citybeat (2007-16)

Poet and Virginia Tech professor Nikki Giovanni reports from Blacksburg

Cormac McCarthy's long-deserved honor, and a serendipitous conference

Time to Heal

Nikki Giovanni, the poet, was en route home from a conference in San Francisco Monday when the plane was delayed by high winds in Raleigh, and landed in Charlotte. When it finally touched down in Blacksburg just after noon, younger people on the plane, college students, began opening their phones and laptops. "You know how they do," says Giovanni. "And they were saying, 'My God, there's been a shooting at Virginia Tech!' And we thought, oh, too bad. Then they said 21 people are dead. We thought that must be a mistake. That it must be one or two people. Of course, it kept going higher and higher through the afternoon."

As a Distinguished Professor Giovanni has been at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University--better known as Virginia Tech--for 20 years.

When we spoke with her Tuesday morning, she had just gotten a call from colleagues in Oxford, England. Friends have been calling from all over America. "All the country's calling in, offering prayers and thoughts," she says. "It's lovely, it really is," she says of this sudden shower of good thoughts from concerned people around the world.

Two of the three faculty members killed were engineering professors, but one was a language professor, the sort of scholar whom Giovanni might have had dealings with, but he was newcomer to the campus.

"I don't teach in the Norris building," she says, "but it's in my quad." She says Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, about 200 miles northeast of her birthplace in Knoxville, is an intimate campus. "We're 2,600 acres, but you literally can walk from one end to the other in 10 minutes. I can, and I'm not even in shape."

She was preparing remarks for a memorial convocation on Tuesday afternoon. As we spoke, some arrangements were still up in the air, and the campus was in a stir with post-shooting security, but also pre-presidential security. "The president and his people will be here; I'll do what I'm asked to do," Giovanni says.

  She has a poem related to the theme, "'We are Virginia Tech.' It's not a great poem," she says, but she intends to use it. "I want people to know we need to be here."

During her talk at the Tennessee Theatre in Knoxville three weeks ago, Giovanni, who has recently buried her mother and her sister, spoke about the nature of grief, and expressed her frustration with America's mourning practices, which strike her as naïve. This week, she seems disappointed that Virginia Tech has chosen to close the campus for a week. "They say, 'We're giving you time for grieving.' But I don't think you can grieve like you can get a hamburger," she says.

"It's going to take more than a week. For now, we need to get back to routine. That's the only way we can heal."

First the Oprah; Now the Pulitzer!

The excitement downtown late Monday afternoon was infectious. Did you hear about Cormac? Even those who've never met the famously reclusive author during his quiet, unannounced trips home know him by his first name, and passed along the news on the sidewalk even before Katie Couric got to it. Some of them had been waiting to hear that particular scrap of news for a long time. Cormac McCarthy won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for his tenth novel, The Road .

The fact that it had earned an Oprah Book Club selection suddenly faded into obscurity. Except maybe at CNN, whose website announced, "Oprah Selection Wins Pulitzer."

The author, who has been publishing critically praised novels for over four decades, will turn 74 this July. Technically a Rhode Island native, he lived in Knoxville for most of his first 50 years, and set his early novels in the area; Knoxville appears in three of them, most vividly in the 1979 masterpiece of dark comedy, Suttree . He described Knoxville's hidden regions more vividly, realistically, and unsparingly than any other author has dared. (All his books are still in print.)

The Road stands apart from all of his previous works; it's the story of a father and his son, after some unknown global disaster, walking hundreds of miles across a ruined landscape, toward the dubious hope of the sea.  

Several sometime Knoxvillians have won Pulitzers for non-fiction over the years, mostly UT-connected folks and people who lived here later in life, like the late Don Whitehead. Knoxville native Paul Y. Anderson won a reporting Pulitzer back in the 1920s, for investigative reporting on the Teapot Dome scandal. McCarthy's just the second Knoxville-raised author to win for fiction. The first, of course, was James Agee, who won the prize posthumously, exactly half a century ago, for A Death In the Family --another tragic story, come to think about it, about a father and his son.

McCarthy moved West 25 or 30 years ago, depending on whom you talk to, and the West became the setting for his most popular fiction, like All the Pretty Horses, which became a major motion picture, and No Country For Old Men , which is slated to be released as a movie later this year. Though he's known for dark themes and violence, which characterize The Road , the book published last summer is a departure for McCarthy in several ways; a post-apocalyptic journey, it marks the closest he's come to science fiction. It also may be, in an emotional sense, his warmest book, and by some accounts his only positive evocation of a family, albeit a family of two.

The Road also marks an unexpected return to a Knoxville setting, albeit to a Knoxville unmentioned by name, and one in which all known Knoxvillians are deceased and desiccated. Early in the book, the father feels a need to show his son the empty family home in an unnamed city near the mountains. The house is across a big bridge, spanning a dead river. To several readers, the protagonist's childhood home looks a lot like the old McCarthy house which is still standing on Martin Mill Pike south of the river.

Monday we all felt as if we won the Pulitzer, collectively, as one big, dead, postapocalyptic city.

McCarthy is one of ours, and he is remembered well here. UT, which claims the author as an alumnus even though they never got around to graduating him, is hosting a three-day Cormac McCarthy Conference called "The Road Home." Though entirely coincidental to the Pulitzer announcement, the conference on April 26-28 will be dominated by discussions of the now-honored book, led by scholars from across the English-speaking world: one from Brigham Young, another from the University of Nottingham. One speaker will be UT psychology professor Wes Morgan, who believes he has identified the Knoxville-area settings of The Road .

Registration for the whole weekend, which includes several meals, is about $210. For more information, call Professor Chris Walsh, organizer of the event, at 974-8888. (Or visit , under "conferences.") It's a relatively modest academic conference, but is probably the biggest one in America concerning the latest fiction Pulitzer honoree.


Wednesday, April 11

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Tuesday, April 17