Poetry magazine, a publication of the historic Poetry Foundation has commenced its 110-year celebration with an iconic presentation at the Foundation’s annual Pegasus Awards.
The Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, a staple of the ceremony, typically awards $100,000 to one living U.S. poet. However, in an unprecedented move, the organization set aside over $1 million to honor 11 illustrious recipients during the October 2022 ceremony.
The Poet’s List is honored to present: The Pegasus Poets; an interview series with this legendary cohort of winners. The fourth installment of this interview series features Haki Madhubuti, MFA, Ph.D.
Given its esteemed 110 year history, what does it mean to you to be honored by The Poetry Foundation at this year’s Pegasus Awards?
It means a great deal. I don’t want to minimize the importance of the award. For me — a Black man and Black poet who’s been doing this work for over 60 years – it does say something [that] the Poetry Foundation [is] finally opening up to a much more diverse group of poets. I didn’t expect it. I’ve never tried to write for awards. I don’t know if any of my books have even been presented for awards.
We do a different kind of work around here. I became a poet primarily to offer, in writing, a warning about the trouble that we are in in America—not only to the Black community but to the community at large.
We are in serious trouble and we kind of escaped a bullet this past election. But, the bullets are still coming. So, for me to receive this award along with these esteemed poets, it gives greater meaning to me. Several of the poets and I go back 50 years: Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni and I… so I’m grateful for the award.
As a result of the Pegasus Award, it allows me the resources to step back and finish the second and third parts of my memoir. I will do that. Plus, the majority of the award will go to my children and my grandchildren. Black families have not been able to leave their children in a world without personal debt. A world which I, thankfully, have experienced most of my life.
You were honored for your incredible achievement within the poetry world. At what point in your career did you first realize that your poetic contributions were groundbreaking? Could you ever have envisioned this level of success?
Well, I’ve been successful before. My birth name was Don L. Lee and my first book, Think Black, which was published in 1966 [under that name], sold about 10,000 copies. Black Pride came out in 1968—with an introduction by the great poet and publisher, Dudley Randall—and sold another 12,000 copies.
By that time, I was teaching at Cornell University and Ebony magazine featured me as the first Black poet-in-residence at an Ivy League institution. As a result of that featured article; an introduction by the great poet Gwendolyn Brooks; and the quality of my poetry—my third book, Don’t Cry, Scream, sold 75,000 copies in less than a year.
My next book was We Walk the Way of the New World. I was writing a little bit about my introduction to Africa. That book sold about 15-20,000 copies. My first four books sold over 140,000 copies. I published a poem, “Black runners/blackmen” in the New York Times in 1968. My career was taking off.
I was still Don L. Lee at that time. Fame or money did not faze me because I came from a community of serious poverty. What I was concerned about was getting this message out: warning our people about the danger that we are facing in the United States as in much of the world.
I think that my work has always been groundbreaking among the people that read me. However, I could never envision this level of success – I never thought about it.
What is different about this is that it’s a Lifetime Achievement Award with a significant amount of money. I never thought I would receive such recognition from a majority white institution, even though I had National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities recognition, but these were small stipends, nothing like I’ve ever received from the Poetry Foundation.
However, it must be noted that I have received lifetime recognition awards from major Black organizations such as The National Association of Black Social Workers, The Black Caucus of the U.S. Congress, The Black Senate Caucus of the State of Illinois and most recently in November of 2022, the African American Alliance of Chicago.
How would you describe your fellow Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize awardees?
Well, I feel that all of them are worthy and quality poets. I don’t think that they made any mistakes around the recipients, at all. I read all of their works before I met them at the celebration. They were not strangers to me. As a working professor, I did try to stay in touch with certain poets of my generation, so I feel that all of them are more than deserving.
The Poetry Foundation has put forth dedicated efforts to increase diversity, as is reflected in its new leadership!
With regards to diversity, what markers signify forward progress within the poetry world or the community-at-large?
The Poetry Foundation has recently built a headquarters on the north side of Chicago, and it should be opened to diverse communities: Black, Brown and Indigenous. Even though I’ve been there a few times for programs, for the most part we were not really welcome at a serious level until Michelle Boone became the new head. Whatever resources they have their hands on, needs to be shared.
But let me be very clear about this – Black people in America are about 55 million strong in this country. Latinos, Spanish-speaking people, Chicanos, folks that grew up over the south of the border – they’re over 60 million strong in the country. We can talk about our Asian brothers and sisters, then of course, sex-specific, gays, lesbian, bisexuals, and so forth – they’re about another 10 million. You’re talking about 150 million people. We’re not going anywhere.
