In the Spotlight
Joanne Veal Gabbin & Lauren K. Alleyne
About: Joanne Veal Gabbin is the Executive Director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center and Professor of English at James Madison University. She is author of Sterling A. Brown: Building the Black Aesthetic Tradition and a children’s book, I Bet She Called Me Sugar Plum. She is also the editor of The Furious Flowering of African American Poetry, Furious Flower: African American Poetry from the Black Arts Movement to the Present, Mourning Katrina: A Poetic Response to Tragedy, and Shaping Memories: Reflections of African American Women Writers.
About: Lauren K. Alleyne, a Trinidadian-born poet and educator, is the author of two collections of poetry, Difficult Fruit and Honeyfish. She is co-editor of Furious Flower: Seeding the Future of African American Poetry and editor-in-chief of The Fight & The Fiddle. Alleyne is an associate professor of English at James Madison University and assistant director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center.
Photo Credits: Headshots by Adriana Hammond; image of both courtesy of Lauren Alleyne
What is the best writing advice that you dispense to your students?
Joanne Veal Gabbin: I advise my students to live their lives with passion, to find a job that they would do without pay and then make a career of that, and finally to be committed. Once all of that happens, I suggest to them that they will have ample material to write about, and their writing will have substance, empathy, and integrity. For me, my best material comes from my work as a college professor. With almost 50 years in the classroom, I have counted it a privilege to be in a space of learning and discovery with my students.
What is your organization’s mission?
Lauren K. Alleyne: Furious Flower was the nation’s first academic center dedicated to African American poetry. It emerged from the Furious Flower conference, which was held in 1994 and again in 2004 and 2014. And since its establishment in 2005, the center has produced media, run a reading series, poetry camps for children, held seminars for educators and workshops for college students. In the last four years we’ve added the literary journal, the slam academy for high school students. The mission undergirding this programming is to promote Black poets and their work, to ensure that Black poets are being taught in classrooms, and their contributions to American letters recognized, and finally, to preserve the incredible history of Black poets in this country.
What is your organization’s vision? How do you see it growing ten years from now?
Alleyne: Furious Flower was born out of a recognition that Black poets were not being given their due, that they were marginalized and dismissed as doing “real” and “important” work. Twenty-five years later, through the work of Furious Flower and other organizations like Cave Canem, that is certainly much less of an issue, and so we will continue to be a gathering place and a space of promotion and celebration of Black poets, but we are also in the process of asking ourselves what are the needs of Black poets today. In my mind, there are three areas I’d like us to grow into: first, as an immigrant, I’m interested in us expanding our purview beyond the borders of African American poets and poetry to truly include diaspora poets as a more integral part of our mission. Second, I would like to see us grow into occupying and impacting digital space. We are currently, courtesy of a Mellon Foundation planning grant, working with JMU libraries to see how they might help us develop our archives as a space that holds both the history and futurity of Black poetry. Finally, I’d like to see us really rounding out the center as a haven for poets, educators, and scholars by being able to offer consistent in-residence positions (which we have in a more ad hoc manner right now), post-docs, and fellowships. I dream big.
If you could require all of your students to read only one book, which would it be?
Gabbin: That book would have to be Sula by Toni Morrison. In this book Morrison captured for me the essence of an enduring relationship between two women, the ways people hurt one another, the need for forgiveness, and the infallibility of love. There are so many life lessons in the book, and I’d rather introduce them to this book than preach to them. With her recent death, I had occasion to think about how her books are spirit guides for my literary journey. Sula was my first Morrison book, and though I have read all of her novels, this one speaks to me as no other.
What is your favorite thing to do when you should be writing, but just can’t find the motivation?
Alleyne: Binge-watch police procedurals like Law & Order, The Closer, Criminal Minds. I know so much about law enforcement in particular is complicated in real life, but there is something so gratifying about the fantasy of justice in them, and besides, my inner Nancy Drew can’t get enough of solving the crime and putting the bad guy away—justice served. If only.
What are you reading right now?
Gabbin: I am reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s The Water Dancer and Nalo Hopkinson’s The Salt Roads. Both books mix historical events with magical realism in talking about the difficult journey of Black people in a world of slavery and violence. Even though both books take me to dark places, there is a consistent view of the resilience and determination of Black people to gain their freedom and a sense of wholeness.
Do you own an e-reader? How has that changed your relationship to books?
Alleyne: I do own an e-reader, but really it is audiobooks that have changed my relationship to books. Because I can read more of them! I’m a student, teacher, editor, and administrator, which means that it’s rare that I have the time to sit and read a book for pleasure anymore. But I travel constantly, and since my first audiobook about 10 years ago, I’ve not looked back. I particularly enjoy listening to books by Caribbean, African and African American authors because I think the sonic nature of Black writing shines through in audiobooks (if voiced well). It’s been a game-changer for me.
Who encouraged you to be a writer?
