James Madison University’s Furious Flower Poetry Center Receives $2M from Mellon Foundation

The Furious Flower Poetry Center at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, VA, is the nation’s first academic center devoted to Black poetry. With the help of a recent $2 million, four-and-a-half-year grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Center’s collection of spoken word and performance videos—as well as an ongoing conference series, scholarly publications, fellowships, and programs—will receive the necessary support to continue its mission of supporting Black poets in American letters and cultivating poetry appreciation among students of all levels.

Bethany Nowviskie and Joanne Gabbin on stage at podium
Nowviskie and Gabbin at the February 2020 celebration for the publication of Furious Flower: Seeding the Future of African American Poetry
Photo courtesy of JMU Libraries Media Production Services 

The Furious Flower Poetry Center at James Madison University (JMU) in Harrisonburg, VA, is the nation’s first academic center devoted to Black poetry. With the help of a recent $2 million, four-and-a-half-year grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Center’s collection of spoken word and performance videos—as well as an ongoing conference series, scholarly publications, fellowships, and programs—will receive the necessary support to continue its mission of supporting Black poets in American letters and cultivating poetry appreciation among students of all levels.

Funding will help support videography, digital collections technology, and the participation of poets in Furious Flower’s fourth major conference, to be held in 2024. It will provide four full-time positions, two in Furious Flower and two in Special Collections, one of whom will be the library’s first tenure-track curator for Black Arts and Culture. In addition, the grant will strengthen Furious Flower’s online and scholarly publishing infrastructure in partnership with open access and digital scholarship initiatives at the JMU Libraries, providing for archival description, digital preservation, and global access to the Furious Flower archives. And while the Center is currently a virtual presence on campus, housed in JMU’s College of Arts and Letters, Furious Flower hopes to establish a physical space as part of the upcoming expansion and renovation of JMU’s Carrier Library.

The current funding builds on a $150,000 planning grant from Mellon, awarded to Furious Flower, JMU College of Arts and Letters, and JMU Libraries in 2020 to help deepen their partnership. That grant, which concluded at the end of 2021, enabled the partners to assess the contents of Furious Flower’s audiovisual collections and to determine how to provide for its stewardship. (JMU will be sharing findings of that planning grant later this year.)



The Center originated with the 1994 Furious Flower Poetry Conference—the first major conference on African American poetry since the 1970s—which in turn took its name from a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks: “The time / cracks into furious flower. Lifts its face / all unashamed. And sways into wicked grace.” The event was organized by Joanne Gabbin, now Furious Flower’s executive director and professor of English, to honor Brooks, the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1950; in addition to the guest of honor it featured 35 poets and critics and an audience of hundreds of writers, scholars, and poetry enthusiasts.

Gabbin assumed the conference would be a one-off, but “word got out” in the Black poetry community, she told LJ; “A generation of poets had grown up being inspired by the last generation.” After a second successful Furious Flower Poetry Conference was held on campus in 2004, JMU formally established the Center in 2005, and Gabbin left her position as director of the university’s Honors Program to serve as executive director. (A third conference was held in 2014, and plans for the 2024 conference are currently underway.)

As the conferences grew with each decade, Gabbin documented them—first on videotape, and later digitally. “It was Joanne’s foresight to begin recording these events, and to recognize the historic moment,” said Dean of Libraries, JMU’s Senior Academic Technology Officer, and Professor of English Bethany Nowviskie, “because of what they do to contribute to building on the field, and how the historical record of the conferences contributes to teaching and learning and gets used and reused in classroom contexts.” These include highlights from the 1994 conference featuring readings by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Kwame Alexander, Natasha Trethewey, Rita Dove, and Kevin Young.

But, Nowviskie noted, what’s on view at the moment are only “snippets, highlight reels.” JMU Libraries’ Special Collections holds a wealth of material that hasn’t yet been made available. The Mellon grant will enable the library to devote a holistic effort—bringing in dedicated staff to assess and describe the collection, develop a dedicated infrastructure to host it, make it accessible and discoverable for a wide range of users, and ensure the collection’s sustainability.

While Furious Flower has worked with JMU librarians throughout its more than 25-year history, those collaborations took place as needed. The current partnership has been implemented in a deliberate way, and its strength will be critical to the project’s success. “Part of this project is working closely with Furious Flower about stabilizing parts of that infrastructure—really rigorously analyzing what can and should be preserved, and what might be ephemeral and of the moment,” Nowviskie noted.