Diversity is much more than just you and I talking about it. It’s a reality.
Even though Chicago is still one of the most segregated cities in the world, there is still this. The beautiful thing about this country – we saw this during the horrible murder of George Floyd – is that young white people, teenagers, and college students are not afraid of Black people. This is a wonderful thing: they are like my kids and are not afraid to interact and be with each other. You have a very large segment of white people in the country who understand that we’ve got to live together.
Now, poets and artists are the most creative and freest people in the world. What I mean by ‘freest’ is that: no one tells us what to write; what to paint; what to play; how to dance. We are artists because we want to maintain our liberated voices. This free voice and liberated voice exists among all artists of whatever persuasion, whatever culture, racial or sexual background. It is there. We need to continue to work at this and build institutional support such as the Poetry Foundation.
Since entering the spotlight, in what ways has your personal mission shifted or remained the same?
It has remained the same pretty much. As you know, I founded the second oldest independent Black-owned book publishing company in the world, Third World Press. We own our headquarters on the south side of Chicago. We are the only Black book publishing company that owns its own headquarters. We continue to publish nationally and internationally. We’ll continue to do that. We are a 501(c)3 which means that TWPF belongs to the community, not just me.
There have been hundreds of poets and writers that have been published [through TWPF] over the last 55 years. It gives us a vehicle to tell our story without censorship. For me, I will continue to do this work.
I’ve never taken a salary from Third World Press or from our schools either. We have three schools where we service over 550 children a day in an African- centered education.
I’m probably one of the few poets who have read poetry, given workshops (literary and cultural) keynoted conferences and conventions on four continents, been to Africa ten times and met four Presidents. The difference between me and many poets is that I saw minor fame in the 1960s and ‘70s as Don L. Lee.
What is important to me is the liberation of our people, all children (it doesn’t matter what racial or cultural context), and enlightened and progressive people. It’s a continued battle. But, I’m 80-years-old and I’m still up for the struggle.
We have got to be and stay on mission. Part of our mission is caring for each other. We’ve got to understand that we have got to look after each other. I got your back… I don’t even know you! But I got your back.
How has your audience changed over time? How does it affect your actual writing or the reception of your work?
I’m not sure if my audience has changed that much. I’ve been fortunate enough to read in over 30 states and at most of the major colleges and universities, Big Ten and Ivy League. I was poet-in-residence at Cornell University for a year. So, I don’t know if the audience has changed, but it may have enlarged and that’s important.
What has affected my work more than anything else has been new technology. I have an iPad and even though I don’t like the iPad, I use it. I still write on a legal pad for the most part. My children understand this technology and we have people at Third World Press who understand the technology. It does make it a little bit easier for me in terms of translation of my work from me to the page.
Prior to landing on poetry, what memories do you have of your relationship with literature and writing as a youth?
I read Black Boy by Richard Wright at 14-years-old and that book slapped me into a new reality. Prior to reading Black Boy, I really hated myself. You don’t understand that most people in this world—and most Black people in this country—we only do what we’ve been taught to do. Many of us have been taught to hate ourselves.
So, literature and art—whether it’s music or visual art or poetry—has taught me to love myself, and [to] understand that what I have to give is just as important as any other artist. After reading Richard Wright’s Black Boy, I went to the library and checked out everything Richard Wright had published, and that started me on this long journey of not only discovering who I am, but discovering the world.
I spent three years in the military between 1960 and 1963, and that was in between wars. I used that time to read and study. I read close to a book a day. For each book I read, I wrote a 250-word essay. It started my writing career before ever thinking about getting published.
I’ve taught Black literature and writing for over 42 years in the academy. When I say, ‘the academy,’ I mean: Columbia College here in Chicago; Cornell University; Howard University; University of Iowa; and Chicago State University. Then, I ended my teaching career at DePaul University in Chicago. I now have emeritus status at Chicago State University and five honorary doctorate degrees and numerous lifetime achievement awards.
Essentially, I’ve used every vehicle provided to me to push art. Art is so critical because it humanizes us and allows us to smile and to touch other people through their art. Any people without art are without souls. It’s important that we as poets continue to produce. It saved my life – art saved my life.
