daughter of a civil rights attorney and a teacher in South Carolina, Finney is a founder of Affrilachian Poets, a group of African-American poets who challenge simple notions of an all-white Appalachia. She is a professor of creative writing at the University of Kentucky.

“Black people were the only people in the United States who were ever officially not allowed to become literate,” Finney told the audience as she accepted the award. “I am now officially speechless.”

Actor and author John Lithgow, who served as the ceremony’s host, called Finney’s acceptance speech “the best I’ve heard from anyone in my entire life.” With tears in her eyes, Finney recalled the history of slaves who were punished for reading and writing.

“It’s a rare privilege to publish Nikky Finney’s work,” said Northwestern dean of libraries Sarah Pritchard, who oversees Northwestern University Press and attended the 62nd National Book Award ceremony. “Finney’s poetry is lyrical, profound, and breaks new ground in both form and ideas.”

“Hearing Nikky’s name called was a moment of pure joy,” said Northwestern University Press Director Jane Bunker, who also was at the ceremony. “We knew it was a special book from the beginning.”

The book, however, is not the first published by Northwestern University Press to be associated with the National Book Award. In 1997, Press author William Meredith won the National Book Award for Poetry for “Effort at Speech.” Seven years later, Christine Schutt was a finalist for her debut novel “Florida.”

Bunker said she was “deeply proud” of the entire Northwestern University Press staff. She singled out Parneshia Jones, who recognized and brought “Head Off & Split” to the Press, and Marianne Jankowski, who designed the book’s award-winning cover.

“Listen to Nikky’s words,” Bunker added. “Listen to her speech that brought the house down. Most importantly, read the poems.”

The speech is available online and starts about 16 minutes into the recording.

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