Acclaimed Furious Flower Poetry Center to create living, digital archive of Black poetry’s past, present and future

By Bridget Manley, publisher

Thanks to a $2 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, academics at James Madison University will soon begin digitizing records to create a “living archive” for the internationally recognized Furious Flower Poetry Center.

Dr. Joanne Gabin

Furious Flower, the nation’s first academic center for Black poetry, has been supporting and promoting Black poets, preserving the history of Black poetry for future generations, and working to educate students for 27 years under the direction of Executive Director Dr. Joanne Gabbin. The archive project will help solidify Gabbin’s decades-long legacy at JMU, as she has announced her retirement from the university this summer.

The Furious Flower collection includes thousands of hours of video, plus documents, posters, photographs, and other materials important to Black poetry in America. By digitizing the collection, anyone anywhere in the world will be able to access it. 

The grant, which will be disbursed over the course of four and a half years, solidifies years of work that has already been done by Gabbin and her colleagues at Furious Flower, as well as JMU Libraries and students with JMU X-Labs who spent the spring semester of 2019 creating an online prototype of the living archive. 

That prototype, which highlights the first Furious Flower Poetry Conference held in 1994, was used to convince the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation that the collection represented an important treasure that needed to be archived. 

Prominent scholars and poets attended the Furious Flower Poetry Center’s 25th Anniversary Conference in 2019. File photo.

The legacy of Furious Flower

The original 1994 Furious Flower conference, organized to celebrate the legacy of Pulitzer Prize Winner Gwendolyn Brooks, has expanded over the years to celebrate and honor Black poets from across the nation. 

Gabbin says that Furious Flower is part of a network of organizations that has helped to expand the understanding what Black poetry is about in America, as an avant-garde voice that tackles issues of diversity, inclusion and equity. 

Gabbin began collecting recordings and other materials from Furious Flower conferences, as well as Furious Flower’s literary journal The Fight & The Fiddle and numerous other documents.  

According to Dr. Bethany Nowviskie, Dean of Libraries and Professor of English at JMU, some of those events were released as parts of highlight reels over the years, but the full collection has never been archived. 

“So the really wonderful thing about this collection and this project is that we don’t know what hidden treasures are in it, and that’s the point of the project,” Nowviskie said. 

One exciting possibility is finding out who participated in the conferences – not just the main speakers, but those who came to listen.  

“The 1994 conference attracted students who drove down from Howard University, and one of those was a young Ta-Nehisi Coates, who was in the audience, and asked questions,” Nowviskie said. “There was an open-mike opportunity for anyone to get up and read, and he did. So, he is in the collection.” 

Nowviskie said that they are ready to start unearthing other surprises from past conferences, as well as making the collection usable and interactive for anyone studying or learning about Black poetry in America. 

Nontobeko “Ntobie” Ndzabukelwako recites a poem at Furious Flower’s 25th anniversary celebration in 2019. File photo.

Archiving digital history and the future of the archive 

Recognizing that Furious Flower is a living center, rather than a historical project, JMU Libraries plan to digitize the archive in different ways. 

The “living archive” will not only spotlight everything from Furious Flowers past, but are also looking to its future. 

The team has already made plans for professional videography to capture the upcoming 2024 conference, and intends to nurture the infrastructure that supports both the archive and future endeavors as JMU Libraries and the Furious Flower Poetry Center ensure a continuous partnership with each other as they grow. 

The grant also allows the university to begin search for the library’s first tenure-track curator for Black Arts and Culture, and fund four full-time positions at Furious Flower and Special Collections. 

Another legacy of the Furious Flower that they hope to include in the archive is The Fight and the Fiddle, which Nowviskie says is uniquely innovative.

Rather than acting as a traditional scholarly journal, The Fight and The Fiddle features audiovisual content from the archives, spoken word, videos, essays, and prompts for teachers to use in the classroom. 

And because of the nature of the journal, the JMU team will have to employ special archivists and technologists to take special care of archiving the digital records.

This work is brand new to everyone. Nowviskie pointed out that as technology and the internet rapidly change, preserving digital records is much harder than preserving paperwork. 

“Digital journals, audio/visual materials, digital A/V, all of these things are very fragile,” Nowviskie said. “We know how to preserve paper. Paper is a really stable medium. And we can count on books and print journals having a long lifespan. Digital objects take a lot of continual care and feeding.” 

What we could read well on the internet in 2004 could be wildly unformatted in 2022, and sometimes the sources have completely disappeared from the internet, making digital archival incredibly difficult. 

Part of the grant project will address sustainably producing digital material for Furious Flower that is stable and readable digitally for decades to come. 

Meanwhile, Gabbin’s legacy, and that of Furious Flower as the first academic center for Black poetry in America, will secured through the grant. As she approaches her own retirement, Gabbin is proud to see the project moving forward. 

“I couldn’t have imagined this, but I think what you do out of love and respect will last,” Gabbin said. “That is what Furious Flower has stood for. The love and respect of the field of Black poetry, and the desire to communicate that love and respect broadly.” 

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