“A syllable is a brick”: Poetry Pedagogies to Build from our History, Meet our Moment, Prepare for our Future

By Lauren K. Alleyne and McKinley E. Melton

In September of 2022, at the annual Furious Flower Advisory Board in-person meeting in Harrisonburg, VA, we raised the question of a board-led initiative that would both support the Center’s mission around the celebration, education, and preservation of Black poetry and serve as a buildup to the 2024 Furious Flower Poetry Conference. As we discussed what shape such an initiative might take, we looked to Furious Flower’s history for guidance. The Center’s legacy of publications, including the groundbreaking video anthologies, the three Furious Flower print anthologies (The Furious Flowering of African American Poetry (1999), Furious Flower: African American Poetry from the Black Arts Movement to the Present (2004), and Furious Flower: Seeding the Future of African American Poetry (2019)), as well as the Center’s archival collection of audio-visual material on Black Poets, offered a starting point. We also considered congruity with the Center’s ongoing programming. The week-long Furious Flower Summer Legacy Seminar, one of the Center’s most unique programs, served as a promising model. The Legacy Seminar, offered every other year, is two-pronged: it celebrates a distinguished poet while also encouraging and empowering educators to teach the work of that poet. Historically, participants interact with and learn about the featured poet, and throughout the week they work in groups to produce lesson plans for use in their various classrooms. This ultimately became the inspiration for our initiative.

The idea was that we would create, in the tradition of so many other kinds of “syllabus” projects, a Furious Flower Syllabus that would highlight both the legacy of Black poetry and showcase the role that Furious Flower has played in building and sharing it since the first conference in 1994. Our focus was on accessibility and empowerment—this would be a free resource and one that would be useful to educators working at all levels and in all contexts. We wanted to provide tools for anyone who wanted to engage the work of Black poets. And so The Furious Flower Syllabus Project: Opening the World of Black Poetry  (also known as #FuriousFlowerSyllabus) was born.

The idea quickly moved into the realm of reality when we received a generous grant to support the project. With a one-year timeline to produce our deliverable, we began. We decided to winnow our scope, limiting the focus of the project to the most recent Furious Flower anthology, Furious Flower: Seeding the Future of African American Poetry, with its 100+ poets providing a generous pool of work from which to build the materials. We knew we wanted to include expertise from the various levels of pedagogy and to invite as many folks as possible to have a seat at this table we were building. We reached out to our networks, made the invitations, and celebrated each positive response.

Despite the digital possibilities of our moment, we knew the power of gathering, and so the week of June 18-23, 2023, our invited participants made their way to Harrisonburg, VA. For each of those days, we worked joyfully and diligently. Poems floated through the air, riding on laughter or silence. There was dancing. We learned from each other, from the work, and even from the audiences we were envisioning, as we made room for what they (you) might want to say.

This project began with the idea of an “open-access syllabus.” Yet, what developed through the collaborative efforts of our participants was so much more. While there is still an exemplary syllabus, this document is complemented by individual lesson plans, assignment guidelines, classroom exercises, analytical as well as creative writing prompts, and a wide array of resources that will inform the way that educators approach the teaching of Black poetry in a variety of contexts. Ultimately, the central consideration for every resource included in this project was “utility.”  How can these materials be put to use in order to support the efforts of educators who understand the potential of Black poetry? How might these materials prove useful in equipping teachers who are teaching Black poetry for the very first time? How might these resources be utilized to energize even the most seasoned of instructors by providing innovative strategies and new approaches to engaging students in the world of Black poetry?

At the heart of the project is, indeed, a Furious Flower Syllabus, titled “Flowering Furiously: Contemporary Black Poetry and Poetics.” The syllabus, designed for an introductory undergraduate course—but scalable to all levels—invites students to consider how Black poets use their work to write about themselves, their experiences, and their communities. The primary resource for the syllabus is indeed the 2019 anthology of poems and essays, Furious Flower: Seeding the Future of African American Poetry (eds. Gabbin and Alleyne). However,  the document also asks participants to engage with a range of materials through the inclusion of hyperlinks to online resources, including many from Furious Flower’s digital archives, as well as the earlier anthologies edited by Dr. Joanne V. Gabbin, The Furious Flowering of African American Poetry  and Furious Flower: African American Poetry from the Black Arts Movement to the Present.

The use of Furious Flower resources, available in print as well as digitally, links the various materials collected within this project, demonstrating the wide breadth of the Center’s activities over the years with materials that are suitable for all ages and learning contexts. Among the collected resources is a multi-session unit plan developed for middle school students, “Food for Bonding, Food for Resistance,” that invites 7th and 8th grade students to develop greater facility with strategic uses for poetic devices, engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions, and draw connections between different Black poets through a thematic emphasis on food and culture. Furious Flower resources also make possible a unit plan for high school students that emphasizes “Individual and Collective Nationalities in Poems,” and lesson plans for “The Poetics of Childhood” and “The Poetics of Grace” for graduate-level seminars. Moreover, though each document was designed with a particular target audience in mind, we invite educators to approach the materials as adaptable and scalable to the learning level of their students.

