Naomi Long Madgett has had a long and distinguished career as a poet, educator, and editor, widely recognized for her contributions to African-American letters. She is the author of six separate volumes of poetry (as well a volume of collected early poems), two textbooks on literature and creative writing, and a collection of autobiographical essays that is yet to be published. During the 1960s and 1970s, at the height of the national struggle for civil rights, Madgett's poetry slowly but surely gained critical recognition for its deft synthesis of an acute social consciousness, an intimately lyrical voice, and conspicuous attention to form and craft. At a time when the dominant trend in African-American poetry was toward the rejection of forms and modes inherited from the Western European canon, Madgett was writing poetry that acknowledged a debt to precursors such as Emily Dickinson and John Keats alongside Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and other writers in the African-American tradition. Among the work of her contemporaries, Madgett's work seems to have particular resonance with that of Gwendolyn Brooks, although Madgett's lacks the density of ornament characteristic of the latter's work.
Frustrated by publishers' lukewarm response to her own work, in 1972 Madgett herself published her fourth book of poetry, Pink Ladies in the Afternoon , with financial support from two friends. The imprint she created for that volume, Lotus Press ("Flower of a New Nile"), went on to grace a full-fledged independent press, although it was always run virtually single-handedly by Madgett. (She even invented a fake editorial assistant, Connie Withers, to make her operation seem more legitimate in the eyes of companies with whom she dealt.) For more than 30 years now Lotus Press has published poetry by African-Americans and non-African-Americans; the list of Lotus Press authors includes well-known names such as Toi Derricotte, James Emanuel, Gayl Jones, Haki Madhubuti, Herbert Woodward Martin, May Miller, and Dudley Randall--some of whose careers in poetry began with Lotus Press, and many of whom have published several volumes with the press.
Madgett was born Naomi Cornelia Long in 1923 in Norfolk, Virginia, the daughter of a Baptist minister and a former teacher. She spent much of her childhood in East Orange, New Jersey, a city which she has described as one of the most segregated at the time in the North. In her words "a lonely and introverted child who felt isolated and different," Naomi Long began writing poetry at an early age, exposed to literature by her father and surrounded by the African-American spirituality that would remain a prominent influence on her work throughout her career. When the family moved to St. Louis, Missouri during her first year of high school, she entered an all-African-American school in which she felt encouraged to flourish academically and socially. Sumner High School, where she became friends with the future opera singer Robert McFerrin, Sr., has remained an abiding interest of Madgett's. Having already won many awards as an adolescent for her writing, Naomi Long saw her first volume of poetry published in 1941, the year she graduated from high school. Songs to a Phantom Nightingale was published by Fortuny's Publishers, in a contract negotiated for her by her father; preceding the publication of Gwendolyn Brooks and Margaret Walker's first books, this remains a significant event in literary history.
Naomi Long attended Virginia State College (now Virginia State University) between 1941 and 1945, where she studied literature and history with prominent African American scholars. It was during this time that she met and received encouragement from both Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen. Cullen died shortly thereafter, but Hughes continued to encourage and support the younger poet's career, first publishing one of her poems in 1949 in the anthology The Poetry of the Negro, 1746-1949 . After a semester of graduate study at New York University in 1946, Naomi Long married Julian Witherspoon and moved to Detroit, where she began working as a writer at the Michigan Chronicle , an African-American newspaper. In 1947 she gave birth to her only daughter, Jill, and in the following year she divorced Julian Witherspoon and began working at Michigan Bell Telephone and working toward a teaching certificate at Wayne State University, all the while writing poetry. The 1950s saw the publication of her second volume of poetry, One and the Many (Exposition, 1956); her second marriage, to William Madgett; and her completion of a master's degree at Wayne State, which allowed her to begin teaching in the Detroit public school system. Most of her teaching career, prior to her being hired to teach English at Eastern Michigan University in 1968, Madgett spent at Northwestern High School. During her time there she introduced African-American literature to the Detroit public school curriculum.
In the 1960s Madgett became part of a group of African-American writers in Detroit galvanized by the presence of the Dutch scholar Rosey Pool, who published several anthologies of African-American poetry in Europe. These writers gathered for informal workshops at Boone House, a residence used by visiting poet Margaret Danner; the group included Danner, Dudley Randall, Oliver LaGrone, Madgett, and others. When in the mid-60's many members of the initial group left Detroit, Madgett, Randall, and LaGrone maintained the tradition of informal workshops and were joined by a new crop of poets, at one of the epicenters of a vibrant period in the literary history of Detroit. At the beginning of this decade Madgett had published her most famous poem, "Midway"; a rousing summons to the struggle for social and political equality, the poem became an emblem of the Civil Rights Movement. In 1965 Madgett published Star by Star with Harlo Press. Her next volume would inaugurate Lotus Press.
After Pink Ladies , Madgett brought out a book by a student of hers, Baraka Sele, producing the book by hand on a typewriter. There was no stopping the press thereafter. What began as a one-time affair soon became an operation that turned out, on average, two to three new books per year; all the labor, however--from reading incoming manuscripts, to designing the books, to preparing them for the printer--was done by Madgett herself, occasionally with the help of an intern or two. Lotus Press officially became a non-profit corporation in 1980; in 1984 Madgett retired from Eastern Michigan University to devote herself fully to her writing and publishing activities. While running Lotus Press, she still found the time to publish two more volumes of her own poetry, Exits and Entrances (1978) and Octavia and Other Poems (1988); the latter, published by Third World Press, contains a long sequence of poems about Madgett's aunt Octavia and her family in Oklahoma at the turn of the Century. A documentary film was made about the book, and the poems (with additions) were reprinted by Lotus Press in 2002.
During the 1990's Madgett signed a five-year contract with Michigan State University Press, which took over the distribution of Lotus Press books and the publication of the winners of the newly established Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Award (for a volume of poems by an African-American). MSU Press also published a volume collecting Madgett's early poems, Remembrances of Spring (1993). Due to what seems to have been inadequate record keeping by MSU Press of the royalties due to Lotus Press, Madgett did not renew the contract in 1998, and she has resumed publication of the annual winners of the Naomi Long Madgett Award. For years Madgett has said that she would like to retire the press in order to devote more time to her own work, but in 2004 we will see yet another book of poetry from Lotus Press. The press, and with it many writers and readers, have thrived on the strength of Madgett's convictions about the place of poetry in our lives, and no doubt those convictions will continue to do us an invaluable service. The recipient of many awards--including a Michigan Artist Award, an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation, and a place in the Michigan Women's Hall of Fame--Naomi Long Madgett was named Poet Laureate of Detroit in 2001.