New York, NY (January 14, 2021)— The Academy of American Poets is pleased to announce that Natalie Diaz, Nikky Finney, and Tracy K. Smith have been elected to its Board of Chancellors. In this role, the three poets will consult with the Academy on matters of artistic programming, serve as judges for the organization’s largest legacy prizes for poets, and act as ambassadors of poetry in the world at large. They will also join the company of the 120 poets in American history who have shared this distinction since 1946, including W. H. Auden, Lucille Clifton, and Adrienne Rich

This Chancellor election is also history-making for the Academy in several ways: at 42 years old, Diaz is the youngest Chancellor ever elected; for the first time the Board of Chancellors is a majority of poets of color and a majority women (10 women, 5 men). This is also the largest number of women of color to ever serve as Chancellors of the Academy of American Poets.

Diaz, Finney, and Smith were selected by the current members of the Board of Chancellors—Ellen Bass, Marilyn Chin, Kwame Dawes, Forrest Gander, Joy Harjo, Terrance Hayes, Brenda Hillman, Marie Howe, David St. John, Dorianne Laux, Natasha Trethewey, and Kevin Young—and will be filling the seats vacated by Elizabeth Alexander, Linda Gregerson, and Alicia Ostriker, whose six-year terms of active service have concluded. 

“We're honored to have these three poets elected to the Board of Chancellors of the Academy of American Poets. Their participation, along with that of the other esteemed poets currently serving as Chancellors, ensures that poets remain at the heart of all we publish, program, and promote,” said Jennifer Benka, Academy executive director. 

About the New Chancellors

Natalie Diaz was born and raised in the Fort Mojave Indian Village in Needles, California, on the banks of the Colorado River. Mojave and an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian Tribe, she received her BA and MFA from Old Dominion University.

Diaz is the author of Postcolonial Love Poem (Graywolf Press, 2020), which is a finalist for the National Book Award and the Forward Prize in Poetry, and When My Brother Was an Aztec (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), winner of an American Book Award.

Academy Chancellor Dorianne Laux says, “Natalie Diaz is a poet who calls out to us in so many ways, who reaches out to embrace her lover, her people, and her country. A speaker of Mojave, Spanish and English, she has developed a language all her own. She calls attention to language both in her poetry and in her efforts to preserve her native tongue through the Fort Mojave Language Recovery Program where she works with its last remaining speakers. Native language, she says, is the ‘foundation of the American poetic lexicon’ and believes it is an ‘important and dangerous time for language’. There is no better emissary for poetry and the cultures, values and history it embraces, as well as the beauty and power of the human voice.”

She has received fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, The MacArthur Foundation, the Lannan Literary Foundation, the Native Arts Council Foundation, and Princeton University, as well as a PEN/Civitella Ranieri Foundation Residency. She was awarded the Princeton Holmes National Poetry Prize and is a member of the Board of Trustees for the United States Artists, where she is an alumnus of the Ford Fellowship. A language activist, Diaz is Director of the Center for Imagination in the Borderlands and the Maxine and Jonathan Marshall Chair in Modern and Contemporary Poetry at Arizona State University, where she teaches in the MFA program. She lives in Phoenix, Arizona.

Nikky Finney was born by the sea in 1957 in Conway, South Carolina. The only daughter of an elementary school teacher and a civil rights attorney, Finney was raised in Sumter, South Carolina, where she attended Catholic and Public Schools.

Finney is the author of five poetry collections, including Love Child’s Hotbed of Occasional Poetry: Poems and Artifacts (Northwestern University Press, 2020) and Head Off & Split (Northwestern University Press, 2011), winner of the 2011 National Book Award, as well as the short story collection Heartwood (University Press of Kentucky, 1997). Her other honors include the Wallace Stevens Award, given annually by the Academy of American Poets to recognize outstanding and proven mastery in the art of poetry; the Aiken-Taylor Award from the Sewanee Review and the University of the South; a PEN American Open Book Award; and the Benjamin Franklin Award for Poetry. 

