A 'Furious Flower'
of Black Poetry
By Jamie D. Walker
SeeingBlack.com Contributing Writer
about Black poetry, literature, and writers here!
Harrisonburg, Va.—More than 60 distinguished poets and scholars
gathered here at the "Furious Flower" conference to
help "set the agenda for African American poetry for decades
"Furious Flower: Regenerating the Black Poetic Tradition" was
the full name of the program held at James Madison University during
the last weekend in September. The legendary, intergenerational
conference, featuring such poets as Nikki Giovanni, Haki Madhubuti,
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 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, she said, "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 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, to the continuing
ideals of beauty and liberation among emerging poets." Participants
included: Eleanor Traylor, Chair of the English Department at Howard
University; Opal Moore, poet and Chair of the English Department
at Spelman College; and 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, and
Jerry Ward, Jr. also participated.
Houston A. Baker, who is Professor of English at Duke University,
gave the keynote address, and filled with tears of gratitude when
he received the Lifetime Achievement Award, celebrating his vast,
ongoing contributions to the field of African American literature
Others who received Lifetime Achievement Awards were Eugene Redmond,
Askia Touré, Lucille Clifton, Nikki Giovanni, Velma Pollard,
Haki Madhubuti, Alvin Aubert, Amiri Baraka and Sonia Sanchez.
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 such as Kevin Young, Tony Medina,
Jessica Care Moore, Sharan Strange, Nikky Finney, Quraysh Ali Lansana,
Dolores Kendrick, Jabari Asim, Kalamu ya Salaam, Yusef Komumyakka,
Everett Hoagland and Elizabeth Alexander.
Furious Flower 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. Attendees were presented
with a wealth of handouts, books, and readings from
a diverse group of "accessible poets" whose prophetic
words and voice would enrich their classroom discussions about
politics, art, and culture down the line.
Mona Lisa Saloy, director of Creative Writing
and Associate Professor of English at Dillard University in New
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 Madhubuti— formerly known
as Don L. Lee—whose staff from Third World Press was also
on site selling books and poetry.
Demetrice A. Worley, who attended the memorable Cave Canem
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 (University
of Virginia Press, 1999) and Furious Flower: African American
Poetry from the Black Arts Movement to the Present (University
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), Omèkongo
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 middle—between the elders and the young poets—and
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, is 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. She believes that "tapping
into the spirit" of both generations can help her "join
my fierceness with their fierceness—since 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
Howard Rambsy II, a 27-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 indeed—especially 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 Tourè 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."
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 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
Jamie Walker is a poet and freelance writer currently editing
a critical anthology on Sonia Sanchez titled Sonia On My Mind.
— October 8, 2004
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