Dr. Gabbin helped me find the writer in me
By Jessi Lewis (’09)
I remember the class when Dr. Gabbin read The Wrong Kitchen by Nikki Giovanni, a poem that captured me more than others. You could tell Dr. Gabbin loved the poem too — it was in the way she nodded after it was over and shook her head like she just tasted a divine, yet complicated chocolate. Giovanni’s work made writing a reality for me, and Dr. Gabbin did as well. It was Dr. Gabbin’s resourceful nature that has brought Nikki Giovanni to campus several times. I met the poet that had actually managed to hook me and reel me in. To this day, I couldn’t be more grateful for this encounter.
It all began when I signed up for Dr. Gabbin’s African-American poetry class during the last semester of my senior year. I had no idea what I was diving into. I learned about Nikki Giovanni and a handful of African-American poets who, like Dr. Gabbin, believe in the honesty of writing. This class was a combination of literary theory, creative writing and an embrace of old and new poets. Dr. Gabbin had a way of taking multiple influences and dragging them all into one overwhelming concept — how we view each other and ourselves. This wasn’t just poetry, but also a philosophy for life.
When you’re in a room with Dr. Gabbin, you take ease from her presence. She has a way of taking charge, a way of drawing attention. Even her enunciation draws you closer. This is how she brings in an audience for poetry readings and how she brings poets to JMU. This is how she speaks in her writing — her words gather together into a flow of confidence and strength.
Initially, I was shy in her class because she had intensity during her lectures that I felt I could never match. Then she took notice of me and my interest in writing poetry. At the time, I didn’t admit my interests — I didn’t even tell many people when I won the Furious Flower Poetry contest that year, but Dr. Gabbin paid attention.
I stumbled upon the Furious Flower Poetry Center in that contest and eventually took Dr. Gabbin’s offer of a short-term job after graduation. I learned more about Dr. Gabbin — beyond her role as a professor. I helped edit Dr. Gabbin’s books, including Shaping Memories, a collection of essays by African-American women, and Mourning Katrina, a collection of poems in response to the hurricane disaster in Louisiana. You don’t really know this professor until you’re in her office, working on her own words and the words of her friends and heroes. I felt as though I was changing something sacred, and I did it for hours with Dr. Gabbin checking on me regularly. This was the first job I’ve ever had in which I was respected for my professional talents. It was an invaluable feeling.
I’ve experienced just about everything that Dr. Gabbin gives to JMU. She has her collection of books, her connections to poets, her poetry camp for local children and her classes that wake up writers like me. I’ve managed to meet some famous writers, some writers on the way to the publishing house and some students who could only be headed in that direction. Dr. Gabbin surrounds herself with those who embrace their own power, which makes you feel valuable even if you’re too young to understand your own talents. That is how I came to accept the writer that I am.
About the Professor
Like the poetry she revels in, English professor Joanne Gabbin embodies the power to transform. Both of her pioneering Furious Flower Poetry conferences have advanced African-American poetry, celebrating beauty and achievement, and revealing pain and injustice. Hundreds of today’s poet laureates, elders, middle voices and emerging stars made the pilgrimage to Madison to participate, while the video anthology of this living history has reached classrooms around the world. For this and other achievements, Gabbin was inducted into the Literary Hall of Fame for Writers of African Descent in 2005. As director of the Honors Program at JMU, Gabbin has relied on teaching and poetry to do the hard work of consciousness-raising. Her teaching and leadership have transformed the hearts, minds and attitudes of generations of Madison students. A celebrated book author, Gabbin currently directs the JMU Furious Flower Poetry Center.
About the Author
Jessi Lewis (’09) earned her undergraduate degree in English and is currently completing a master’s in the JMU Writing Rhetoric and Technical Communication Department. She works on campus as a graduate assistant for Centennial Scholars program, and she is the main writer/editor of Prima Lux Diversity Magazine. Lewis grew up in the mountains of Clarke County, Va., and she enjoys kayaking, picking blueberries, and as always, writing.