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2015

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Poets, Photographers, and Poet-Photographers (Part One)

C. B. Claiborne, photo by Bill Frakes

by Karen Risch Mott

C. B. Claiborne sums up his more than 40 years in photography as being about special moments, “creating visual cues to help us recall our experience in a time and place.” This is what motivated him to suggest that someone document the 1994 Furious Flower Poetry Conference, which he helped plan. He volunteered himself and has been Furious Flower’s event photographer for all three conferences. 

In 1994, he shot 25 rolls of film, which were processed daily for a growing exhibit in Carrier Library. It was a laborious project that took many hours in a darkroom and the help of librarian Jody Hess, who mounted the images on foamcore and hung them in a pop-up gallery as they were developed. In 2004, he shot digitally and printed dozens of photos, this time showing them in the lobby of Wilson Hall. In 2014, everything went digital: the monitors in Carrier Library cycled through his images for the duration of the conference. (View more of Claiborne’s images from the 2014 Furious Flower Poetry Conference on Flickr.)

Poetry festival organizer Dr. Joanne Gabbin has asked Claiborne to return each time because of his sensibilities with regard not only to the images he creates, but also to the subject matter of black writers. “I wanted to work with someone who would appreciate the catholicity of those who were attending the conference. Initially, it was his generosity that got him the ‘job,’ but in subsequent years, I invited him back because of the quality of the work he’d done, because of the particular intelligence he brought to these photographs.”  

A professor of marketing at Southern Texas University in Houston, Claiborne asserts that he teaches creativity and innovation. His interests span applied science, business, sports, photography, and more. He was the first black basketball player at Duke University, where he received his bachelor’s in engineering. He went on to earn a master’s in the same discipline from Dartmouth. His MBA is from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, where he earned his way through grad school by taking headshots and passport photos. He also has a PhD in marketing from Virginia Tech. In the years when Claiborne lived near Harrisonburg and taught in the business school at JMU, he often showed his landscapes and portraits at galleries around town, especially in Staunton.  

In the poets who perform at Furious Flower, he sees a connection with the sixties, an echo of that time and particularly of the civil rights movement. He remembers listening to one of Nikki Giovanni’s records in 1973 and hearing her commitment to black power, her revolutionary spirit, and her irreverent asides. Attending her reading more than 40 years later at Furious Flower, he remarked, “It feels like an anthem. Sure, the subjects have changed. The poet is now exploring a different stage of life, perhaps telling a different story, but she is still speaking with the same voice.” 

Part Two features photographer, poet, and professor of English Erica Cavanagh.