Like the rest of the Detroit arts community, we at InsideOut Literary Arts gave a collective cheer at Friday's news that Naomi Long Madgett was awarded the 2012 Kresge Eminent Artist Award. At 88, and going strong, Ms. Madgett continues to be a powerful, generous force for poetry in Detroit and around the country.
I became friends with Naomi Madgett in the 1980s at Mumford High School, where I taught her Octavia and Other Poems, then adopted for use in Detroit Public Schools. The poems are poignant, exquisite meditations on her aunt Octavia, a teacher, who died of tuberculosis before Naomi was born, and they gave my students insights into many things: pride and love of family; the independent spirit of Octavia (clearly passed on to Naomi herself!); a rich historical period, as the family moved out of the South into some of the first free, all-black towns in Kansas and Oklahoma after the Civil War; the use of documents, letters and photographs. After the students wrote their papers, Naomi came to hear them read. She continued to visit my students, as did other Lotus Press authors she had published: Toi Derricotte, Nubia Kai, Bill Harris, and all the way from Brazil, Selene de Madeiros. It was a rich proving ground for what InsideOut LIterary Arts Project would become.
Naomi Madgett is tireless in her dedication to poetry and to poets. She founded Lotus Press in 1972 so that the songs of black poets would not go unsung. Over the years Lotus Press has published the work of over 90 African-American poets, including, since 1995, winners of the Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Prize given to an outstanding manuscript by an African American poet. For years, until Wayne State University Press took over distribution, she ran Lotus Press almost single handedly -- attending to book design, publicity, correspondence, order fulfillment, mailings and more. This past year, when the IRS abolished the nonprofit status of Lotus Press (along with over 200,000 other small organizations), she undertook the arduous process of reapplying, doing all the paperwork and filings, and got the status reinstated.
Determined and undaunted, witty, sharp and down to earth -- Naomi Long Madgett embodies impeccable standards, both personal and poetic. As the guidelines for the Madgett Prize state: "We are not interested in poetry by amateurs. Poets must have studied their craft." Naomi knows the value of hard, careful work -- in life and on the page -- and she knows what it means to a poet's career to have a book. It's thrilling to see how Lotus Press has contributed to the careers of so many fine poets, and to think of the many lives Ms. Madgett has touched, mine included. (Full disclosure: I often serve as first reader for the Madgett Prize; my third book, The Dropped Hand, is in its second edition as a Lotus Press title.)
Naomi still makes visits to InsideOut classrooms. In announcing the Eminent Artist Award, Kresge Foundation President Rip Rapson praises her for "reaching across generations to spark in young people a love of words and writing." In this spirit, Naomi initiated the Lotus Press High School Poetry Prize, now in its 13th year. Each year she judges poems from students in InsideOut classrooms and presents the winner with a $100 prize and a broadside of the poem that she herself creates. It's always a pleasure to see our students live up to Ms. Madgett's high artistic standards for craft and originality. The 2003 Lotus Prize winner "Leather Pants" is posted below. Its author Naidra Walls, currently finishing an MBA in Nonprofit Management at Western Michigan University, was an InsideOut Citywide Poet and is now -- in true Naomi spirit -- creating poetry opportunities for youth through a community-based nonprofit in Kalamazoo.
In October 2010, at Detroit's Historic Gem Theatre, InsideOut hosted a fund-raising gala honoring Naomi Long Madgett with the first InsideOut Literary Legacy Award, and featuring two more poetic godmothers on the program. Presenting the award was Toi Derricotte, founder of the Cave Canem retreat for African-American poets. Our featured performer for the evening was Marilyn Nelson. On January 17, Toi was named a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and Marilyn received the 2012 Robert Frost Medal from the Poetry Society of America.
It was a rich moment in InsideOut's history, made all the more vibrant now by recent accolades to our presenters and this wonderful, wonderful award to our eminent honoree herself. Warmest congratulations, Ms. Madgett!
Nicholas Cage is Detroit in leather pants
in the driver's seat of a '95 Ford
Windstar toting around performance poet people
whining over spilled metaphors on soft Cottonelle
Nicholas Cage is Detroit on 3rd Ave. dancing to music
of the homeless man with gray eyes & sings
in the choir at New Baptist. His hands shake when he
claps. Nicholas Cage is Detroit singing spirituals--on the People
Mover, at COBO Hall. He's volunteering at the soup kitchen,
paving broken roads, stabbing fools
with their own knives while stitching bullet wounds
in their heads.
Nicholas Cage is Detroit hopped up on Frooties and asthma
medicine. He burns the pictures of the prophet in all black that
keeps turning up plastered on lamp posts. Can you see his eyes?
Dark brown , almost black, full of emptiness.
Nicholas Cage is Detroit. In blue
spandex & an "I Love New York" shirt.
He protects me from the demons flying about
the four corners of the clock's watch.
He ate the mafia, he bought the bullets, he fires the into your
little handbook. He saved me. He mended my wounds, he
sang me the songs that kept them away, he saved me. He.
Is. Detroit. He is my pair of leather pants.
Lotus Press High School Poetry Prize winner, 2003