Furious Flower Poetry Center Presents: The Gwendolyn Brooks Centennial Poetry Prize for 2017
The Festival Highland room was filled with rows of empty chairs at fifteen minutes till five. Lauren K. Alleyne, the Assistant Director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center, walked around the room, asking attendees to move forward in the rows, just so that the readers felt like they were presenting to a fuller crowd. By five o’clock however, the room was full to bursting with eager audience members, young writers with their notebooks spread open on their laps and pens poised to write, family of the presenters with cameras held in their hands, and then rows of poetry admirers there to listen.
The Furious Flower Poetry Center held the event to celebrate the centennial of Gwendolyn Brooks, a famous Chicago poet who visited JMU many times as a visiting reader. The headliners of the event were a bit mysterious as they were the winners of first place and honorable mention for the emerging poets prize awarded by Furious Flower. The first person to take the front of the room and introduce the audience to the event was the Director of the center, Dr. Joanne V. Gabbin. She spoke about how Brooks’ poetry had touched her life and added a bit a background to the Furious Flower Poetry Center. In her closing remarks she introduced the first reader, Nora Blakely-Brooks, daughter of the late Gwendolyn Brooks.
“Give till it hurts,” said Blakely about her mother’s charitable acts, like sponsoring young writers’ contests and scholarships.
She left the stage with a quote from one of her mother’s books, Young Poet’s Primer, “Consider that the day before the sonnet, one acted the same, and then there was the sonnet.”
To present the awards, renowned poet Patricia Smith, took the stage. She told the audience what she was looking for when she selected the two winners, “I have to believe firmly in the power of language to move you, so I really listened to the track of their poetry to hear something I recognized.”
Honorable mention was awarded to Clemonce Head along with a 1,000-dollar prize. Head is a poet from New Orleans currently working on his MFA in poetry at Oklahoma State University. He opened up his poetry set with a piece called, “Throwing Shade,” a free form, spoken word centered piece about how there have been no black men on the moon. He read two other pieces, “Commentary,” and “Peremptory,” to a rousing round of finger snaps, before settling in to listen to the first place winner give her reading.
Winner of the Gwendolyn Brooks Centennial Poetry Prize for emerging poets was Tiana Clark. She is the author of a new book of poems entitled, Equilibrium, and is currently an MFA candidate at Vanderbilt University. She read a collection of her work, both from her new book and from the selection of poems submitted to the contest. Her history focused work provided a deep pondering tone; with her clear mastery of language and rhythm she commanded the audience with her first reading called “Dear Phillis Wheatley.” She read a few other pieces entitled, “Ode to the Only Thing in Obigil that Survived,” “Praise,” and “Relaxer.”
To end the night, presenter Patricia Smith read from her many, many published works, concluding with the poem, “We are Witnesses.” She then invited the audience to the Prism Gallery for a reception and walk-through of family and famous photography celebrating Gwendolyn Brooks.
The Furious Flower Poetry Center is also currently hosting fellowships for young poets in the program “Facing it: The Poetry of Yusef Komunyakaa,” June 18th through the 24th, with registration open until June 2nd!