Detroit Poet Laureate Naomi Long Madgett gave an exclusive reading on April 5 at the school where she once taught English.
Long Madgett was the special guest in Christina Bell-Bowers’ classroom at the Detroit International Academy for Young Women, where tenth-graders had studied her book, Octavia: Guthrie and Beyond. Sponsored by InsideOut Literary Arts Project, Chase and the Erb Family Foundation, the National Poetry Month presentation marked a homecoming for Madgett, who taught at the former Northern High during the 1950’s.
Students recently read and discussed Octavia: Guthrie and Beyond, in preparation for Long Madgett’s visit. The author used the collection of poems about an aunt’s life to encourage the students to explore their family history.
“There was so much that I learned about the character and personalities of these people,” Long Madgett said of relatives who lived during Octavia’s time. Long Madgett recalls growing up hearing much about her aunt, who was also a teacher, though Octavia died three years before Long Madgett’s birth.
Many of the book’s poems were written based on Long Madgett’s research of family correspondence: “We’ve lost the art of letter-writing, and I was fascinated by what they said to, and about, each other.”
Copies of Octavia were donated to the class by Wayne State University Press. An earlier version of the book was required reading for Detroit Public Schools in 1988.
“I liked the way she worded the poems, because there’s more depth to them,” said student Terry Lewis. “When you read her poems, you actually have to think about them. That’s why I was excited for her to come here and explain them.”
Terry’s classmate Dominique Phillips enjoyed reading as much as hearing Long Madgett recite poetry in person.
“I liked the book,” she said. “My favorite poem was ‘Genesis.’”
Bell-Bowers said the class will heed Long Madgett’s wisdom and study their roots.
“They responded very well and they’ll take her advice,” she said.
Terry Blackhawk, founder of InsideOut, called the poet laureate’s visit one of many connections that she has made with youth, even since retiring from education.
Said Blackhawk, “She continues to inspire people from all different generations.”