A Furious Flowering of Poetry: Conference to Document, Analyze Black Arts Movement of the '60S

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A Furious Flowering of Poetry: Conference to Document, Analyze Black. Arts Movement of the '60s

by B. Denise Hawkins

As members of a visionary, organized literary posse that often included Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones), Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez and Haki Madhubuti, these African American poets gave voice to the Black nationalist movement of the 1960s and 70s by using their words to rail against the status quo, rattle the cages of racists and advance a political revolution.

But despite their well-documented contributions to social change, scholarship on their poetry and the literary milieu that it represents is difficult to find, says Dr. Joanne V. Gabbin, an English professor at James Madison University and organizer of an upcoming national meeting of poets and critics, "The Furious Flower Conference: A Revolution in African-American Poetry."

"Many of the poets who will gather here, like Amiri Baraka and Sonia Sanchez, were so busy fighting for justice, fighting for liberation and equality, that there wasn't the emphasis on trying to document the movement. And only now are historians going back and trying to assess the movement beyond seeing these poets as agents of social change," says Gabbin, who wrote Sterling A. Brown: Building the Black Aesthetic Tradition, the first full-length biography of the late African American poet.

The conference, dedicated to Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks, will take place Sept. 29-Oct. 1 at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, VA. The literary event, considered the first of its kind, will bring African American poets and critics together to discuss the status of African American poetry from 1960 to the present, as well as to provide resources to help educators -- high school teachers and college professors -- include this literature in their curricula.

"There hasn't been, to my knowledge, another poetry conference like this in years, if there has ever been one," says Gabbin, who borrowed the conference title from a line in Brooks' poem, "The Second Sermon on Warpland."

Conference participants, a hearty blend of literary legends and emerging new voices, will include Gwendolyn Brooks herself as well as Rita Dove, Eugene Redmond, Lucille Clifton, Toi Derricotte, Michael Harper, E. Ethelbert Miller, Pinkie Gordon Lane, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Elizabeth Alexander, Arnold Rampersand and Eleanor Traylor.

"Many of these poets have lent their voices to the civil rights struggle and social change in this country, and that has to be a part of it -- that's the furious part," says Gabbin, who also heads James Madison's honors program.

"There has been a lot of militancy and anger directed at change, but there has also been a development of the beauty of poetry -- as poets have done for centuries. They want to see what is human, universal, beautiful and true about our experience. That's the flower part of it."

Taking A Closer Look

Unless the critics and scholars start to "write and popularize the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s, those works and those writers will become obscure," asserts E. Ethelbert Miller, a poet and director of the African American Resource Center at Howard University.

It has just been in the past decade, says Gabbin, that "critics and scholars are starting to look at the work of African American poets as literature -- experimental literature, literature that is lyrical, literature that is explosive and has roots in the folk tradition, and that can be assessed by all of the forces that we have come to accept and use to evaluate great literature."

Gwendolyn Brooks provides an immediate example. Despite a literary career that spans five decades, the first two critical works examining her poetry were published only during the past five years. And in the case of Nikki Giovanni, a Virginia Tech English professor and one of the most widely read African American poets in the nation, the first biography written about her came out only a year ago. …

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