Alleyne: I have always been a good writer. When my sister wanted to sing calypsos back in Trinidad when we were children, I was enlisted in the project of writing them. I had an essay about my first day of secondary school selected for publication in the school’s 40th anniversary publication, and I earned the highest marks in the country in English literature at A levels. So, I always knew I was good at writing, and that I liked to write. But it was in college that I discovered that it could be something I did for a living, somehow, and so I changed my major in my junior year from radiologic science and nuclear medical technology to English. In my senior year, I took creative writing as part of the major requirement, and the rest, as they say, was history. My professors and mentors along the way, Brother Edward Wesley, Terry Quinn, Wendy Galgan, Mary Swander, Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon, were important at various junctures, and I would say my mother who, despite her trepidation about what the future would hold for me, encouraged me along the path I’d chosen.
If you could meet any writer, who would it be? What would you say to her or him?
Gabbin: I have been so fortunate in my life to know so many wonderful writers who have been my mentors and friends. They include Sterling A. Brown, the subject of my first book; Gwendolyn Brooks, the inspiration for the Furious Flower Poetry Center; and Margaret Walker, the writer who was for me a literary mother. In my work as the Director of Furious Flower, I have met hundreds of poets and critics who have become part of the Furious Flower family; however, if I could have met Zora Neale Hurston, I would have asked her what gave her the confidence to take on the entire literary world of the first half of the 20th century without being broken. After my first reading of Their Eyes Were Watching God, I knew that I had met an author that had spunk, spirit, and a love of adventure.
What is the greatest compliment that you could ever receive about your writing?
Gabbin: For me, I would like someone to say about my writing that it is clear, elegant, and inspiring. I would like my writing to reflect the oxymoronic meaning of the term “furious flower,” which Gwendolyn Brooks coined; I want it to be beautiful and raging at the same time. I suppose I am a part of the group that seeks to inspire social change and to give voice to the social and political challenges that we face in this country and in the world.
What is the best lesson that you have learned from a book?
Gabbin: After years of appreciating The Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown, edited by Michael Harper, I realized that Brown’s poems established for me the focus of my critical approach to literature and the foundation of my love for African American poetry. Sterling Brown’s poetry taught me the value of the folk culture as an integral part of Black imagination and the need for a tough grip on reality and truth. His poetry also taught me that humor is the best teacher and the most exacting.
Would you like to share a project you are currently working on?
Gabbin: I am very excited about the publication of our new anthology, Furious Flower: Seeding the Future of African American Poetry. Lauren K. Alleyne and I are in the midst of launching the book at book fairs, writers’ conferences, and colleges and universities. The excitement comes from the fact that this book combines poetry with essays by poets who talk about their writing process, why they write, and the major issues that inform their poetry.
Alleyne: As Joanne mentioned above, the third Furious Flower anthology, Furious Flower: Seeding the Future of African American Poetry, just came out this January with Northwestern University Press, and so we are in the process of promoting this book and the work of the over 130 poets whose poems, essays on poetics, and critical essays are gathered in it!
What would be your advice to new AWP members on how to make the most of their membership?
Gabbin: I would tell new AWP members to take advantage of the opportunity to find colleagues and possible mentors at the AWP conferences and in the pages of the Writer’s Chronicle. They will meet people who are on the same literary journey as they are. As Lucille Clifton would say, “They will find that they are not alone." The beauty of the Writer’s Chronicle is that four times a year they can meet the writers who are succeeding in the field and thereby can be models for their success.
How has AWP helped you in your career and/or creative endeavors?
Alleyne: AWP has been immeasurable in both my career and creative endeavors because it serves and continues to serve as a space where I get to commune with writers I’ve met in various spaces—grad school friends who’ve gone on to do great things, teachers and poets from past residencies, etc.—and also to meet new writers and editors. We catch up, we talk about our projects, we dream, and oftentimes, one thing leads to another, which happens when kindred spirits are gathered in one place! Also, my first “real” publication came from going to a panel at AWP in 2002 on leaving home. I geeked out to the organizers, Marilyn Kallet and Katherine Stripling Byer, who invited me to send them what I was working on at the time, an essay about leaving Trinidad for the US. They eventually accepted it for their anthology, The Movable Nest: A Mother/Daughter Companion, and just like that, I was a published author.
What is your favorite AWP Conference memory?
Gabbin: My most memorable experience at an AWP Conference was in Washington, DC, in 2017 when Split This Rock launched its Sonia Sanchez-Langston Hughes Poetry Contest, and Sonia Sanchez was honored with the renaming of the annual contest at the National Portrait Gallery. Also reading and performing that evening at a program that was called “Syncopated Rhythms” were Cornelius Eady, Camille Dungy, Kyle Dargan, Hayes Davis, and Teri Cross Davis.
Alleyne: Hitting the dance party at one of my first conferences and bumping into Joy Harjo and Rita Dove and being tickled to be grooving to the same beat with such luminaries, who clearly were also cool humans!
Readers can learn more about Furious Flower Poetry Center in Joanne V. Gabbin’s AWP blog "Witnessing the Furious Flowering of African American Poetry".