I was basically in the streets and very, very poor. My mother was in the sex trade and she ended up dead at 34-years-old. I’ve been on my own since I was 16. Art saved my life.
What captivates you most when consuming the work of other poets? In other words, what makes a good poet?
I think excellent poets are those who essentially are trying to really perfect their voices. They must have a mission at some point. The mission, for me, is not just good writing; even though that’s critically important.
The mission, for me, has always been: How do I become a better person within the context of my own people as well as the city, state, nation where I reside.
It is absolutely necessary [and] critical that you become a book person. I feel that if you want to wipe out ignorance, if you want to fight ugliness, if you want to defeat evil: read books.
We have told our students here that each home must have a mini library so, if I walk through your home in less than 15 minutes, I can tell you exactly where you are culturally.
What’s on your walls? Are those images a reflection of you and your family, city and culture? What’s in your bookcase? Do you have a damn bookcase? What are you reading? That defines you, you see.
If you don’t know who you are, anybody can name you. And they will. That’s how I became Don Lee. But when I became Haki Madhubuti, I had to make a transition into another identity that essentially identified with where I came from, which is the continent of Africa landing in America.
Of your body of work, which piece or collection would you like to serve as an introduction for the generations to come?
Taught By Women. It’s a book of poems dedicated to women. In particular, Black women. But also, all women. When you look at the cover of the book or the interior of the book, I just have women’s names. These women come from all cultures.
But there are three other books of poetry of mine that I would recommend: Liberation Narratives, which was my last book of collected poems; Don’t Cry, Scream, which Gwendolyn Brooks (who is actually my cultural mother) wrote the introduction to; and, Run Toward Fear. This book has a poet’s handbook in it. There are 42 suggestions in it on how to become a good poet.
I have written nonfiction books that have sold hundreds of thousands of copies. In fact, one book, Black Men, Obsolete, Single, Dangerous?: The Afrikan American Family in Transition has sold over 200,000 copies easily and over a million copies in print.
We gave a lot of copies away to prisoners across the country. In fact, we have a prison literature program at Third World Press. All they had to do is write to TWP and we donate three books to them. All we ask [is that they] read the three books and pass them on to other brothers and sisters who were also confined in captivity. If indeed the prison where they’re locked up is serious about education, we are willing to donate a full collection of TWP books to the prison library.
What words of advice can you pass along to today’s passionate crop of contemporary poets?
You can’t write unless you: read. You write, you read.
Third thing: You’ve got to get involved with a community of writers who care about writing as much as you do. [These] writers become friends, become lovers, become family. If they’re the right kind of writers or poets, they will save your life.
The other thing is: You’ve got to be concerned about revision. You can’t even understand how to revise a poem unless you’ve read poetry! You have to read poetry and you’ve got to be passionate about it. It’s important to stay around serious writers who love poetry, who love the work and who understand just like Gwendolyn Brooks said, “We are each other’s brothers and we each other’s sisters.” We have got to reach out to each other.
The last thing would be publishing. We workshop and we publish. But you cannot and should not be worried about publishing in the major magazines. When I was in college, I published in small magazines, wherever I could get published. I’m not even thinking about top magazines or journals at that time.
The key point is to be around people who will be honest with you and not lie to you. Understand: you’ve got to be honest with your contemporaries as they with you. Our major responsibility – I feel – is not only to become the best poets we can become, but the best writers and the best people we can become.
Our major responsibility is help save this nation and, by extension, the world. We got a serious climate problem in the world. You got more weapons in this country than you got people. We have ignorant people talking about how ignorant other people are. You cannot move a people, you cannot move a nation, unless this nation first understands that everything has got to be shared. We must learn empathy and live a life of understanding, compassion and sharing. The only thing that nobody nowhere is making any more of is land.
I will end with recommending these poets (which is an incomplete list), to be read and reread often: Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Hayden, Margaret Walker, Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Melvin B. Tolson, Jean Toomer, Adrienne Rich, Audrey Lorde, Lucille Clifton, and all the poets who received the 2022 lifetime achievement Pegasus Award from the Poetry Foundation.
Poetry magazine will publish a commemorative folio of work by all 11 2022 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize winners in its April 2023 issue. Subscribe to Poetry today to ensure you receive a copy of this incredible issue!
*This interview has been condensed and arranged for brevity and flow.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the featured artists (ie. poets, authors, writers and experts) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Poet’s List LLC. Any content provided by the artists are of their opinion, and are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, individual or anyone or anything. Legal