Guest contributor Amy Musser reflects on the transformative power of poetry, and shares a selection of poems curated by Dr. Joanne V. Gabbin, the acclaimed academic scholar and founder of Furious Flower, the nation’s first academic center for Black Poetry.
In a recent interview, activist and writer Shishi Rose explained that one of the most important things that white people can do to be a better ally is first and foremost to listen, and then take what is learned and share that with others. As I continue to listen to activists, artists and writers, I’m often reminded of pinnacle moments in my literary education. As a lover of the written word, it is the voices of my favorite writers that I frequently return to for insight and inspiration.
The heartbreaking characters of Toni Morrison’s novels, the moving essays of Richard Wright and James Baldwin, the dynamic and electrifying poetry of Langston Hughes all remind me of moments of deep listening, moments when my awareness shifted and opened in striking ways. But amidst these powerful writers, one event stands out beyond all the rest, like a beacon that illuminated new, visceral combinations of words, sound, and meaning: attending the Furious Flower Poetry Conference at James Madison University, where I had the opportunity to witness some of the greatest living black poets, poets like Yousef Komuyakaa, Sonya Sanchez, and Nikki Giovanni, as they orated their brutally beautiful, powerful verses.
Dr. Joanne Gabbin, JMU professor and the Director of Furious Flower Academic Center, was responsible for bringing these luminaries together, and has organized this national poetry conference at JMU, with an impressive array of poets, every ten years. The Washington Post called her first inception of the Furious Flower Conference a “historical event.” The only event of its kind since the 1970s, the 1994 conference honored guest-poet Gwendolyn Brooks, and sparked a veritable renaissance of black poetry. In 2005, a year after the second conference, Furious Flower also became the first-ever academic center dedicated to ensuring the visibility, inclusion and critical consideration of Black poets in American letters.
It is for this reason that I recently reached out to Dr. Gabbin, who has now been the Director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center for more than fifteen years. Gabbin was instrumental in my education, for she opened me up to voices that I would not have otherwise discovered during my college experience. Not only did she expose me to the written words of these famous poets, many of them Pulitzer Prize winners, but she brought the poets themselves to the campus of James Madison continually, and has gone on to inspire thousands of students and teachers by promoting the work of these and other black poets and writers. She has also played an integral role in helping provide and support an inclusive community for black writers, many of whom equate speaking at the Furious Flower Conferences to a kind of “homecoming.”
Gabbin’s investment in teaching black literature and poetry has been her life’s work. When she looks back on her own education, she notes that it wasn’t until she pursued her PhD at the University of Chicago that she really learned about black poets and writers, despite the fact that she’d gone to a predominantly black university as an undergrad. She became enthralled with the Black Power movement, and writers like Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovianni, and Carolyn Rogers “who were not only speaking for themselves, but for a whole generation of Black American Poets.” Consequently, she realized she could be far more effective as an activist in the classroom than she could be in the streets. She vowed to expose more of the world to the work that shaped her into the prolific scholar, writer, and professor that she is, and to this day, she considers herself an “academic activist.”
“I never marginalized black poetry,” Gabbin reiterated during our conversation. “Gwendolyn Brooks won the Pulitzer in 1950, Ralph Ellison wrote the leading book of the 20th century. I knew my students would be culturally deprived if they did not have access to black literature. When I decided to have the first Furious Flower conference in 1994, I had it for the students AND the faculty. The truth is, the faculty had not been taught black poetry, and many (professors) didn’t think it was worthy.”
Just earlier this year, Gabbin and the Furious Flower Center received a $150,000 grant from the Mellon Foundation that will go towards creating and organizing an extensive digital archive of videos, audio tapes, files, documents that Gabbin has accrued throughout her tenure at James Madison. The grant will help make these digitized materials available to people who want to study black poets, no matter what academic institution they are a part of or where they are in the world. It’s clear that Gabbin’s own personal form of academic activism has been a phenomenal success, and will have a far-reaching impact on writers, scholars, and students of poetry all over the world.
During our conversation, I asked Dr. Gabbin to share three poems that she’d recommend that everyone read right now. It’s not surprising that all of the poems she selected hail from an anthology titled Of Poetry and Protest. Published shortly after the Ferguson riots, these poetic works illuminate contemporary conversations and the context of race in America as told through the lens of 43 contemporary poets, with specific emphasis on police brutality, and the constant killing of black men. In addition to the poems that Gabbin has selected,I’ve also selected two works from an anthology edited by Gabbin, Furious Flower: African American Poetry from the Black Arts Movement to the Present that highlight the movement that she has helped support and propel.
When asked what advice she’s shared with her students lately, Gabbin reiterates that people must “use their voices.” Too many times in her career she watched her colleagues witness racism and turn a blind eye. She attributes much of her success to the fact that she never let anyone take her voice, and reiterates that the work of these poets can and should inspire us to “break the silence.”
