Nikki Giovanni Talks Big Ears Festival Ahead of Knoxville Return
Nikki Giovanni is heading home to Knoxville this weekend for a free performance downtown at The Mill & Mine as part of the Big Ears Festival.
Knox News caught up with the world-renowned poet, activist and voice of the civil rights movement on Zoom to discuss her upcoming appearance, which will be at 11 a.m. Saturday.
This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
A: When you read my work, you’ll see that when I refer to home, it’s always Knoxville. … I
was born in Knoxville at the old Knoxville General Hospital. But we – us
being my mom and dad and older sister – they moved to Cincinnati. So I really grew up in Cincinnati and moved back to live with my grandparents when I was in ninth grade and went to Austin (high school). And then I took the test and went to Fisk University. But I still refer to and think of Knoxville as my home. And looking at my poetry – every time, if I say “home”, everyone knows it means Knoxville.
Q: The Big Ears Festival started in 2009 and, like Knoxville, has grown tremendously since then. Did you know the festival? And how did you get involved?
A: I didn’t know him, and I guess a lot of things were closed due to COVID. No one was traveling. I wasn’t traveling either. … It’s my 50th anniversary of “Truth Is on Its Way”, which is an album that I released 50 years ago. And (someone) said, “You should go.” I will always go to Knoxville. … In the old days, I would have just got in the car and driven. I don’t like driving at night, and you have things to do. So, I have a driver now. He’ll pick me up and we’ll go by car. And we’ll be there for a few days, and then we’ll go home, go back to work.
Q: When you come to Knoxville, are there any must-do activities for you or any businesses you need to go to? What does a normal trip to Knoxville look like to you?
A: I have friends, but I always make it a point to go to the Beck (Cultural Exchange Center). It is very, very significant. And if someone’s with me who’s never been with me before – I have friends that I took to Knoxville – we’re going to see Alex Haley (Heritage Square). There’s this big park, and it’s so wonderful. And I want to see this. But the last time I read, played in Knoxville was, I think, at Le Bijou. And I remember Le Bijou very well. And, of course, Gay Street totally changed because it was all on Gay Street. There used to be a bookstore (downtown), and I think it still is (Union Ave Books). … So there are things you want to see.
Q: There’s a lot of music at the Big Ears Festival, but the literary side of things is really about celebrating and showcasing black voices and the Appalachian region. What does it mean for you to see this initiative in a festival like this, which attracts people from all over the world?
A: I’m really thrilled because Appalachia is very important, as you know, to American history and also to black history. I’m here in Virginia, but I live about 5 miles from the Appalachian Trail, which was what slaves – I’m sure Harriet Tubman took this trail when she was helping slaves get out of slavery. That was part of it. Thus, the Appalachians are very good friends of the black community. … If I had a flat tire, I would like to have it in Appalachia more than anywhere else. … I remember taking the train from Cincinnati to Knoxville. It was a white female who would ascend as we reached Appalachia. She sold ham sandwiches, and I’ll never forget her. And she sold them to everyone. And that’s when, by the way, Coca-Cola was a nickel. …At that time I was too young to really know it was Appalachia, but you felt very comfortable once you crossed into Kentucky and descended a little lower .
Q: How do you approach and plan your appearance at Big Ears?
A: I will read poetry, of course. Right now I have a small problem that I hope will be fixed and no one seems to know why. But my back has a pinched nerve. Totally painful. Everyone works there. But one of my Appalachian fans made me a cane a long time ago. He just gave it to me. It was a gift; nothing was wrong. And it’s beautiful because we make very beautiful woodwork in the Appalachians. We make beautiful pottery. And a gentleman gave it to me because he likes my job. And I now use the cane to walk around, and it’s so nice to have it. So I’ll probably walk on stage with the cane because I can walk fine, but the pain will skyrocket.
Q: How do you select the poems you will recite? Is there a process to figure this out, or do you just go with what feels right?
A: It’s probably pretty easy, actually, because I’m in Knoxville. And a lot of poems I’ve written about Knoxville that some of my fans in Knoxville have never heard. So I’m going to read my Knoxville and my Tennessee because I’m a Tennessian by birth. And I have a poem that begins, “I am a Tennessee by birth” – that’s the first line of the poem. So these will be the main poems that I will read. There may be something else. Of course, my grandmother meant so much to me. So if I’m a big girl – because I start reading poems about grandma, I start crying because I miss her so much. But if I’m a big girl and I behave well and don’t shy away from it, I’ll also read some poems from Grandma.
Q: If you’ve had a chance to see the rest of the lineup, is there anyone you’d like to see perform?
A: I’d love to see some of what’s going on, but the answer is I don’t really know. I’m going to start from my reading, I have a reception at Beck’s. And I’m excited because I’m still doing something at Beck and with the Beck community, even though they’re welcome in the (Big Ears) thing. I read at (The Mill & Mine). It’s a place I don’t know. But some members of the Beck community won’t want to go, and so I’m doing a reading to the Beck community.
Q: So your Big Ears performance is a free performance, and I know the festival is doing a lot more so that more people can connect and have this shared experience of living the art together. How accessible do you think poetry, art, music is nowadays, and what do you think we could do to improve this accessibility? Obviously, things like this are great.
A: I think we did a good job. And while you were asking the question, I
I was trying to remember the last time I did a program there had to be
a paid ticket. And that was 50 years ago, and that was because I did Lincoln
Q: Why always free?
A: Oh, I think of art like I think of church. … You should always be welcome.
Q: What do you hope people leave when they leave your show on Saturday?
A: I hope they will enjoy it. I’m a pretty good poet. … I like to talk, so someone might have to take me off the stage because I’m starting to tell stories. It was my house, and I know a lot about the house. … People forget the wonderful things that have been hidden and the wonderful stories. And I always remind people that being a writer doesn’t always mean, “Oh, I wrote and published a book, and I have a #1 bestseller.” You have a story to tell. And if you tell that story, someone else can tell it and add something to it. And we begin to understand the history of a people, and part of that people is America. Its very important. … So I always hope that the only thing they could take away is, “Oh, maybe I should write.” But if they don’t want to write it down, maybe at dinner they’ll say, “You know when Nikki used to talk about stories? I have a story. Let me tell you.” … So hopefully that’s what we get out of it – that we have a story to tell and that we should be proud of.