Furious Flower also hosts a quarterly literary journal, The Fight & The Fiddle (taken from another Brooks poem). Each issue features a Black poet and contains a critical article on or review of the poet’s work, a full-text interview—accompanied by a video excerpt—with the poet, new poems, and a writing prompt inspired by the poet’s work. “[What’s] really innovative and interesting about The Fight & The Fiddle is that, like the Furious Flower Poetry Center, it addresses multiple audiences,” said Nowviskie. “It’s not a narrow scholarly journal—it’s got prompts, if you are a teacher at the high school level or at the college level using this material with your students.”

Nowviskie commends the terms of the grant for leaving some outcomes open, calling for exploration rather than deliverables. For example, a portion of the funding will go toward investigating the possibility of scholarly publishing with the Center’s imprint. Gabbin has edited several volumes of Furious Flower poetry anthologies, but “it would be so much an honor to have an imprint with Furious Flower’s name on it,” she told LJ.



The Center’s material has been transferred to the libraries’ custody, but Special Collections has only been able to digitize a small portion of it—notably material used in JMU coursework and endangered material such as magnetic media. Content will be managed through a suite of tools: digital preservation and storage via Preservica, audiovisual content on AVP’s Aviary platform to provide streaming and access, and ArchivesSpace for metadata management. “Their interoperability, and the fact that they’re following standards, means that we also are optimistic it’ll be a flexible platform as we go,” JMU Strategic Research and Assessment Librarian Jody Fagan told LJ.

Fagan is also enthusiastic about the close communication between the partners, on issues from user personas to transcription tools, as the technology is built out. “The library’s cross-unit team is working with Furious Flower from day one on how to set things up,” she said, “so that as we develop the platform, it’s fully informed by the priorities of the Center, and as we’re trying to make decisions about what level of description to use, those decisions are informed by the priorities of the Center. We don’t have any assumptions about what those answers are, so we’ll develop them together.”

The team has engaged community archives consultants the Shift Collective—Bergis Jules, Jon Voss, and Lynette Johnson—to partner on outreach, and Lae’l Hughes-Watkins, university archivist for the University of Maryland and founder of Project STAND, is an advisor. Gabbin will leave her role as executive director at the end of the summer, with Assistant Director Lauren Alleyne stepping in.

Mellon’s ongoing support acknowledges that Furious Flower is not only an archive but a “living center,” said Nowviskie. “We anticipate conferences and events going forward”—including the Furious Flower Poetry Prize, Collegiate Summit for Creative Writers, Creativity Camp for Children, and an assortment of readings and lectures—”so we’re setting up the archive to grow. We’re tending it. We’re imagining its future blossoming.”

That blossoming portends good things for the library’s relationship with the Center, and for similarly well-thought-out alliances down the line. “Being mindful about the way that we ought to be working together could set a path of transformation for us as a library system, and put us on a good path to better collaborations with other campus and community partners,” Nowviskie told LJ. “The goal here was for us to address structural and organizational issues that would allow us to prioritize this work and use it as an agent of transformation for ourselves, use it for staff development, use it to analyze the way that we do things, and move out of a mode where we may have a couple of scattered folks who are interested in, say, reparative archives as a concept and as an approach, to really making it an institutional priority and shared initiative.”

The priority, said Nowviskie, is to keep asking: “How do we leverage the expertise that sits in Furious Flower and the community that coalesces around it to make sure that we’re getting it right, and that we are capturing the right and best kind of metadata, that we are transcribing accurately and well? We’re collectively learning a lot about post-custodial archives approaches, a lot about reparative description together, by going there.”

The work has caught the attention of poets not currently part of Furious Flower’s archives, said Gabbin, and she has been approached by writers looking for a repository for their papers and videos. She hopes to work with Amanda Johnston, curator and co-organizer of #BlackPoetsSpeakOut, and writer and critic Eugenia Collier, among others, to bring their material to JMU.

That attention has reverberated within JMU as well, Gabbin added. “We’ve truly turned many of the librarians into poetry lovers,” she noted—including Fagan, who now opens every technology implementation team meeting with a poem. “When I asked them what’s going well about our meetings, that was the first thing they said: “We’re so glad we’re starting with poetry, because that just gets our heads in the right space,” Fagan said.

“The collaborative relationship that we have established between Furious Flower and the library has been phenomenal,” said Gabbin. “I’m sometimes accused of using superlatives, but that is a superlative that is really needed in this situation. We have set the model for collaboration on JMU’s campus.”

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Lisa Peet


Lisa Peet is Executive Editor for Library Journal.

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