A Look Back at Furious Flower 2014 with Cedric Tillman

I am honored to be the recipient of the inaugural Willow Books Emerging Poets & Writers Award.  The assistance helped cover the cost of my attendance at the Furious Flower Poetry Conference, a unique celebration of Black poetics and poetry from around the world hosted by James Madison University from September 24-27. The event, first held in 1994 and attended that year by luminaries such as Amiri Baraka, Michael Harper, Sonia Sanchez and Gwendolyn Brooks, takes its name from a line in Brooks’ poem “Sermon on the Warpland.” The conference takes shape around poetry readings and a host of paneled presentations, which facilitate discussion of historic and contemporary topics relevant to the study and creation of Black poetry.

Between scheduled activities my stay in Harrisonburg felt very much like a family reunion. I checked into my room and went back to retrieve a bag only to run into Lenard Moore (Forever Home), a fellow former participant in the Cave Canem Workshop for African American poets, professor at NC’s Mount Olive College (and blurber of my first book, Lilies in the Valley.) Professor Moore had been waiting for poet Mitchell Douglas (Cooling Board: A Long-Playing Poem), director of creative writing at IUPU-Indianapolis and another Cave alum; as we talked he mentioned that he’d met a second endorser of my book (and former professor of mine) Dr. Malin Pereira of UNCCharlotte (Into a Light Both Brilliant and Unseen: Conversations with Contemporary Black Poets). Once Mitchell arrived, we headed out for dinner together, where we ran into poets Major Jackson and Tony Medina amongst others.

Afterwards, everyone headed over to campus for a poetry reading which included poets such as Nikki Giovanni, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Afaa Michael Weaver, and Patricia Smith. The music of Brenda Marie Osbey’s fiery and eloquent verse, ever concerned with the “realities of the TransAtlantic Slave Trade and the very real, continued and continuing effects of that trade”, rang throughout the hall, a call to remembrance. The reading was an apt prologue to Friday’s featured panel, entitled Diaspora Poetry: Black Poetry Crossing, Expanding, and Challenging Borders featuring Osbey, Kwame Dawes & Lorna Goodison. Osbey & Dawes would elaborate upon how an abiding awareness of their ethnicity and how black people came to the Americas “colored” their approaches to the courses they teach. Osbey, in particular, argued that it is necessary to ground students in a proper understanding of how wealth generated from the slave trade helped made the industrialization of the West possible before discussing the contemporaneous Modernist impulses in literature.

I was up early on Friday morning, eager to make our Willow Books panel moderated by editor-in-chief Randall Horton. It was great meeting “labelmates” Curtis Crisler (Tough Boy Sonatas, Wonderkind) and Reginald Flood (Coffle) for the first time, and seeing Derrick Harriell & Kelly Norman Ellis (Offerings of Desire) again. Randall talked about the primary mission of the press-its determination to publish black poetry, its recent efforts to publish the work of other minority writers, and the unique space it fills in the publishing landscape because of its sensitivities to various aspects of Black American experience. Specifically, Derrick Harriell talked about some of the language in his first book Cotton, admitting that he’d worried that there wasn’t a place for it to be published, as it contains several poems which faithfully depict the sacred (and profane) speech patterns of many young black males. Professor Flood spoke of his upbringing in Compton and how that experience inhabited what he brought to the page, while I mentioned my appreciation for the press’ familiarity and comfort level with the allusions to the Bible and Christianity in my book.

Later in the day, we were treated to a wonderful reading featuring a stunning lineup that included Rita Dove, Cave Canem Workshop co-founders Cornelius Eady & Toi Derricote, Yusef Komunyakaa & Ishmael Reed. But it was arguably Elizabeth Alexander’s eloquent, tender celebration of her husband Ficre, who passed away in 2012, which most affected us all. We nodded our heads ‘no’  in that way you mean to say ‘yes,’ moved by her composure and her regal aspect as she related in intimate detail the story of how they fell in love and built a life together, as if she’d known all of us long enough to deserve her secrets. I will always have the memory of that reading and the sight of her across the dance floor that night, just after the lifetime achievement award gala, a little taller than everyone around her, dancing with her hands in the air and smiling unremittingly over us all.  And how could any of us who were there soon forget the sight of Douglas Kearney gettin’ it in to the sounds of BBD’s “Poison” or the range of Jericho Brown’s hair as he swooped and dipped to “Blurred Lines?”

By Saturday, I was exhausted, and so I missed the early panels. But I was also happily delayed having found myself, within in the space of five minutes, sharing a hotel breakfast area with all three of the people who had blurbed my book. Dr. Pereira  invited me to have a seat, and then Brian Gilmore (We Didn’t Know Any Gangsters) joined us, and as Malin left, Professor Moore came in as if having been scheduled to replace her. Lenard introduced me to Raina Leon, professor at St. Mary’s of California (Boogeyman Dawn), filling out our four-person table. Afterwards, we managed to pull away from the fellowshipping to get over to campus for the better part of a panel entitled Going Too Far: The Queer Poetics Distraction from Issues of Race and Class. The panel featured L. Lamar Wilson, Jericho Brown, Roger Reeves & Dawn Martin Lundy. It was followed by an open mic hilariously emceed by poet/playwright Kelli Stevens Kane, and a powerful reading which included Remica Bingham-Risher, Tyehimba Jess, Samantha Thornhill & Mendi Lewis Obadike. That evening, we were sent off by the sounds of saxophonist Ravi Coltrane’s quartet, the set a relaxing deep breath after all the conference had offered us. Coltrane frequently stood aside allowing his bandmates to shine, his drummer in particular taking full advantage and unleashing several percussive fusillades that roused the audience to applause.

Of course, after the show there’s the afterparty, and DC representative Thomas Sayers Ellis, along with Kentucky Poet Laureate Frank X. Walker invited us all to a poetry salon for the ages.  Saxophonist James Brandon Michael & bassist Luke Stewart backed up poets such as Rita Dove, Patricia Smith, Joel Dias-Porter, Afaa Michael Weaver, Lenard Moore, Jericho Brown, Bettina Judd, Amanda Johnston, Tara Betts, L. Lamar Wilson & yours truly. I am certainly leaving out some names, but I shouldn’t leave out Jack Daniels, Knob Creek or their country cousins, which were present in ample quantity to ensure that we were all sufficiently refreshed. It was one last opportunity to share our work with kindred spirits, to dap and talk loud and hug necks until some distressingly undetermined future next time.

Furious Flower takes place just once a decade, but because it was held in such proximity to the release of my first book, Willow’s creation of the Emerging Writer award could not have been more timely. I have referred to the conference as a family reunion–and truly it was the coming together of generations that those gatherings are typified by–but it was also one that encompassed people of all shades and ethnicities sharing a mutual interest and passion for the literary expression of Black people. Slam poets and non-slam poets, academics and readers, young and old established connections which will doubtlessly endure and, at some point, possibly be the key to getting a foot in some door that will lead to a career in writing or teaching. It was an opportunity for someone like me, who does not currently teach, to talk about my book with people who are in a position to teach it, as fellow Willow author Curtis L. Crisler has chosen to do at IUPU-Fort Wayne in Indiana. Virtually everyone that had a hand in my development as a writer in my adulthood, from my thesis chair Myra Sklarew and Cornelius Eady at American University, to the aforementioned endorsers of the book and Willow Editor-in-Chief Randall Horton, was at Furious Flower. Two years ago or so, I was befriended by whomever is responsible for the organization’s Facebook page, and I had no idea how important an event it was. Now, I’m hoping (and expecting) to be around in another ten years to revisit this place Nikky Finney has called “Black poetry planet.”