How many people can say they work at a place where board meetings begin with a poem and staff meetings consist of conversations about how poetry can contribute to the national conversation on police brutality? In my role as the assistant director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center at James Madison University (JMU), not only are these daily occurrences, but I have the opportunity to see the transformative power of art on an almost daily basis.
Less than two percent of the population of Harrisonburg, Virginia is made up of people of color—a fact that might make it seem like an odd place for an academic center dedicated to the study of African American poetry. However, our location gives us the opportunity to create programming in which people encounter and celebrate difference, hear the stories of individuals from a variety of backgrounds, and forge understanding and compassion across racial lines.
Each summer, our poetry and art camp provides eighty elementary and middle school students from a diversity of backgrounds with a direct experience of how art can speak across difference. With a substantial number of students coming from the Harrisonburg refugee community, our students speak more than five languages. Because we celebrate the expressive power of any language, an ESL status is an asset, not a liability.
During the academic year, our reading series proves that a live poetry reading can be a transformative event. The audience was transfixed when poet Kamilah Aisha Moon read from her collection, She Has a Name, a book about her autistic sister. “She also used her poetry for advocacy, as poetry of witness,” one student reflected. “It was something that definitely inspired me. I hadn’t thought of poetry as a way to promote social justice.”
A lot of ink has been spilt about poetry’s declining stature in American life, but that is not our experience. In September 2014, nearly three hundred people from across the country made the journey to Harrisonburg for our conference, “Furious Flower: Seeding the Future of African American Poetry.” Supported by an NEA “Art Works” grant, the event featured 40 of the most important established and emerging African American poets in the nation. We drew substantial crowds from the surrounding areas as well. Poets read to audiences of nearly 1,000 here at JMU. (This year’s symposium marked the 20th anniversary since the university made history by hosting the first-ever conference solely on African American poetry. Dedicated to Gwendolyn Brooks, the event’s success inspired the founding of Furious Flower Poetry Center.)
We acknowledged and embraced the diversity within the black poetic tradition and allowed for challenging conversations to occur. For example, one night we conferred Lifetime Achievement Awards on seven major literary figures including Ishmael Reed, Rita Dove, and Yusef Komunyakaa. The following day, Jericho Brown, an emerging poet, moderated a panel on Queer poetics with Mendi Lewis Obadike, Roger Reeves, and L. Lamar Wilson. The panel questioned remarks Reed made to the Huffington Post in which he claimed that the gay movement “distracts from other important issues,” including race and class. Obadike opened the panel by asking, pointedly, “Does the number one distract from the number twenty-one?”
Despite Obadike and her fellow panelists’ posing challenging questions, the atmosphere remained collegial and communal. Furious Flower offers a place for colleagues to make connections and support one another, even while exploring the current controversies in the field. One participant who has attended all three conferences remarked that the 2014 event had “again changed my life and refreshed me anew. When I was last at Furious Flower, I was a doctoral student; now I’m a professor facing the challenges that many professors of color face. It was good to find others who had advice as I am just starting this career. They made me feel that it was possible to be scholar, poet, educator.”
It’s true that “poetry isn’t going to re-open your failed school,” as the poet Kyle Dargan told me, but it helps us “vocalize possibilities … and achieve a more comprehensive humanity.” Working at the Furious Flower Poetry Center, I get to witness that every day.