“Furious Flower” Conference Celebrates African American Poetry
by Jamie Walker
Published: Monday, September 27, 2004

Harrisonburg, Virginia: Over sixty distinguished poets and scholars gathered to help set the agenda for African American poetry for decades to come at the historic Furious Flower: Regenerating the Black Poetic Tradition Conference.

Amiri Baraka
Photo Credit: Jamie Walker

Held at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia during the last weekend in September, the legendary, intergenerational conference (featuring such poets as Nikki Giovanni, Haki Madhubuti, E. Ethelbert Miller, Rita Dove, Lucille Clifton, Sonia Sanchez, Amiri Baraka, and countless others) marks the tenth anniversary of the first Furious Flower Conference, which was held in 1994.

According to Dr. Joanne Gabbin (Conference Organizer, Professor of English, and Director of the Honors Program at JMU), the first Furious Flower Conference celebrated a century that gave rise to the new Negro Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement and witnessed the genius of such poets as Langston Hughes, Sterling Brown, Margaret Walker, Robert Hayden, and Gwendolyn Brooks.

The second conference, however, builds on the tradition established by the first by usher[ing] in the promise of Black poetic expression in the twenty-first century.

Leading Black scholars who participated in poetry and panel discussions (ranging from the vernacular roots of African American poetry to the cross-pollination of Black poetry in the Diaspora, and the continuing ideals of beauty and liberation among emerging poets) included: Eleanor Traylor (Chair of the English Department at Howard University); Opal Moore (poet and Chair of the English Department at Spelman College); Alvin Aubert (founder of the literary journal Obsidian, now known as Obsidian III); Trudier Harris; Maryemma Graham; Daryl C. Dance; Jon Woodson; Aldon Lynn Nielsen; Hazel Ervin; Jerry Ward, Jr.; and many others.

Houston A. Baker, who is Professor of English at Duke University, gave the keynote address, and filled with tears of gratitude when he received a Lifetime Achievement Award, celebrating his vast, ongoing contributions to the field of African American literature and poetry.

Rita Dove
Photo Credit: Jamie Walker

Others who received Lifetime Achievement Awards’ were Eugene Redmond; Askia Tour; Lucille Clifton; Nikki Giovanni; Velma Pollard; Haki Madhubuti; Alvin Aubert; Amiri Baraka; and Sonia Sanchez (whose sister, Pat, recently passed away).

Like Shunda Blocker, a member of The World Stage Poetry Collective in Los Angeles, California, Ramica Bingham (a Cave Canem Fellow in her early twenties) traveled all the way from Phoenix, Arizona to attend the poetry conference that happens only once in a decade.

Bingham, who recently received her MFA in Writing and Literature, said I worked with Ethelbert Miller in a Creative Writing class at Bennington College in Vermont. He told me about the Furious Flower Conference over two years ago.

Bingham says studying with Miller sparked my interest in African American poetry. Although she painfully admits not learning much about African American poetry in the public school system in Arizona, she found it a blessing being able to finally meet award-winning poets like Kevin Young; Tony Medina; Jessica Care Moore; Sharan Strange; Nikky Finney; Quraysh Ali Lansana; Dolores Kendrick (poet laureate of Washington, D.C.); Jabari Asim (senior editor of Washington Post Book World); Kalamu ya Salaam; Yusef Komumyakka; Everett Hoagland; and Elizabeth Alexander.

The Furious Flower Conference was not only inspiring to younger poets and writers, it was also equally inspiring to teachers and professors of African American literature around the country, who were presented with a wealth of hand-outs; books; and readings from a diverse group of accessible poets’ whose prophetic words and voice would enrich their classroom discussions about Black poetry, politics, art, and culture down the line.

Photo Credits: Jamie Walker

Dr. Mona Lisa Saloy (Director of Creative Writing and Associate Professor of English at Dillard University in New Orleans), for example, was thrilled when she discovered classic reprints of first-edition Broadside Press books being sold in the exhibition hall.

(Broadside Press was founded by the late Dudley Randall in the 1960s and published the work of many poets featured at the conference, including Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, and Haki Madhubutiformerly known as Don L. Leewhose staff from Third World Press was also on site selling books and poetry.)