The materials collected are not oriented solely toward “traditional” spaces of formal education, designed with curricular expectations and academic learning objectives at the forefront, but also include resources for community centers and public learning spaces. There are plans for multi-session gatherings in spaces such as libraries, youth centers, and  assisted living facilities, ranging from two days to programming designed to span a full week. With each effort, #FuriousFlowerSyllabus creators sought to curate resources that would prove easily adaptable to the context in which the programs were offered and would address the ways that Black poetry can speak to the existence of the participants: whether adolescents working to articulate “The Pieces of Me,” adults pursuing wellness through programs such as “Restorative Practices: Healing After Incarceration,” or senior citizens exploring “Storytelling Poetics: Remembering and (Re)Imagining.”

The creators of the #FuriousFlowerSyllabus materials also recognized that syllabi—and plans for multi-session units and individual lessons—would need to be complemented by a collection of resources that could supplement what educators and workshop leaders may already be doing in their classrooms and community programs. A variety of exercises, writing prompts, and assignment guidelines are included for educators and workshop leaders to incorporate into ongoing learning experiences. Examples include “Intersectional Identity and Poetic Devices,” an exercise designed for an undergraduate classroom, a series of writing exercises for young adults titled “Writing the Body,” and a lesson plan titled “Fresh Ideas for the First Day of Class” designed to jump-start a graduate seminar. In every instance, project collaborators sought to design and develop materials that would have utility for anyone and everyone who accesses this work, whether modeling an entire semester or multiple weeks on the materials collected here, or incorporating particular documents into the structure of already imagined courses.

The contributors to this project were energized throughout the entire creative process by a core motivation: these materials are meant for educators to make use of them in productive and rewarding ways. The resources created and collected for this project are designed to live beyond this space, to be accessed and utilized in classrooms and learning environments where educators and their students will find them useful, where Black poetry can facilitate teaching and learning—advancing the uniquely powerful work of equipping students with a language to articulate their world.

We also questioned the moment: what meaning and impact could such an initiative have for the academy, in our society? In the wake of diminishing institutional support for the humanities and the arts? In a political climate that is historically revisionist and openly hostile to teaching the true experiences of Black and other marginalized folks in the United States? As an artform produced by people for whom reading and writing was forbidden and illegal, Black poetry is both essential and miraculous. More importantly, it has always been simultaneously artistically and socially engaged—using the tools of literary craftsmanship and engaging with the civic, political, and societal questions within which it is created.

The challenges to teaching the work of Black poets, however, are both individual and institutional. On the one hand, willing educators may not feel they have the training or subject knowledge to handle the cultural/political dimensions of the work, or they may not be comfortable teaching poetry itself. Across the country, libraries are being divested of books by marginalized authors, including Black writers; political policies are restricting what can be taught in the classroom under the bogey of “Critical Race Theory;” and students are having the possibilities for their learning curtained by manufactured fears of “divisive concepts.” Although the headlines pulse with a sense of immediacy, organized efforts toward the erasure of Black lives, voices, and experiences are not new. Addressing this pedagogical need has been a longstanding goal of the Center, and reflects powerfully the mission that both informed Furious Flower’s founding and continues to energize its work today.

In considering the interrelationship of the artistic, the social, and the political, we turn to the arc of Furious Flower’s efforts more broadly and, specifically, to the most recent anthology, which informs and undergirds the materials collected within the Furious Flower Syllabus Project. The opening essay of the anthology by recently departed scholar, critic, and longtime friend of Furious Flower, historian John H. Bracey, Jr., entitled “Communities and Social Movements in Black Poetry,” expounds upon “selected poems that had the greatest impact on defining my understanding of my place in the world and on the movements that I chose to participate in” (5). As Bracey recounts tales of learning, reciting, and internalizing the words of various poems through his childhood and his development into young adulthood in Washington, D.C., he emphasizes the educational spaces in which he encounters the work of Black poets: Lucretia Mott Elementary School, Benjamin Banneker Junior High School, Roosevelt High School, and Howard University. He explicitly recalls how “my social, educational, political, and cultural environment had as its purpose preparing me to be ready to fight to open doors and to be ready to succeed once I got in. The poems, the songs, the sermons, the speeches, and my classes were all a part of that preparation” (6). Indeed, the materials collected within this project are also designed with the same spirit and ethos in mind: preparation. We hope this resource prepares educators and students to engage history, meet the present moment, and build the future—inspired and empowered by the words of Black poets.

To say that this project has already exceeded the expectations that accompanied its genesis as an idea at that September 2022 Board meeting would be an understatement. Still, we anticipate that this work will continue to yield many dividends in the years to come, as the materials collected here are adopted and incorporated into classrooms and learning environments that we haven’t yet imagined. As we recognize the limits of our ability to estimate where this project will go, we reflect instead on where this project began. We invite you to make use of what has been constructed here and to realize the potential of what exists in these pages. In so doing, we think of the powerful closing words of Fred Joiner’s “To the Builders” (Furious Flower 2019, p. 52):

we build to leave

the world different

than how we enter,


leave evidence.


a syllable is

a brick.

a single inked word on

a page is a monument

in the face of

a white horizon

meant to erase



Introduction Copyright © 2024 by Anastacia-Reneé; allia abdullah-matta; Ariana Benson; Mary Beth Cancienne; Teri Ellen Cross Davis; Shameka Cunningham; Hayes Davis; Tyree Daye; Angel C. Dye; Brian Hannon; T.J. Hendrix; DaMaris B. Hill; Meta DuEwa Jones; Shauna M. Morgan; Adrienne Danyelle Oliver; Leona Sevick; James Smethurst; Dana A. Williams; L. Lamar Wilson; Carmin Wong; Dave Wooley; and Joanne V. Gabbin (preface). All Rights Reserved.

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