Look back at 1994: The historic first Furious Flower Conference
In 1994, JMU's Dr. Joanne Gabbin hosted the...
Return to 'black poetry planet'
Harrisonburg, VA — This fall, the Furious Flower Conference, “Seeding the Future of African American Poetry,” builds on a foundation established 20 years ago when the first conference devoted to African American poetry and criticism convened at JMU in Harrisonburg, Va. At the time, The Washington Post called it “historic” because it was probably the largest group of black American poets and scholars ever assembled.
The 2014 symposium is dedicated to Rita Dove (pictured above), who attended the first conference in 1994 when she was the poet laureate of the United States. Addressing the more than 30 eminent poets, plus another 300 writers, critics and scholars who attended, she acknowledged her debt to black writers who had preceded her, crediting them with preparing an audience to accept African American poets who investigate all subjects, even ones not traditionally associated with “black issues.”
At the heart of this year’s conference is a commitment to present and celebrate diverse voices within the genre. Literary trailblazers Toi Derricotte, Michael Harper, Yusef Komunyakaa, Marilyn Nelson, Ishmael Reed and Quincy Troupe Jr. will be recognized with Lifetime Achievement Awards. Other special guests include Elizabeth Alexander, Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, Jericho Brown, Kwame Dawes, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Patricia Smith, Afaa Michael Weaver, Aracelis Girmay, Evie Shockley, and Frank X Walker.
The schedule is packed with speeches, poetry readings and critical roundtable discussions. More than 20 scholarly panels and papers range in topics from “We Are Cowboys in the Boat of Ra: Sonny Rollins and Ishmael Reed’s Black Cowboy” to “Who Stole the Soul: An Avant-Garde History of the Dark Room Collective,” from “Everything Is Animal: African American Nature Poetry” to “Electronic Corpse: The Role of Social Media in Collaborative Poetry Making.”
Following are just a few of the conference highlights.
Art of Wole Lagunju: Furious Flower partners with the newly designed Duke Hall Gallery to welcome the community in a reception spotlighting the paintings of Nigerian artist Wole Lagunju.
Fusion: Poetry Voiced in Choral Song: The conference opens with the debut of two musical compositions based on the work of major African American poets: “Facing It” by Yusef Komunyakaa, and “Dear John, Dear Coltrane” by Michael Harper. Broadway actress Aurelia Williams and award-winning pianist/composer Randy Klein perform them with the Morgan State University Choir and the JMU Chorale.
Ravi Coltrane Quartet: The conference finale features Ravi Coltrane, the American post-bop saxophonist. Reviewing Coltrane’s 2013 album, NPR described his approach as “sleek and modern ... loosely suggesting his father’s [John Coltrane’s] adventurous spirit.”
Connections like this infuse the conference with a sense of legacy, of history. But it’s a history that inspires people to innovate and to lay claim to their lineage in their own way. This has been one of the hallmarks of the Furious Flower Conference since its inception.
A professor of English at JMU, Dr. Joanne Gabbin conceived of the first event as a tribute to the great poet Gwendolyn Brooks, and she drew its name from one of Brooks’ poems:
cracks into furious flower. Lifts its face
all unashamed. And sways in wicked grace.
In 2004, Gabbin staged an encore conference, dedicated to Amiri Baraka and Sonia Sanchez, two architects of the Black Arts Movement. Under the banner of “regenerating the black poetic tradition,” audiences had the rare opportunity to see more than 50 poets and scholars share their work and comment on the development and the future of this genre. In response, the award-winning activist poet Nikky Finney was moved to remark, “This is black poetry planet.”
After the second conference, JMU established the first and only academic center in the world dedicated to African American poetry, the Furious Flower Poetry Center, and made Gabbin its executive director. With continued support from the university and financial gifts from the prestigious Poetry Foundation and other organizations, the center is poised to deliver a third event, much of which is free and open to the public.
For further information about the conference, visit furiousflower2014.com or call the Furious Flower Poetry Center at (540) 568-8883.