- “The Second Sermon on the Warpland,” Gwendolyn Brooks
- “Freedom Ride,” Rita Dove
- “Infernal,” Tyehimba Jess
- “Duende,” Tracy K. Smith
- “No Wound of Exit,” Patricia Smith
The Second Sermon on the Warpland by Gwendolyn Brooks
This is the urgency: Live!
and have your blooming in the noise of the whirlwind.
Salve salvage in the spin.
Endorse the splendor splashes;
stylize the flawed utility;
prop a malign or failing light–
but know the whirlwind is our commonwealth.
Not the easy man, who rides above them all,
not the jumbo brigand,
not the pet bird of poets, that sweetest sonnet,
shall straddle the whirlwind.
All about are the cold places,
all about are the pushmen and jeopardy, theft–
all about are the stormers and scramblers, but
what must our Season be, which starts from Fear?
Live and go out.
medicate the whirlwind.
cracks into furious flower. Lifts its face
all unashamed. And sways in wicked grace.
Whose half-black hands assemble oranges
is tom-tom hearted
(goes in bearing oranges and boom).
And there are bells for orphans–
and red and shriek and sheen.
A garbageman is dignified
as any diplomat.
Big Bessie’s feet hurt like nobody’s business,
but she stands–bigly–under the unruly scrutiny, stands in the wild weed.
In the wild weed
she is a citizen,
and is a moment of highest quality; admirable.
It is lonesome, yes. For we are the last of the loud.
Conduct your blooming in the noise and whip of the whirlwind.
Freedom Ride by Rita Dove
As if, after High Street
and the left turn onto Exchange,
the view would veer onto
someplace fresh: Curacao,
or a mosque adrift on a milk-fed pond.
But there’s just more cloud cover,
and germy air
condensing on the tinted glass,
and the little houses with
their fearful patches of yard
rushing into the flames.
Pull the cord a stop too soon, and
you’ll find yourself walking
a gauntlet of stares.
Daydream, and you’ll wake up
in the stale dark of a cinema,
Dallas playing its mistake over and over
until even that sad reel won’t stay
Bobby and Malcolm and Memphis,
at ever corner the same
scorched brick, darkened windows.
Make no mistake: There’s fire
back where you came from, too.
Pick any stop: You can ride
into the afternoon singing with strangers,
or rush home to the scotch
you’ve been pouring all day—
but where you sit is where you’ll be
when the fire hits.
Infernal by Tyehimba Jess
There is a riot I fit into,
a place I fled called the Motor City.
It owns a story old and forsaken
as the furnaces of Packard Plant,
as creased as the palm of my hand
in a summer I was too young to remember-
1967. My father ran into the streets
to claim a small part of my people’s anger
in his Kodak, a portrait of the flame
that became our flag long enough
to tell us there was no turning back,that we’d burned ourselves clean
of all doubt. That’s the proof I’ve witnessed.
I’ve seen it up close and in headlines, a felony
sentence spelling out the reasons
my mother’s house is now worth less
than my sister’s Honda, how my father’s worthy
rage is worth nothing at all. In the scheme
of it all, though, my kin came out lucky.
We survived, mostly by fleeing
the flames while sealing their heat
in our minds the way a bank holds
a mortgage – the way a father holds his son’s hand
while his city burns around him… I almost forgot
to mention: the canary in Detroit’s proverbial coal
mine who sang for my parents when they fled
the inferno of the South, its song
sweaty sweet with promise. I’m singing
myself, right now. I’m singing the best way
I know about the way I’ve run
from one fire to another. I’ve got a head full
of song, boiling away. I carry a portrait
of my father.
Duende by Tracy K. Smith
The earth is dry and they live wanting.
Each with a small reservoir
Of furious music heavy in the throat.
They drag it out and with nails in their feet
Coax the night into being. Brief believing.
A skirt shimmering with sequins and lies.
And in this night that is not night,
Each word is a wish, each phrase
A shape their bodies ache to fill—
I’m going to braid my hair
Braid many colors into my hair
I’ll put a long braid in my hair
And write your name there
They defy gravity to feel tugged back.
The clatter, the mad slap of landing.
And not just them. Not just
The ramshackle family, the tíos,
Primitos, not just the bailaor
Whose heels have notched
And hammered time
So the hours flow in place
Like a tin river, marking
Only what once was.
Not just the voices of scraping
Against the river, nor the hands
Nudging them farther, fingers
Like blind birds, palms empty,
Echoing. Not just the women
With sober faces and flowers
In their hair, the ones who dance
As though they’re burying
Memory—one last time—
And I hate to do it here.
To set myself heavily beside them.
Not now that they’ve proven
The body a myth, a parable
For what not even language
Moves quickly enough to name.
If I call it pain, and try to touch it
With my hands, my own life,
It lies still and the music thins,
A pulse felt for through garments.
If I lean into the desire it starts from—
If I lean unbuttoned into the blow
Of loss after loss, love tossed
Into the ecstatic void—
It carries me with it farther,
To chords that stretch and bend
Like light through colored glass.
