"The time cracks into furious flower.
Lifts its face all unashamed.
And sways in wicked grace."
"The Second Sermon on the Warplan"
These powerful lines of Gwendolyn Brooks provide the title for a conference in late September that will bring noted black poets from around the country to James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. One of the few conferences dedicated strictly to African-American poetry, "Furious Flower" gathers many of the best-known poets and scholars currently working in the field. Among the poets appearing include Gwendolyn Brooks, to whom the conference is dedicated, U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove, Amiri Baraka, Michael Harper, Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, Haki Madhubuti, and Louisiana Poet Laureate Pinkie Gordon Lane. Critics attending include Langston Hughes biographer Arnold Rampersad, Eleanor Traylor, Clyde Taylor, Lorenzo Thomas, and Joyce Ann Joyce.
Both Nikki Giovanni and conference coordinator Joanne Gabbin are members of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and Public Policy, which has provided funding for the conference. Area high school students and members of the JMU community will have opportunities to hear the poets read their own works, attend Gwendolyn Brooks's and Rita Dove's keynote addresses, and some of the larger discussion panels.
The "Furious Flower" conference explores the progress of modern African-American poetry in a variety of ways. The folk and cultural origins of the poetry and its relationship to other literary movements will be examined, as well as interpretative approaches and application of critical theories.
Gabbin and her committee have taken steps to see that the contributions of the conference endure. Existing scholarship will be supplemented through the publication of critical essays. The September 29 to October 1 conference proceedings will be videotaped and the poets interviewed for a documentary produced by public television station WVPT. The conference and its materials will be also be a resource
for teachers and schools looking to incorporate African-American literature into their curricula. "We hope, as a result of this conference," said Gabbin, "that professors here as well as statewide and in the region will feel more comfortable with this material."
The conference specifically focuses on the developments in African-American poetry since 1960. The period is seen as innovative due to a broadening audience base and changes in the poetry itself. The 1960s witnessed a rise in prominence of a number of black writers like Ernest Gaines, Eldridge Cleaver, Sonia Sanchez, and Ishmael Reed. Black poets, in particular, benefited from the expanded publishing of African-American authors by both black and mainstream publishing houses. The expanded printing of their works meant the poets' messages were increasingly heard by black audiences and the general American public.
Gabbin chose the conference title, "Furious Flower," for its ability to reflect what she sees as the two sides of African-American poetry during the period. According to Gabbin, "Furious" reflects the anger, struggle, and frequent militancy present in the poetry. "Many of these poets have lent their voices to the civil rights struggle and social change in this country," said Gabbin, "and that had to be part of it-that's furious part." While a legacy of calling for liberation exists within African-American poetry, the 1960s prompted a more radical approach. Poetry became a political act advocating social change through both the writing and reading of it. "The language was often used as a weapon to bring about change," said Gabbin. As the laws legalizing segregation fell away, the poets continued to confront remaining social inequalities and misconceptions throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
Gabbin sees "flower" as referring to the beauty of the verse itself. Whereas the politics of the 1960s were reflected in the subject of the poems, the poets often broke with traditional poetic structure. They drew on conventional forms, like the sonnet, but more often chose to use innovative forms reflecting the poet's sense of freedom and risk. Poets experimented with blues and altered ballad forms and used jazz rhythms and improv techniques in new literary ways.
The "furious" and the "flower" joined together to prompt a revolution of consciousness. The poetry, often calling for increased political activism, drew on a strong oral tradition within African-American culture, producing a renewed union of poetry and performance. "You had the oral tradition prevailing over the printed page," said Gabbin. "Poetry that wanted to inspire actions became a type of activism in itself."
The furious flowering of African-American poets goes beyond the confines of a conference or a classroom. Gabbin believes their voices are needed now. "We have to recognize that they helped to foment a social revolution and they are needed again in the fight," she says. "Their voices are now being drowned out by the negative rappers. They are the urban poets now, who are selling their raps to the youth. Their raps carry the ideas that the poets have been fighting against: violence and sexism."
--Reprinted from Humanities, September/October 1994, vol. 15, no. 5, pp. 28-9.