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Once-a-Decade Black Poetry Conference Returns


The Furious Flower Poetry Conference is a much-anticipated gathering of poets and scholars.

It features readings by many of the best established and emerging African American poets writing today. The 2014 conference begins Wednesday, Sept. 24.  WMRA's Luanne Austin talked with Joanne Gabbin, professor of English and executive director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center at James Madison University, about the impact these conferences have had on African American poetry.

JOANNE GABBIN: "The time cracks into Furious Flower, lifts its face all unashamed, and sways in wicked grace."

The first Furious Flower Poetry Conference happened almost by accident. When Joanne Gabbin invited Gwendolyn Brooks to do a reading at James Madison University in 1993, Brooks – who was the first African American woman to ever win a Pulitzer prize -- replied that she could not come until 1994.

GABBIN: So many poets from around the country wanted to read with her that it grew from a reading to the conference. And instead of calling it the Gwendolyn Brooks conference, I called it, in honor of her, Furious Flower. And I really think that a lot of people came out of curiosity in terms of the title. What is a furious flower? And I realized it was such a wonderful title because it not only represented Gwendolyn Brooks herself, but also the movement that she inspired.

Thirty poets read at the conference, which was dedicated to Brooks and other elders of African American poetry. Out of that first gathering came books and videos that schools across the country have used to teach black poetry.  Young poets who later found out about the conference clamored for another one, so in 2004 a second Furious Flower was held.

GABBIN:  So they convinced me to do the conference in 2004 and we had 50 poets and critics come to JMU. And that particular conference was dedicated to Amiri Baraka and Sonia Sanchez, because I was really looking at another generation of poets, the generation after Gwendolyn Brooks. So these were the poets who were important during the black arts movement. 

Furious Flower 2014 is dedicated to Rita Dove, professor of English at the University of Virginia and poet laureate of the United States from 1993 to 1995. 

GABBIN: This conference is called "Furious Flower: Seeding the Future of African American Poetry." And what we want to do, we want to highlight the younger poets, the poets who will have an impact on American literature for the next ten to twenty years. We want to highlight young poets like Camille Dungy and Jericho Brown, Frank X. Walker, people who I believe will have an impact on not only the trajectory of poetry, but they will be able to communicate that, their passion for poetry, to younger poets.

The conference opens on Wednesday night with a concert and runs through Saturday. In between are readings, workshops, roundtable discussions, luncheons and more.

Luanne Austin was a freelance journalist for WMRA from 2014 - 2015.