Women’s History Month: Naomi Long Madgett

Morgan McComb visits Naomi Long Madgett at her house to discuss her life’s work.

         Naomi Long Madgett, Detroit Poet Laureate and founder of the Detroit-based Lotus Press, was born into the Harlem Renaissance in 1923, the same year that Jean Toomer’s genre-defying novel Cane was published. Her first book of poetry Songs to a Phantom Nightingale appeared in 1941, when she was just seventeen years old. Madgett found mentors in both Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes, and her poetry [MM1] appeared in Hughes’ 1949 anthology, The Poetry of the Negro, 1746-1949. Despite the fact that Madgett has published 10 books of poetry, she spent most of her time from the 1950s onwards juggling multiple careers as a high school teacher, a college professor, and an editor and publisher. Lotus Press, which she founded in 1972, has published more than 100 books of poetry, and her role as editor shifted her focus to others’ poetry rather than her own. As a result, little critical attention has been paid to her own creative work.

        A member of the Detroit Boone House group of poets from 1962-1964, Madgett was central to a community of Black poets, which included Margaret Danner (1915-1984) and longtime friend Dudley Randall (1914-2000). Madgett spent much of her early career as an educator in Detroit Public Schools—where she taught the school system’s first high school African American literature course—eventually teaching at Eastern Michigan University, where she was a professor of English until she retired to focus on the press in 1984. In 1993, Lotus Press created the Naomi Long Madgett award “to publish and outstanding manuscript by an African American poet.” In 2001, the city of Detroit named Madgett Poet Laureate and in 2012, she received Michigan’s Kresge Eminent Artist Award.

        Madgett’s own publication history is impressive, spanning over five decades of writing, including.  The 1941 publication of Songs to a Phantom Nightingale (1941) was followed by One and the Many (1956), Star by Star (1965), Pink Ladies in the Afternoon (1972), Exits and Entrances (1978), Phantom Nightingale: Juvenalia (1981), Octavia and Other Poems (1988), Remembrances of Spring: Collected Early Poems (1993), Octavia: Guthrie and Beyond (2002), and Connected Islands: New and Selected Poems (2004).  Despite her high level of productivity , Madgett had trouble finding an audience, especially in the 1960s and 1970s. Both black and white publishers were looking for “identifiably Black” work rather than “a book of quiet, reflective poetry that dealt with race in more subtle ways, as well as the experience of being a woman, a divorcee, a single mother, a sister, a daughter, a friend, and an observe of life as a total human being,” she says in her 2006 autobiography (Pilgrim Journey 313). It was her inability to find a publisher that led to Pink Ladies, which helped her to launch Lotus Press, with the help of a few friends. Thereafter, Madgett dedicated herself to creating a space for other Black poets to be published. In 2015, Lotus Press merged with Broadside Press, founded by Dudley Randall, giving birth to a new platform for continuing the foundational work both writers.

        In Pilgrim Journey, Madget explains that “[p]oetry reaches to the depth and breadth of human experience, expressing our loftiest aspirations, our greatest joys, our most crushing disappointments. It sustains us through our most devastating griefs” (391). With poetry that is both diverse and complex, she has consistently explored motherhood, memory, and loneliness, among other themes. A distinctive poetic voice, Madgett recognizes the necessity of reinvention. Now 95, she shows no signs of stopping:  Madgett forcing us to reckon with the complexities and contradictions of human identity through the rhythm of human language. In Madgett’s work, emotional intelligence coexists with a mastery of form, a coupling one rarely sees in poetry.

         As we celebrate Women’s History Month, we will continue to highlight Black women who have made history, like Naomi Long Madgett. An interview in addition to an educational video on her life and legacy will be published later this spring to bring her foundational work to the forefront.