Collection Highlights
Highlights from the Furious Flower
Poetry Center 1994 Conference Records,
JMU Special Collections

The Furious Flower Archive contains hundreds of hours of footage of the 1994 conference: Furious Flower: A Revolution in African American Poetry, September 29-October 1, 1994. On the morning of the first day of the conference, distinguished critic and educator Eleanor Traylor called the conference “the coup of the century.” What then seemed extravagant and overly generous praise for the event has since become a statement that has clairvoyance in it. For more than 35 invited poets and critics from every region of the country gathered with other poets, scholars, and educators to generate the confluence of ideas and creative energies around Black poetry that marked the event. Hundreds of students, faculty, and community members, in audiences that reached thirteen hundred people for major readings, experienced something that would later lead poet Nikky Finney to dub Furious Flower, “the Black poetry planet.” Following are just a few of the highlights from the inaugural conference, including rare video of Gwendolyn Brooks, to whom the 1994 conference was dedicated.

On the 1994 Conference

“Sometimes there’s things you do because you are supposed to do them, and sometimes you do things because you have to do them.”

– Rita Dove explains why the 1994 conference was an unmissable event:

“What a delight we have been fed at the Furious Flower conference. I am so proud to be part of it.”

– Gwendolyn Brooks on being invited to be a part of the 1994 conference:

“There was so much that everyone could have gotten from the conference. All they had to do was open up their hearts and their minds to what was going on.”

– JMU student responds to negative coverage of 1994 conference in the Washington Post:

On Honoring the Elders

“For she is a holy one, this woman twirling her emerald lariat. You tell the night to move gently into morning so she’s not startled, you tell the morning to ease her into a waterfall of dreams, for she is a holy one”

– Sonia Sanchez gives tribute to Gwendolyn Brooks in her poem “For Sister Gwen Brooks”:

“This for all the Black women who sang backup for Elvis Presley, John Denver, James Taylor, Lou Reed, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. I said ‘Hey babe, take a walk on the wild side.’”

– Sherley Anne Williams reads “The Black Back-ups” by Kate Rushin:

“And no, James Baldwin did not start the fire. He foretold its coming. He was a pre-reporter, he was a prophet.”

– Gwendolyn Brooks gives tribute to another great literary elder, James Baldwin:

On the Struggle for Freedom

“Waiting is an ancient art form perfected by Negroes waiting on something called freedom that will surely come if the waiters wait patiently in the kneeling position long enough.”

– Haki Madhubuti gets tired of waiting in his poem “The Great Wait”:

“I’m a black woman and I owe Joan Little for giving me back myself as she stood in that jail cell. She gave me something I needed to be whole.”

– Bernice Johnson Reagon explains why she was moved to write a song about the 1974 trial of Joan Little:

“The whole miracle of black poetry is … speaking out. There are always prescriptions of one kind or another, and the creative voice usually violates them, and it should.”

– Eleanor Traylor responds to Elizabeth Alexander about the role of black poetry in relation to cultural prescriptions of “blackness”:

On Music and the Vernacular Tradition

“We’ve already been welcomed, and I can already tell it’s going to be a wonderful conference. We just need to invite one other person in, and I’m gonna do that right now.”

– Joanne Gabbin’s younger sister, Doris Hunt, opens the 1994 conference with a gospel hymn:

“When you get to the place where something can almost kill you, guaranteed, if you get through it, you will never be the same.”

– Bernice Johnson Reagon sings and explains the significance behind the spiritual, “Wade in the Water”:

“If Elvis Presley is king, who is James Brown?”

– Amiri Baraka poses the satirical central question of his small but powerful poem, “In The Funk World”:

On Seeding the Future

““I am Ta-Nehisi Coates. That’s alright, everybody do it” [pronounces his name wrong].

– Future MacArthur Genius Grant-winner Ta-Nehisi Coates, a Howard University undergraduate at the time, takes part in the Impromptu Poetry Slam for Younger Poets:

“I search for your face; haughty, luminous among the lynch mobs, the police, the bystanders filling the corners of each photograph.”

– Future U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey reads, “On Hearing of Byron De La Beckwith’s Conviction for the Murder of Medgar Evers, February 1994”:

“Right now, two black people sit in a jury room in southern California trying to persuade nine white people that what they saw when four white police officers brought batons back like they were smashing a beautiful piñata was a violation of Rodney King’s civil rights.”

– Elizabeth Alexander, who would fifteen years later recite a poem at Barack Obama’s inauguration, reads “Affirmative Action Blues”:

On Teaching the Young

“You can go to my colleagues’ syllabi and see in their American lit canons nothing about blacks or nothing written by blacks. So instead of taking the negative approach, I wanted to take the positive approach and I said ‘we’ll bring this conference to James Madison University.’”

– Joanne Gabbin discusses her reasoning behind bringing Furious Flower to JMU:

“The lesson for me was clear: I had quite a bit of reading and absorbing to do before tackling the task of actually writing.”

– Jabari Asim explains how he learned that in order to become a poet, one must first become a student of poetry:

“Grandmothers are the only people that you don’t have to earn their love. Grandmothers just think you’re wonderful because you exist.”

– Nikki Giovanni talks about what grandmothers do for their grandchildren: