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The Poet of Detroit

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

 

Naomi Long Madgett, longtime poet laureate of the city of Detroit, was born in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1923. She published her first book of poems, Songs to a Phantom Nightingale, when she was just 17 years old. Naomi moved to Detroit in 1947, and in the decades that would follow, she brought the beauty, magic and power of poetry and writing to tens of thousands of students and readers. She remains a treasure to all who know her. We met her in the winter of 2014, and spent several hours in her home, speaking late into the night about her life and work. Met Naomi in her own words below. 

 

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I got engaged by mail because my first husband was still in the army.

We didn’t even have time for a wedding reception because we had to catch the train to Detroit.

We couldn’t eat at some restaurants or stay in some hotels. I didn’t expect that here.

There are good and bad people in all races. I went through prejudice so early in my life, that I couldn’t let that consume me.

It seems strange to be 90 years old. I still can’t imagine it, but I did have a great party.

My first poem was published by a daily newspaper in Virginia when I was 13.

I met Langston Hughes when I was at Virginia State College, and I timidly gave him a loose-leaf notebook of my poems. And in the middle of his reading, he read several of mine.

He had read the whole thing and penciled comments.

People think there’s something sacrosanct about spontaneity. Poems don’t come out perfect the first time.

If it comes on like a caveman, if it drags me by the hair, then I’ll write it.

A dry period is when nothing comes. When I do start writing again, there’s something different.

If a line comes to me in bed, I don’t dare wait until morning. I turn the lamp on, then another line comes, turn it off, turn it back on.

There’s so much subconscious in poetry. 

My most popular poem is “Midway.” I've come this far to freedom and I won't turn back / I'm climbing to the highway from my old dirt track.

Everybody likes it but me.