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Furious Flower Poetry Conference Causes a Bit of Fury

Furious Flower Poetry Conference Causes a Bit of Fury
Anniversary celebration brings together creative and controversial forcesBy Kendra Hamilton     

Most of the 370 poets and scholars of poetry who descended on James Madison University for the 10th anniversary celebration of the landmark “Furious Flower” conference had no idea that the organizers were expecting an explosion.
Not among the poets — though given the organizers’ penchant for mixing together artists from often diametrically opposed generations, genres and schools, something of the sort would hardly have been a surprise.
No, this explosion was expected to come from the greater community and from alumni — particularly JMU’s Jewish alumni. And what, one might ask, was the reason for all the storm and fury on the eve of the conference? It was the fact that Amiri Baraka, poet, playwright, political activist and one of the founding fathers of the Black Arts Movement, had been invited to speak — prompting a demand from a prominent alumnus that he be disinvited.
“This was front-page news in our local paper — it eclipsed Bush and Kerry. And it was such a controversy — I was getting the most horrible e-mails to the point that my husband was really concerned. He wanted a bodyguard,” says Dr. Joanne Gabbin, an English professor at James Madison, director of the honors program and director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center, which grew out of the fund-raising and creative fire lit by the 1994 conference.
Of course, Gabbin notes, Baraka had been invited to speak in 1994 and no controversy ensued. But in 1994, the events of Sept. 11, 2001, had not even been imagined, and Baraka had not yet written “Somebody Blew Up America,” an incantatory, long-form poem on the nature of evil. The work also contains a few incendiary lines that seem to suggest that Israel had foreknowledge of the terrorist attacks.
Baraka had, of course, denied that any anti-Semitism was intended — and a careful reading of the poem reveals, for example, lines denouncing the Holocaust. But the denials continued to fall on deaf ears. New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey asked Baraka to resign as poet laureate for having written the poem in 2002 and, when he refused, the New Jersey Legislature abolished the post to punish him in 2003. (In response, the Newark School Board voted to name Baraka poet laureate of the public schools.) At the height of the JMU controversy, Gabbin — a diminutive woman who speaks in honeyed cadences — showed the steel behind her Southern charm.
“This was a matter of freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. I simply decided that if anyone came to me from the administration and asked me to disinvite Baraka for writing against imperialism then I’d cancel the conference. I would, of course, be disappointed. But what was at stake was just too important,” Gabbin says.
It was in that spirit, she says, that she prepared to greet her guests — poets like Lucille Clifton and Yusef Komunyakaa, Rita Dove and Major Jackson, Sonia Sanchez, Kevin Young, and, yes, Amiri Baraka. The first day of the conference dawned. Dr. Houston Baker, the Susan Fox and George D. Beisher Professor of English and African and African American studies at Duke University, delivered a rousing keynote. And the phone call from the administration never came.
What followed were three days of readings, critic’s roundtables, art shows and theatrical performances — all caught on film by California Newsreel, which will produce and distribute the conference video anthology.
Indeed, Gabbin seemed headed for another success — different from the first “Furious Flower,” which was billed as a call to celebrate the life and works of Gwendolyn Brooks, who was then still living, and to consider the contributions of a group of distinguished elders: Margaret Walker, Samuel Allen, Pinkie Gordon Lane, Naomi Long Madgett, Raymond Patterson and Mari Evans.
This year’s anniversary conference was intended to look forward and to set the agenda for African American poetry for the first half of the 21st century.
“And I think we did,” Gabbin says. “The poets who presented in 2004 will probably still be writing in 2054. I’m thinking of people like Sharan Strange (Spelman College), Major Jackson (University of Vermont) and Kevin Young (Indiana University) who were just getting started in 1994 and now have books and fellowships and prizes and good university jobs.
“They have inherited the legacy of Sonia (Sanchez) and Nikki (Giovanni) and Lucille (Clifton) and Amiri (Baraka). I feel very, very positive about the future of African American poetry in their hands.” 

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