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Detroit's poet laureate, Naomi Long Madgett, dies at 97

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News

Naomi Long Madgett, a noted educator, publisher and Detroit poet laureate since 2001, has died at 97.

"We have lost one of Detroit's brightest lights," said Rochelle Riley, the city's director of arts and culture in announcing the death, "someone whose genius spanned generations. She was indeed the 'godmother of African-American poetry.'"

Madgett was born in Virginia, but moved to Detroit in 1941 to get her Master's in Education from Wayne State University. An English teacher for years at Detroit's Northwestern High School, she pioneered its first courses in African-American literature and creative writing.

Naomi Long Madgett

The Southfield resident also taught at Eastern Michigan University from 1968-1984, and was a lifelong leader in pushing for fairer representation of African-Americans in school textbooks.

In her own poetry, Madgett was "influenced by the work of Emily Dickinson, John Keats and Langston Hughes," according to the Chicago-based Poetry Foundation. Indeed, Hughes became a mentor of sorts to the young aspiring poet, whose work often revolved around civil rights and African-American spirituality.

When Madgett had trouble finding a publisher for her fourth book of poetry in 1972, she founded Detroit's Lotus Press (now Broadside Lotus Press), which focused on African-American writers, ultimately publishing more than 84 poetry collections. 

For five years in the 1990s, Madgett was poetry editor for Michigan State University Press.

In naming her their 2012 Eminent Artist, Kresge Foundation President Rip Rapson applauded Madgett's "life of creativity while supporting other writers and poets, reaching across generations to spark in young people a love of words and writing, and maintaining a deep and abiding commitment to the Detroit community."

Madgett's volumes of her own poetry include "Octavia and Other Poems," "Remembrances of Spring: Collected Early Poems" and "Exits and Entrances." Her work has been included in anthologies around the world.

In addition to her other honors, Madgett received the American Book Award for her work as an editor and publisher, the Michigan Artist Award, and the National Council of Teachers of English Black Caucus Award.

There was no immediate word Friday on plans for a memorial.

mhodges@detroitnews.com

(313) 815-6410

Twitter: @mhodgesartguy