But it races on, toward shadows
Where the world I know
And the world I fear
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“I think I would be considered somewhat of a white passing standard, but it diminishes the fact that I am still half black”
Threaten to meet.
There is always a road,
The sea, dark hair, dolor.
Always a question
Bigger than itself—
They say you’re leaving Monday
Why can’t you leave on Tuesday?
No Wound Of Exit by Patricia Smith
How would it end…ain’t got a friend
My only sin…is in my skin
What did I do…to be so black and blue
- What Did I Do (To Be So Black and Blue)
recording by Louis Armstrong, 1929
The body is secured in a blue body bag with
Medical examiner seal 0000517.
The boy structure of skin and stick was surrounded
by dripped brick, night shriek,
vermin and hiss. He was never not secured, but was
never secure. Since he had
not been apprised of the questions inherent in
moving forward, his walk was
conjured of side-eye, a rapper’s lisp and rain. The
grit of neon sugar ate away at
his closed mouth. The body is secured in a blue
body bog. The body is secured in
a blues body bag. The body absorbs the blues.
The body is viewed unclothed. The body is that of a
normally developed black
male appearing the stated age of 17 years with a
body length of 71 inches and body
weight of 158 pounds. The body presents a medium
build with average nutrition,
normal hydration and good preservation.
Pause for the definition of a normally developed
Pause for the definition of a
Rigor mortis is complete, and lividity is well
developed and fixed on the posterior
surfaces of the body. The body is cold to the touch
post refrigeration. Short black
hair covers the scalp. The face is unremarkable.
Correction: The black face is suppressed fireworks.
It so easily turns your
given name to knives. It gobbles slimy Tabasco-ed
chicken wings and spits
out watermelon seeds. It has deep antebellum folds.
It is never dark enough
for newspapers. Its favorite dance is the perp walk,
its favorite place is above the
fold. It squints in the probing bellow of flashlights
and slowly repeats its name.
It speaks in rebellion reverb. It speaks in
stereotypical. It’s done up all wrong for
a job interview. It pants and glows indigo in the
bushes behind your duplex. It
was born to reverse your wife. Well. Look. See the
sway drip from the doors in his
face. He can no longer harm you. How
unremarkable. This particular mug is no
longer google-eye, buck muscle, this face no longer
fits around your throat.
The tree-lined suburb in your chest in safe for now.
There is average body hair of adult-male-pattern
distribution. The eyes are closed
and have clear bulbar and palpebral conjunctivae.
There are no cataracts or arcus
present. The pupils are equal at 5 millimeters. The
orbits appear normal. The nasal
cavities are unremarkable with intact septum. The
oral cavity presents natural
teeth with fair oral hygiene. The ears are
unremarkable with no hemorrhage in the
external auditory canals. The neck is rigid due to
postmortem changes, and there
are no palpable masses. The chest is symmetrical.
The abdomen is scaphoid.
The upper and lower extremities are equal and
symmetrical and present cyanotic
nail beds without clubbing or edema. There are no
or amputations. The external genitalia present
descended testicles and an
unremarkable penis. The back reveals dependent
lividity with contact pallor.
The buttocks are atraumatic, and the anus is
Ah, the wide tragedy of living and dying before your
cock has made a name
for itself. Once, let us remember, a buyer would
handle the penis of a potential
purchase, looking for—what? For heft, for hints of
tree trunk, for a steel foreskin.
For its ability and willingness to spit seed.
Dead cancels commerce.
Anus intact? Sigh. The ass of the dead boy was
rigorously examined after closing
hours. One of the thousands of things gingerly
removed from its depths was the
steamy, jack-booted foot of Florida.
Penetrating gunshot wound of the chest.
The entrance wound is located on the left chest, 17
½ inches below the top of
the head, 1 inch to the left of the anterior midline,
and ½ inch below the nipple.
It consists of a ¾ inch-diameter round entrance
defect with soot, ring abrasion
and a 2 x w inch of stippling. This wound is
consistent with a wound of entrance
of intermediate range.
Further examination demonstrates that the wound
track passes directly from the front
to back and enters the pleural cavity with
perforations of the left anterior fifth
intercostal space, pericardial sac, right ventricle of
the heart, and the right lower
lobe of the lung. There is no wound of exit.
A black boy can hold his body around a bullet. The
cartridge is a pinpoint of
craving, a sort of little love, some slugs are warmer
than mothers. The bullet
wants the whole of the boy, his snot and insomnia,
his crammed pockets and
waning current. The bullet strains to romance the
blooded boy structure in a way
that blazes first and final, it swoons through his
map then comes to rest and the
boy simply dies around it. It does not matter if he
has a mother. It does not matter
if he has a gold moth.
The injuries associated with the wound: The
entrance wound; perforations of left
anterior fifth intercostal space, pericardial sac,
right ventricle of the heart, right
lower lobe of the lung with approximately 1300
milliliters of blood in the right
pleural cavity and 1000 in the left pleural cavity;
the collapse of both lungs.
A black boy’s lungs collapsing. A mother picking up
a phone. The same sound.