Gifts of the Archivists: Cultivating Community
There are fewer memories clearer for me during the time just after grad school than the evening Naomi Long Madgett called to tell me I’d won the book prize bearing her name. I was at my aunt and uncle’s house for some family get together; my parents were making plates in the kitchen, I was cutting up with my cousins, the house was so loud when I got the call, I had to go out to the garage to hear the poised voice on the other end of the line. She asked for me and once I’d answered in the affirmative, she said, “I’m Dr. Naomi Long Madgett. Do you know why I’m calling?” I merely mentioned the prize and, as the realization that I’d won set in, I screamed so loudly one of the neighbors peeked out of the window on the other side of the street.
I apologized all over the place for screaming in Dr. Madgett’s ear, but she just laughed. She started in on the business of things—when the contract was coming, blurbs, line editing—all new and frightening and wonderful forays into the Po’ Biz for me. To my surprise, it turned out because of some conflict in scheduling, she’d stepped in to be the final judge for the prize that year. “I love what you’re doing and how you do it,” she said, and we talked about me tracing the path of writers like Lucille Clifton until she ended the call by saying something akin to, “We’re off to the races. Welcome to Lotus Press.”
Lotus, for me, was legendary. I was so grateful to be in the house that housed so many. I’m finishing a book of prose now about the writers who formed me, and a legion of us came under Dr. Madgett’s watchful eye and care. Lotus published Cave Canem co-founder, Toi Derricotte’s, first book along with fellows like Mendi Obadike, Evie Shockley, Carmen Gillespie, and so many others. My first book, Conversion, was published by Lotus Press in 2007.
By then, Lotus was really an operation of one, though Dr. Madgett put up a good front. She’s invented a name for an assistant that she used for most business and got by with the help of one niece and a few intermittent interns. She was publishing one book a year but keeping a pulse on all the others, working with distributors and other publishers in Detroit, touching base with authors. It was kind of miraculous that she’d kept Lotus afloat so long—by the time I won the prize she was in her 80s—much like Dudley Randall, her comrade and brother-in-arms in Detroit Black book publishing. Eventually, the two presses, Broadside and Lotus, would merge into Broadside Lotus Press in 2015 and still lift up the voices of those who are a rallying cry for intersectional lives and living.
For many of us, poetry is about clarifying questions we have about the world, asking those questions with as much precision as we can. We serve as witnesses to the forgotten and unwanted ugliness or beauty. Much of our work as writers is to help spotlight what is unseen or underseen. Writing about my elders, my journey, got me to thinking much about our editors, compilers, archivists—publishers like Madgett, Randall, and W. Paul Coates, anthology editors like E. Ethelbert Miller, Nikky Finney, and Camille Dungy, those that are bringing light to light and, most importantly, cultivating and tending community.
I write as a way of tussling with what I can’t answer in myself and—sometimes—the finished poem or book (the years-long process of sifting and shaping and casting) helps me get invaluably closer to that answer. I imagine the same is true for our archivists, our savers; they spend years, decades, lifetimes, valuing voices, seeking them out, then listening to how they work in concert, puzzling them together. As writers, editors, all artists, we all create to help translate what we know, have experienced, what we carry and can’t ignore, in hopes that someone will say, I see you, fam or better yet I feel that which means in translation, you’ve given me a bit of God, you’ve helped me to understand the human condition, you’ve done the work and moved it into the world to help introduce me, once again, to myself.
Remica Bingham-Risher, a native of Phoenix, Arizona, is a Cave Canem fellow and Affrilachian
Poet. Among other journals, her work has been published in The New York Times, The Writer’s Chronicle, Callaloo, and Essence. She is the author of Conversion (Lotus, 2006), winner of the Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Award; What We Ask of Flesh (Etruscan, 2013), shortlisted for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award; and Starlight & Error (Diode, 2017), winner of the Diode Editions Book Award and a finalist for the Library of Virginia Book Award. She is currently the Director of Quality Enhancement Plan Initiatives at Old Dominion University and resides in Norfolk, Virginia with her husband and children.