This April marks the 23rd anniversary of the celebration of National Poetry Month, established by the Academy of American Poets to recognize the importance of poetry to our culture and lives. Although she has received less attention in mainstream historical narratives that tend to center on well-known Black poets such as Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Sonia Sanchez, Joanne V. Gabbin is one of the most impactful Black poets in the nation.
Gabbin grew up in Baltimore, Maryland, and earned a B.A. in English from Morgan State University in 1967. She spent the next decade completing her graduate studies in English at the University of Chicago and teaching the literature she most loved: African American poetry (from which she has built an illustrious career). In 2005, she established Furious Flower Poetry Center (FFPC), the nation’s first academic center for Black poetry at James Madison University (JMU) in Harrisonburg, Virginia. The roots of the FFPC were cultivated in rich literary soil when, in 1994, Gabbin organized the first academic conference on African American poetry since the 1970s called Furious Flower: A Revolution in African American Poetry. This hallmark event literally transformed the JMU campus into the Hollywood of African American poets. Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, Amiri Baraka, Haki Madhubuti, Rita Dove, Michael Harper, and many more paid homage to Black America’s “Furious Flower,” the renowned Chicago native Gwendolyn Brooks, who in 1950 became the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize in poetry for her collection of poems Annie Allen.
Later this year, poets from all corners of the African Diaspora will gather in the nation’s capital for “a weekend 25 years in the making” to commemorate Furious Flower’s 25th anniversary and Joanne Gabbin, the woman whose tireless efforts transformed African American poetry into a multi-generational community of creative expression which knows no boundaries. While the celebration will focus on the past 25 years, the seeds of this project began to germinate a little more than two decades prior, while Gabbin was a doctoral student at the University of Chicago.
In 1971, Gabbin was hired as a part-time English instructor at Roosevelt University in Chicago. While teaching a course entitled Revolutionary Black Self-consciousness in Literature, which included works from the Black Arts Movement — the aesthetic arm of the 1960s Black Power Movement — Gabbin discovered that the institution had refused Brooks a faculty position because she was not “properly credentialed.” Gabbin was unnerved that the multi-award winning poet laureate of Illinois was deemed unqualified to teach at a university in her home city of Chicago. “I was furious when I found this out,” Gabbin told The North Star in a recent interview.
To Gabbin, Brooks was more than an accomplished poet; she was also an ambassador of the craft, conducting community workshops for young aspiring poets and inspiring them to tap into their creativity within themselves.
Gabbin was inspired by Brooks’ community work and longed to see her model replicated on a national scale. After she received her doctorate in 1980, Gabbin incorporated African American poetry in her undergraduate courses — a subject absent from her own undergraduate education — and invited Brooks to do readings and workshops for her students anywhere she taught. In the fall of 1985, Gabbin found her permanent academic home at JMU, and her vision for the poetry center began to take root and flourish. In 1986, as in previous years, Brooks was Gabbin’s first of many honored guests on the JMU campus, and, over the years, Gabbin arranged for her students to attend poetry readings and workshops on nearby campuses.
By 1990, Gabbin was the pre-eminent scholar of African American poetry and its leading ambassador. She worked to create a community of high profile and emerging African American poets as her message of the importance of Black poetry and poets spread across the nation. Hence, the historic 1994 conference, was a culmination of a quarter century of Gabbin’s meticulous cultivation of the soil in which the Furious Flower Poetry Center was rooted.
The Furious Flower Conference and Poetry Center name was inspired by Brooks’ 1968 poem “The Second Sermon on the Warpland”:
cracks into furious flower. Lifts its face
all unashamed. And sways in wicked grace.
In a 2017 interview, Gabbin unpacked the layers of meaning in these haunting lines. “Gwendolyn Brooks is really the furious flower,” she stated, “but she’s also in this particular period that expresses a lot of rage, and her desire for self-determination and power, Black Power, in the artistic movement is palpable.”
The FFPC’s mission reflects the dedication of Gabbin and Brooks, its literary matriarchs, to “celebrate, educate, and preserve.” The Center is devoted to the history and legacy of African American poetry and fulfills that mission with conferences and seminars, annual contests and awards, and the production of educational resources which aim to cultivate a love for poetry among people of all ages. In addition to its flagship event, the Decennial Conference for Scholars and Writers (1994, 2004, 2014), FFPC’s offerings include The Collegiate Summit, which affords promising undergraduate and graduate students an opportunity to workshop with renowned poets such as Pulitzer Prize winner Tyehimba Jess; the Children’s Creativity Camp, a week-long summer program for children ages 7-13; The Fight & The Fiddle, a quarterly literary journal (its name also inspired by Brooks’ poem “Fight First Then Fiddle”); literary awards for emerging poets (winners for 2019 Rachelle Parker and Cynthia Manick); and recognitions of lifetime achievement (Rita Dove and Maya Angelou), among others.
This summer the Center will honor renowned poet Nikki Giovanni in a week-long legacy seminar entitled “The Living Truth: The Life and Work of Nikki Giovanni.” Gabbin summed up her life’s work stating, “What grew out of a simple act of kindness was destined to become a center that honors Gwendolyn Brooks and the furious flowering of Black poetry that we have witnessed over the last five decades.” Before Brooks’ untimely death in 2000, she thanked Gabbin, “for being such a significant part of my life” and for the years she had spent supporting her work and those of the wider Black poet community.
Poet Elizabeth Alexander, who read during President Barack Obama’s first inauguration, concurred in a recent email to The North Star. “Joanne Gabbin has built community in African American poetry for decades,” she stated. “She works with an eye simultaneously to our rich history as well as our vibrant present and future — this multi-generational perspective characterizes her leadership. She is also dearly cherished.”
When the African American poets gather in the nation’s capital this fall for the FFPC anniversary celebration, they will celebrate more than a weekend 25 years in the making. They will salute Furious Flower Joanne Gabbin, who for almost five decades has taught us all “to lift our faces all unashamed and sway with wicked [unflinching] grace.”
About the Author
Arica L. Coleman is a historian whose research focuses on comparative ethnic studies and issues of racial formation and identity. Her additional research interests include indigeneity, immigration/migration, interracial relations, mixed race identity, race and gender intersections, sexuality, the politics of race and science, and popular culture. She is the author of That the Blood Stay Pure: African Americans, Native Americans and the Predicament of Race and Identity in Virginia.