Imagine a roomy, comfortable venue somewhere in Knoxville, Tennessee. You’re there just in time for a marathon read-in: Fiction writers, memoirists, poets, almost 100 of them, coming up one after the other. There are widely published writers, college writing teachers, and students in MFA programs, and there are other folks who identify themselves as neurologists, gardeners, grandmothers, homebuilders. A couple of young people present their work for the very first time anywhere, and it’s good, and everyone applauds and encourages them: Keep writing, keep it up.
There are prize winners: A. Molotkov, B. K. Loren and Vic Sizemore for fiction; Deirdra McAfee, Travis Ladonuel, Carol J. Arnold, and M. M. De Voe for short-shorts; Amy Andrews, Josh MacIvor-Andersen, Ellen Graf, and Jann Banales for nonfiction. The two big crowd pleasers are the hilarious “Time Capsule” by Arnold, and MacIvor-Anderson’s “Bread and Company,” a memoir about the aftermath of meeting God in dreadlocks in a diner.
Late in the evening there’s a stir. Who is that walking up to the platform? Is that Nikki Giovanni? It is! She’s a Knoxville native, of course, and local journalist Jack Neely interviews her about the arc of her life from ‘60s militant to gentle, whimsical children’s book author and writing teacher.
These days Giovanni launches book tours from Knoxville’s grand old Tennessee Theater, but when she was a child she wasn’t even allowed inside. When she first saw the amenities, in her 40s, she “had a revelation about the segregationist mindset. ‘Of course they don’t want you to be in here […] They don’t want you to see it’s not as shabby as any place else! Back then, white toilets were always clean; black toilets were always dirty.’ But then she laughs. ‘With integration, of course, all toilets are dirty.’”
Tonight Giovanni is at the marathon read-in because she agreed to be a poetry contest judge. Before announcing winners, she reads one of her own poems, “when the girl became a poet.” The piece is full of tenderness, anger, bitterness and surprise—the best work of the evening.
But that’s nothing off the winners: Barbara Knott, Pamela Uschuk, and Jim Glenn Thatcher, as well as a number of honorable mentions. Uschuk prefaces her “Shostakovich: Five Pieces” by saying she wrote it “in a white heat during a recital by violinist Kasia Sokol,” to whom the poem is dedicated. In the third movement, “Elegy,” she writes:
There can be no poetry
or music without lilies or bullets,
the frail lace of birch bark peeling
under a tyrant’s arthritic hands.
What a wonderful evening—uneven, yes, but accepting, supportive, welcoming, with generous dollops of the real thing. The way it needs to be sometimes.