Today we remember Detroit's poet laureate, Naomi Long Madgett (1923-2020) with help from poet, playwright, arts critic, a Wayne State University emeritus professor of English, Bill Harris and artist, Nichole Christian.
ZAK: Detroit lost one of its creative giants last week, Naomi Long Madgett was the city's poet laureate since 2001. She was also a teacher, mentor and publishing powerhouse. In 1972, she founded lotus press because she was tired of there not being enough places for black poets to publish. Today's advice is to seek out her work. There's a ton of it. I talked to poet, playwright and Detroiter, Bill Harris about what Naomi Long Madgett meant to him.
BILL: She was a gentle lady and a kind of quieting presence and was always for that reason fairly intimidating to me. I always wanted to be my best self when I was around Naomi and, you know, after I got to know her as a person, she still had that kind of effect on me...that kind of aura as if she were an aunt in the family but that side of the family I needed to please.
ZAK: And who was she on the page?
BILL: She was a craftsperson and the kinds of things and insights at the center of her work that could only be reached through this process of being, I think, very still and very skilled at what she did. There was never any bombast. There was never any kind of look at me...drawing attention to herself. But just on the page it was a kind of internal and artistic logic that was amazing to see and the kind of images she was able to evoke were just please to both emotional and aesthetic sensibilities.
ZAK: Naomi Long Madgett's final collection of poetry was published very recently, in October of 2020. It's called, You Are My Joy and Pain. Here's Detroit artist and poet, Nichole Christian reading a poem from that collection. It's called Deep.
Toward the deep clear waters that you are my dry roots yearn
To stir and probe past clay and sand to wells of being is all my hope
To watch one withering leaf grow green and turn to kiss the sun
ZAK: Naomi Long Madgett was 97 years-old. Rest in Poetry.