2014 Furious Flower Conference: Seeding the Future of African American Poetry

[by Simone Savannah]

There are no words—no poems–to adequately describe the experience of the Furious Flower conference.  To be there was an honor.  To hear poets read and scholars discuss was an immersion into the past and the future of African American poetry.

We were treated to Rita Dove two-stepping down a Soul Train line; we stood next to Nikki Giovanni and heard Sonia Sanchez sing and cry.  Frank X. Walker danced to “Skin Tight” by the Ohio Players.  Ishmael Reed read work that made us laugh, and jessica Care moore’s son brought us to our feet when he read an original poem.

We felt special to be that close to poetry and to participate in what many have called Joanne Gabbin’s ‘’divine vision.”

The 2014 Furious Flower Conference: Seeding the Future of African American Poetry

  • examined the significance and development of black poetic expression over the last century;
  • assessed the current conversations and controversies in the field;
  • suggested new avenues of inquiry for the next 25 years; and
  • considered the impact of poetry on poets and scholars around the world, with an emphasis on emerging voices

We were called to the garden and given the tools to begin planting and building the future of Africana poetry. We, now, are to continue

  • to honor the diversity within black voices
  • to examine new avenues of artistic and critical inquiry
  • to encourage innovation by providing a serious venue for emerging poets of color while honoring literary trailblazers who have shaped the field.

Three Critics’ Roundtables forced us to be even more attentive:

The Black Avant-Garde: Formal Innovation by Black Artists in America
convened scholar-poets Aldon Lynn Nielson, Lauri Ramey, Mendi Lewis, C.S. Giscombe, Douglass Kearney, Mark McMorris, giovanni singleton, Tyron Williams, and Meta DuEwa Jones for a discussion of the future of experimental Black poetry.

Here, we learned that a poet’s project should be learning how to speak and improvise in his/her everyday life. Doing so allows poets to bring new ways and words into the current moment and sustain  innovative poetry.  Thus, to survive, poetry has to be experimental, ever searching for expression that is new and fresh.

However, the focus on the future in no way detracts from being conscious of our past. We have a responsibility to celebrate and keep legacies alive, they told us. We must be careful not to erase the past. We must build on it. In the words of Mama Sanchez: “We ain’t gon’ make no money, but do you love poets?”

Diaspora Poetry: Black Poetry Crossing, Expanding, and Challenging Borders gave us the poetry and voices of distinguished scholars like Daryl Cumber Dance and international poets Kwame Dawes, Lorna Goodison, and Brenda Marie Osbey. Poetry is that cultural and imaginative force that unites members of the African Diaspora, everyone agreed.  Osbey shared her course syllabus on Modernist Africana Poetry of the Americans (MAPA). Her online syllabus features downloadable study materials on the poetry, poetics and poetry movements of Brazil and Latin America, the Caribbean and United States from the 18th through the first half of the 20th century.

Going Too Far: The Queer Poetics Distraction from Issues of Race and Class featured younger poets Jericho Brown, Mendi Lewis Obadike, Roger Reeves, and L. Lamar Wilson. We must challenge the idea that queer movements distract from “real issues” affecting the Black community and the cultural mythologies and stereotypes of sexuality and gender, and they did.

During the special session, S.O.S. Calling All Black People: Honoring the Memory of Amiri Baraka, John H. Bracey, Sonia Sanchez, James Smethurst, and Haki Madhubuti offered their assessment of the Black Arts Movement that changed the way people looked at poetry by inventing a public sector for poetry in the U.S. John Bracey reminded us of the importance and complexity of the Black Arts Movement, a time when poets were working out being “Black” in public. The pain and introspection involved, he urged us not to forget.  SOS—Calling All Black People: A Black Arts Movement Reader allows the world to see extremely talented young people create one of the most significant cultural movements in American history. Poets Tony Medina, jessica Care moore, Evie Shockley, Quincy Troupe, Eugene Redmond, and Haki Madhubuti honored both Amiri Baraka and the Black Arts Movement with their poetry, and Sonia Sanchez gave us homework:

“You’ve got to read,” she said. “You’ve got to read everybody. There should not be a Black writer not on the bestsellers list. Support this genius called Black literature. Preserve your life.”

The readings and performances by Nikki Giovanni, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Marilyn Nelson, Aracelis Girmay, Afaa Michael Weaver, Patricia Smith, Major Jackson, Rita Dove, Frank X. Walker, Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie, Elizabeth Alexander, Cornelius Eady, Toi Derricote, Yusef Komunyakaa, Ishmael Reed, Mendi Lewis Obadike, Tyehimba Jess, Kamilah Aisha Moon, Dawn Lundy Martin, Douglas Kearney, Tennessee Reed, Duriel Harris, and saxophonist Ravi Coltrane showed us the range of possibilities as we saw the future unfolding before us.

It was an occasion to honor our poet laureates and to present Lifetime Achievement Awards to Rita Dove, Toi Derricotte, Michael Harper, Yusef Komunyakaa, Marilyn Nelson, Quincy Troupe, and Ishmael Reed. We also had the opportunity to view Malaika Favorite’s Furious Flower Portrait Quilt. We witnessed the magic when poetry becomes song again as Randy Klein directed the JMU Chorale and the Morgan State Choir’s inspiring performance of his adaptations of Margaret Walker, Komunyakaa, and Harper’s work.

As a poet myself, I must say thank you to Joanne Gabbin, the founder and Director of the Furious Flower Center for making a vision become reality, one in which all of us were able to share and participate. The 2014 Furious Flower Conference: Seeding the Future of African American Poetry gave us art and history, past and present. It gave shape and form to the future.

To be in the company of poets and scholars who have a real investment in continuing the aesthetic traditions that affirm our truths and our spirits—this is the real meaning of Furious Flower’s epoch-making conference.

I wish to acknowledge Edgar Tidwell for his contributions to this report.

For more information on the 2014 Furious Flower Conference, including the featured panels and presenters, visit The Furious Flower Poetry Center site.

Photographs courtesy of C.B. Claiborne and Thomas Sayers Ellis.