When I first met Dr. Joanne Gabbin late in 2004, it was clear she heard a different drummer. Here was a woman who dreamed big, kept her feet on the ground, and made things happen in Harrisonburg. She is owner of Franklin Street Gallery, English professor at JMU, and the visionary behind Furious Flower Poetry Center at JMU.
In June 2009, Furious Flower sponsored a seminar with African American poet Lucille Clifton. Eight months later, February 2010, Clifton unexpectedly died. On Sept 21 2010, Furious Flower brought 73 poets and poetry fans together to celebrate the life Lucille Clifton, and the free event was attended over 1,000 people from all over the state and country. Since the event was not reported in the Daily News Record, I thought it appropriate to write about it here, in case you missed it.
This interview was conducted on October 12, 2010 and includes comments from Stan Galloway, professor of English at Bridgewater College, one of the readers at the commemoration.
Diane Woodall: How did you get everyone to come from all over the country?
Joanne Gabbin: I called Nikki [Giovanni, a poet and colleague at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg] the day after she died. ..after all the tears, she said “I’ll come for a reading if you want me to.” She’s the one who called me back and said we’re going to do a tribute, a celebration of her life. We’ll make it later in the year, rather than the summer, so students can come. To Nikki’s credit, she came up with the theme 73 poems for 73 years. That’s how it started. From that point on, we were busy planning. . .it mushroomed. ..my goodness. . .People drove from all over. The poets came from at least 20 states, on their own dime—who could have brought them all here but the power of the memory of Lucille Clifton?
DW: I loved the format of the program. Each reader got up and read one poem. No poem was introduced, and yet I understood everything–
Stan Galloway (one of the readers): I’m so glad that Joanne’s instructions were, “This is not the time to talk about Lucille Clifton. Just read the poem.” I thought that was the best way to let Lucille speak at that event.
Joanne: That was the genius of that program. It was a celebration of her life. In the studio, [before and after the program] people were able to speak of their memory of her. We have a wonderful archive of that. Nikki and I thought it would be good to have each reader introduce the next person with just a name, not a lot of attribution, in terms of scholar of this or that, all their credentials–
Stan: Because Lucille was about the common people’s experience.
DW: That was so amazing, recognizing that some of the readers were “name” poets, and some were people I know from Harrisonburg. There was no distinction made, this is a poet laureate, or not. Do you want to talk about the poem you read?
Stan: “Here Be Dragons” I was happy that it was short! It talks about the nature of creating. She speculates—in the Old World, when they didn’t know what was out there, they would say “there are dragons” out there. And don’t we do that in our experience—don’t we just label “those are dragons?” And, if we just imagine the world we live in, can it be unimagined?
Joanne: I was pleased that I had the assignment of choosing who would read each poem. I thought about each person and tried to match the poem with the person. I thought it went really well. Three people asked for the poems they got. Kevin Young wanted Wishes for the Sun. Jericho Brown, coming all the way from San Diego, said please let me read Cruelty. And Trudy Harris, well, she had the hips, so she got to read Homage to my Hips.
DW: The women in the audience just hooted about that. . . and we all recognized the poem about being in a strange town in a white dress, with no tampons, and your period comes. . . When I saw her in June 2009, I remember the story she told about her mother writing a poem that her father wouldn’t let her publish, so she burned them
Joanne: She burned them. She burned everything she had written. Lucille talked about that in the interview she did with WMRA. That remained one of the saddest moments of her life, to sit on the stairs and watch her mother burning. I think that’s when Lucille determined she was going to write, and no one was going to stop her.
DW: What keeps you going? Who have been your mentors?
Joanne: I’ve had so many wonderful mentors and I think that’s what keeps you energized. I’ve had people in my life who’ve convinced me of the value of literature, of poetry, of moving toward humanistic values. One person was George Kent, he was my mentor at the University of Chicago. Through him I got to meet Gwendolyn Brooks, the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize. [the name Furious Flower comes from the writing of Brooks.] I also met Margaret Walker, author of Jubilee and the poem “For my People.” And finally, I got to meet Sterling Brown himself. I couldn’t have asked for better mentors.
I do this work because I believe people need mentors, and I’ve become a mentor for many of the young poets coming up. I’ve certainly become a promoter for African American poetry in general. Sam Allen, Rita Dove, the whole list—I want these people to be kept front and center.
DW: I understand that the next Furious Flower conference won’t happen until September 2014. Can you talk about some of your near term projects?
Joanne: We are doing a DVD of the entire program honoring Lucille Clifton. It should be available by the beginning of December, and will include the music that was in the program, as well as the commemorative booklet. It can be ordered through our website. It will be a fundraiser for Furious Flower.
On Monday, November 1, former Connecticut Poet Laureate Marilyn Nelson will be reading her poetry at Taylor 405 at 4:30 pm . The reading is free and open to the public.
Next June, June 19-25, we will be doing another poetry seminar with Sonia Sanchez. You don’t want to miss that.
Also, there are still copies of the CD My Soul is anchored: mourning Katrina and the book Mourning Katrina available from our center. They can be ordered at http://www.jmu.edu/furiousflower/publication.shtml.
End of Interview
See pictures from the 73 Poems for 73 Years event:
This post was submitted by Diana Woodall.