Academy Chancellor Emeritus Linda Gregerson says, “Nikky Finney’s is one of the essential voices of our time. The searing injustices of history, the ironies of enforcement, the world-restoring tenderness of human love, the triumph of resistance: her poetry is ample enough to embrace them all. Her powers of description quite take my breath away: only the fiercest devotion to human possibility could so render the world in all its ravishing specificity. Nikky Finney brings all this and more to the work of the Academy.”

She currently teaches at the University of South Carolina, where she is the John H. Bennett, Jr., Chair in Creative Writing and Southern Letters, with appointments in both the Department of English Language and Literature and the African American Studies Program, while also guiding and mentoring students in the MFA program. Finney holds four Honorary Doctorates of Humanities from Claflin University (South Carolina), Leslie University (Massachusetts), Wofford College (South Carolina), and Transylvania University (Kentucky). In 2020, she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Tracy K. Smith was born in Falmouth, Massachusetts on April 16, 1972, and raised in Fairfield, California. She studied at Harvard University, where she joined the Dark Room Collective, a reading series for writers of color. She went on to receive her MFA from Columbia University.

Smith is the author of four poetry collections, including Wade in the Water (Graywolf Press, 2018), winner of the 2019 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in Poetry and shortlisted for the 2018 T. S. Eliot Prize; Life on Mars (Graywolf Press, 2011), winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and a New York Times Notable Book, a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice, and a New Yorker, Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year. She is also the author of the memoir Ordinary Light (Alfred A. Knopf, 2015), which was a finalist for the National Book Award, and named a Notable Book by both the New York Times and the Washington Post. In 2020 Smith and Changtai Bi co-translated Chinese poet Yi Lei's book of poetry My Name Will Grow Wide Like a Tree (Graywolf Press, November 3, 2020). Smith also edited the anthology American Journal: Fifty Poems for Our Time (Graywolf Press, 2018).

Academy Chancellor Kwame Dawes says, “Beneath the grace, calm and considered beauty of Tracy K Smith’s verse and person is a fierce energy and a conscience that is restlessly seeking truth—difficult, probing and liberating truth. I have come to value her art and her generosity of spirit to writers and to our business of making and sharing poems. Her joining the chancellorship of the Academy of American Poets is, to my mind, momentous for what it will mean to the work we do, because I am confident that she will bring this same industry of conscience and artistic integrity to the important work we do.” 

Smith served two terms as Poet Laureate of the United States, during which time she traveled across America hosting poetry readings and conversations in rural communities, and launched the American Public Media podcast The Slowdown. Her other awards and honors include a Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University, a 2004 Rona Jaffe Writers Award, a 2008 Essence Literary Award, a grant from the Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, a fellowship from the Breadloaf Writers' Conference, and a 2005 Whiting Award. She was the Poem-a-Day Guest Editor for April 2019 and 2018. She is the director of Princeton University’s creative writing program and the Roger S. Berlind ’52 Professor in the Humanities at Princeton University, and the Chair of Princeton’s Lewis Center for the Arts. She lives in New Jersey. 

About the Academy of American Poets 

The Academy of American Poets is the nation’s leading champion of poets and poetry with supporters in all fifty states. Founded in 1934, the organization annually awards more funds to individual poets than any other organization through its prize program, giving a total of $1,250,000 to more than 200 poets at various stages of their careers. The Academy also produces, the world’s largest publicly funded website for poets and poetry; originated and organizes National Poetry Month; publishes the popular Poem-a-Day series and American Poets magazine; provides award-winning resources to K–12 educators, including the Teach This Poem series; hosts an annual series of poetry readings and special events; and coordinates a national Poetry Coalition working together to promote the value poets bring to the country’s culture. This year, in response to the global health crisis, the organization joined six other national organizations to launch Artist Relief, a multidisciplinary coalition of arts grantmakers and a consortium of foundations working to provide resources and funding to the country’s individual poets, writers, and artists who are impacted by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.