Furious Flower: African American Poetry from the Black Arts Movement to the Present
Furious Flower: African American Poetry from the Black Arts Movement to the Present

Joanne V. Gabbin (Editor)

Dr. Demetrice A. Worley, who attended the memorable Cave Cane Reunion (with co-founders Toi Derricote and Cornelius Eady) also purchased a wealth of material for her classroom, including two books inspired by the first Furious Flower Conference called The Furious Flowering of African American Poetry (U of Virginia Press, 1999) and Furious Flower: African American Poetry from the Black Arts Movement to the Present (U of Virginia Press 2004). Both books were edited by Joanne Gabbin.

Worley, who is Associate Professor of English and Creative Writing at Bradley College in Peoria, Illinois, claims she was thrilled networking with other Black writers. She was also deeply empowered when she had the opportunity to read her poetry live during the open mic sessions along with Tara Betts, Holly Bass, Lamont Steptoe, Queen Sheba, Giovanni Singleton (editor of Nocturnes), Omkongo Dibinga, Angela Kinnamore (poetry editor for Essence magazine), and several others.

It was important for me to be at Furious Flower, Worley said. As a poet in her forties, I feel like I’m in the middlebetween the elders and the young poetsand so I wanted to go to the conference so that I could tap the wisdom of the elders and the energy of the young poets.

Worley, who is also co-editor of African American Literature: An Anthology (McGraw-Hill, 1997) and was a finalist for the Spoon River Poetry Review Editors’ Prize in 2002, believes that tapping into the spirit of both generations can help her join my fierceness with their fiercenesssince being a poet is a like being a furious flower indeed.

Malaika Favorite, another celebrated artist at the conference, unveiled her original, life-sized African American portrait quilt celebrating the Black poetic aesthetic. The painting features a total of twenty-four 16 by 20 portrait frames of African American and Diaspora poets that will be archived at JMU.

Malaika Favorite, Lucille Clifton; Nikki Giovanni
pose in front of the African American portrait quilt

Photo Credit: Jamie Walker

Dr. Howard Rambsy II, a twenty-seven-year-old photographer and Professor of English at Southern Illinois University displayed Black Arcs of the Blues: An Extra-literary Exhibit on Amiri Baraka and Sonia Sanchez from the Eugene B. Redmond Collection.

Rambsy said, Joanne Gabbin brought together so many poets and critics in one space. It was a very communal atmosphere.

A communal atmosphere indeedespecially for many conference attendees, who sat in the Wilson Hall Auditorium and listened to prolific poets (that they grew up reading) speak truth to the spiritual and cultural needs of the people.

During one of the major readings, for example, nearly all of the poets read memory or praise poems’ (in honor of those who have gone before them) in addition to poetry from their own books. Rita Dove, for example, read a lively poem in honor of Hattie McDaniel (the first African American to receive an Academy Award); Askia Tour read a moving poem about Pharoah Sanders (jazz artist); Eugene Redmond resurrected the memory of Sherley Anne Williams (author of Dessa Rose); Dolores Kendrick honored the late Gwendolyn Brooks, who received a Pulitzer Prize for Annie Allen in 1950; and Ethelbert Miller read an intense, passionate poem called Emmitt Till Looks at a Photo Album from Iraq.

E. Ethelbert Miller

Photo Credit: Jamie Walker

Like Nikki Giovanni (who signified off her latest book, Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea, and cracked the audience up when she said, Black people have got to move to Mars), Haki Madhubuti engaged the audience in a wonderful call and response when he read an inspiring poem for the youth called Art.

Madhubuti also read a long, prose poem from his new book, Run Toward Fear (Third World Press 2004), called Butt for Sale; a scathing attack on the personal and political life of renowned scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Madhubuti’s poem is very much reminiscent of Langston Hughes’s essay, The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain (1926), which attacked the personal politics of Countee Cullen.

As part of the Grand Finale, Fertile Ground performed a live concert that had nearly every member of the audience (including Jerry Ward, author of Trouble the Water: 250 Years of African American Poetry) down in front of the stage, dancing to jazz music (infused with the spirit of the African drum) while doing the electric slide.

Sonia Sanchez also gave a wonderful performance from her Full Moon of Sonia tour that featured singer T.C. Carson and Amina and Amiri Baraka.

I enjoyed everything about this conference, Rambsy said. We need to celebrate our poets and give them their flowers now [before they pass away].

And Rambsy is correct. We need to celebrate the living creativity of our poets now; those poets who gave birth to Black Studies, Women’s Studies, and countless other poets and writers after them. For such an activity restores our sense of community; affirms our self-worth; enriches classrooms throughout the world; and bridges the generations while honoring those elders who gave us blueprints’ to build upon, cherish, and share.