“In my springtime heart I know that earth/will have its way.”
These lines from “Renewal,” a 1994 poem by Detroit’s poet laureate, Naomi Long Madgett, remind us that its author has been the source of such hope and inspiration for so long in this city that we’ve almost taken her for granted. This minister’s daughter who grew up in Virginia, New Jersey and St. Louis brought along more than her talent for words when she settled in Detroit in the ’40s, dedicating her life to teaching and then, as founder of Lotus Press in 1973, publishing the works of scores of African-American writers. Madgett has committed herself to opening the world of poetry to generations of students and readers, many of whom (like one of her public school charges, Pearl Cleage) went on to become noted writers themselves.
This weekend, 17 Lotus Press authors — among them such renowned voices as Toi Derricotte, Haki R. Madhubuti, E. Ethelbert Miller and Bill Harris — honor Madgett for her vision and tireless efforts on their (and our) behalf in a two-day event called “A Feast of Poetry.” They’ll celebrate the 30 years during which Madgett has published 86 titles by more than 50 authors, and remind us of the loveliness of her own craft as well. Then, fittingly enough, at the end of October, Madgett will be one of this year’s inductees into the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame.
Born in 1923, Madgett began reading and writing poetry as a child; she was in high school when she encountered one of the Harlem Renaissance’s major figures, Langston Hughes: “A black women’s literary club invited him to come to St. Louis and my mother took me there. I met him and told him I was a poet. He said some encouraging things and gave me a copy of a chapbook — A New Song — he had just published and autographed it, which I still have.”
But her next meeting with Hughes would be more eventful: “He was coming to do a reading at Virginia State University, where I belonged to a little literary group that arranged to meet with him in the afternoon before his appearance. I had my poems neatly typed in a loose-leaf notebook, and very timidly asked him if he got a chance would he look over those and tell me what he thought. He said, ‘I’ll give it back to you after the reading tonight.’ When he went to the lectern, I noticed he had it with him and in the middle of his reading, he read two or three of my poems, and told the students and visitors from town that these poems were written by their fellow student. My head got this big. Then when I went up to the stage, he gave me the notebook back, but he had gone through the whole thing and penciled in comments, which I immediately covered with Scotch tape. That was such a wonderful boost for me.”
Not long afterwards, Madgett met another member of the African-American literary pantheon, poet Countee Cullen, who told her, “You’re a real poet,” and gave her advice about not being discouraged by rejection slips. “He said, ‘Just prepare to paper your wall with them.’”
But in the late ’40s, Hughes included a poem by Madgett (then Naomi L. Witherspoon) in his seminal anthology, The Poetry of the Negro, 1746-1949. “I think I was the youngest one in there,” she recalls.
These mentorship experiences and early successes fueled Madgett’s resolve and became a model for her mentoring of others. It was the difficulty in finding a publisher for her fourth book of poems (Pink Ladies in the Afternoon, an unfashionably sensitive collection in the early ’70s) that led her to start a publishing house that would eventually distribute and reward the efforts of other black authors. This determination has been an inspiration to such younger writers as Leslie Reese, one of Detroit’s premier performance poets, whom Madgett included in the Lotus anthology, Adam of Ifé:
“[Dudley Randall’s] Broadside Press and Lotus Press were my first awareness of small presses, ones that published poems by black people. Naomi’s a revolutionary presence — she’s not loud about it and doesn’t seem to be all that radical — but she’s an artist, an educator and the founder of a press that takes pride in its product. In some ways, she was ahead of her time.”
Madgett has published eight volumes of her own poetry, the most recent of which are Octavia and Other Poems (Third World Press) and Remembrances of Spring: Collected Early Poems (Michigan State University Press). But her motto for Lotus and its output, “Flower of a New Nile,” says more about her generosity of spirit and vision for others than it does about any sense of careerism.
“What’s really rewarding to me is that so many Lotus authors have moved on to bigger things and major publishers, and I’ve functioned as a kind of ladder for them,” Madgett says.
Again, the expansive tone of her whole life’s work is right there in her deeply felt “Renewal”:
“There is something in the nature//of things that is assuring, that tells me the people/emerging from their dark lives to front porches/ and sunlight when the warm days come//know the secret the universe sometimes tries/ to conceal.”
“A Feast of Poetry” in honor of Naomi Long Madgett takes place Friday, Oct. 11 (5-9 p.m.) and Saturday, Oct. 12 (9 a.m.-6 p.m.) at Plymouth United Church of Christ, 600 E. Warren, Detroit. Events include a film screening, poetry readings, book signings, and Saturday continental breakfast and lunch. Call 313-861-1280 for tickets and information.George Tysh is arts editor of Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org