For twenty years, the Furious Flower Conference and Poetry Center has cultivated and honored African American poetry
By Anna Kariel
On September 29, 1994, James Madison University professor Joanne Gabbin addressed an assembly of poets, educators, scholars, and community members who had gathered in Harrisonburg to attend a historic conference on African American poetry. “The last forty years,” Gabbin, the conference organizer, declared, “have witnessed a furious flowering of black poetry in this country.”
The three days of joyous reunion, literary worship, and impassioned academic debate that followed sowed seeds for the genre’s next forty years. “Furious Flower: A Revolution in African American Poetry” marked the largest convening of African American poets and scholars of black poetry in nearly three decades. At the time, it was the only conference dedicated exclusively to assessing the poetic tradition of the latter half of the twentieth century.
The name of the conference references the Gwendolyn Brooks poem “The Second Sermon on the Warpland” (1968):
cracks into furious flower. Lifts its face
all unashamed. And sways in wicked grace.
According to Gabbin, these lines are a metaphor for African American poetry, with its revolutionary roots, prevailing grace, and generosity of spirit. Gabbin dedicated the event to Brooks, the 1994 Jefferson Lecturer, Poet Laureate of Illinois for thirty years, and the first black writer to receive the Pulitzer Prize: “She tells us even amid the loneliness and fear of these unsettling times, that we ‘must live and conduct [our] blooming in the noise and whip of the whirlwind.'”
Attendees included established poets such as Brooks, Rita Dove, Nikki Giovanni, Michael Harper, and Haki Madhubuti, as well as emerging writers such as Natasha Trethewey—now the Poet Laureate of the United States. At the time, Trethewey was pursuing her MFA in poetry at University of Massachusetts Amherst. “I was invited to attend the first Furious Flower conference with the rest of the members of the Dark Room Collective [a Boston-based group of African American poets],” writes Trethewey in an email, “and I had to convince the dean to give me funding to travel there. The conference was worth every penny she gave me, and every word I’ve written since then.”
The Virginia Foundation for the Humanities (VFH) was an early donor to Furious Flower. In an interview Gabbin recalled, “I looked to the VFH because I had been asked to evaluate its program a few years before as an independent scholar, and I was truly impressed by its mission. I realized that the conference fit into its mission so I sought out the guidelines to apply for a grant.” (Gabbin later served on VFH’s board of directors.) From the 1994 conference sprang the Furious Flower Poetry Center at James Madison University and a 2004 event, “Furious Flower: Regenerating the Black Poetic Tradition.” The latter, also funded in part by VFH, honored poets Amiri Baraka and Sonia Sanchez, whose work helped ignite the politically charged Black Arts Movement in the 1960s. More than one hundred poets and scholars participated in the 2004 conference, including Lucille Clifton, Yusef Komunyakaa, Askia M. Touré, and E. Ethelbert Miller.
Preparations are now under way for a third gathering at James Madison University. “Furious Flower: Seeding the Future of African American Poetry” will be held on September 24–27, 2014, and dedicated to Rita Dove, Pulitzer Prize winner, former Poet Laureate of the United States, and former Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. The focus will be on the younger generation of African American poets, many of whom, like Trethewey, Kevin Young, Major Jackson, and Thomas Sayers Ellis, helped launch their careers with readings at the earlier conferences.
Their success is a testament to the way the conference has encouraged African American writers to claim their poetic tradition and develop a voice for the future. “Each generation is faced with the challenge of having its voice heard,” Gabbin says. “This generation’s issues—immigrant laws, gay rights, gun control, the threat of terrorism, global warming—are different from the concerns that Brooks had in mind when she wrote ‘Second Sermon on the Warpland,’ but the urgency and insistence for action are just as necessary.”
Anna Kariel graduated from Bennington College with a BFA in English. She worked in publishing and book arts in San Francisco, California, and Honolulu, Hawaii, before joining VFH as an intern in 2012. More information about the 2014 Furious Flower Poetry Conference is available here.