Desdemona’s Fire , Ruth Ellen Kocher’s luminous first book of poems, might have been lost in the shuffle of poetry-prize competitions if it hadn’t been for one pioneering small press. She had been sending manuscripts to competitions for years. Then she read about Naomi Long Madgett’s Lotus Press in Detroit, and the Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Award. “Lotus had been around a long time,” she says. “It had published some of the leading African American writers—people like Toi Derricote and Gayl Jones. It was small enough that my manuscript would get a very careful reading. And I knew that an African American press would “get” many of my themes in a way that other publishers might not.”
The struggle of poets of color like the 35-year-old Kocher (who is biracial) hasn’t been just to get their shared truth told; it’s been a battle for the right to tell it in a million different ways. Kocher’s ambitious poems are built of many layers: intense subjectivity, harsh inner-city reality, classical and mythological allusion. Her master of fine arts degree work at Arizona State University taught her, as she puts it, “to be as complex in my writing as I am in my background.”
Naomi Madgett understands. In the ’60s, white colleagues in the high school where she taught refused to teach black writers. “They said, ‘If you’ve read one, you’ve read them all,’” she recalls. At the same time, the highly political black arts movement scorned literary subtlety. Madgett, who had self-published one of her own books of verse in 1972, decided a few years later to create a full-fledged small press as a forum for many black voices, including the quiet and subtle ones.
And she’s done it—76 books to date—nearly single-handedly, doing everything from editing to billing. Before her 1984 retirement, Madgett had to fit Lotus into a full-time teaching schedule at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti. Still, she hasn’t been pleased with attempts to make the press even a little bit bigger. Michigan State University published the Madgett award winners for a while, and currently distributes Lotus books; but when the contract runs out in three years, Madgett intends to handle distribution herself again. She needs to retain the sort of control that honors the poetry and the poets. With Kocher’s book, the award series returned to Lotus, and to Madgett’s loving care.