Broadside Press is undergoing a rebirth – even though it never ceased operating as an important literary and political beacon in Detroit.
The nation’s oldest African-American publishing house has merged with another large publisher of African-American poetry, just celebrated its 50th birthday, and is in the process of digitizing the works of revolutionary poets who passed through or made Detroit their home during the roiling ‘60s.
Now known as Broadside Lotus Press after merging with Lotus, the Detroit-based publisher is known for its slim volumes of radical poetry by writers like Nikki Giovanni, Etheridge Knight and Sonia Sanchez. Digitizing their work will help introduce it to a new generation of readers, says Chris Rutherford, chairman of Broadside Lotus’s board of directors.
“It will also allow universities and community-based institutions access to this historical work,” Rutherford says. “Our goal is for Broadside to also conduct classes and workshops to introduce this work to all levels of the broader community.”
Founded by poet Dudley Randall, who died in 2000, the Broadside imprint was sought out for its reputation – even by the likes of Gwendolyn Brooks, a Chicago poet who had already won a Pulitzer when Broadside published Aloneness in 1971, says Rutherford.
At the time, Detroit – and Broadside by extension – was a melting pot of creative struggle. Artists found their voice here, especially in the mid-1960s to mid-1970s when the Black Arts Movement (BAM) flourished as a kind of cultural counterpart to the Black Power movement.
The small books of poetry carried potent messages of freedom ‒ personal and universal – and are considered important enough to have a place in the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture.
Poets like Sanchez are still fresh today because her poetry anticipated the rhythms of hip-hop, Rutherford says. At the time, her use of repetition and incorporation of dialogue was considered avant-garde. Broadside published A New Day in 1971.
Those Broadside poets were “trying to get people to connect with what it meant to be African American at the time and to talk about the struggles of African-American people – their hopes, their dreams, their aspirations,” says Detroit poet and teacher, Aurora Harris, a board member of Broadside Press since 2005 (her 2011 book, Solitude of Five Black Moons, was co-published by Broadside and the University of Detroit Mercy). “And all of those things are pertinent today. The things that happened in the Sixties were pertinent then and are pertinent today, like young people being killed, people living in low-condition housing. The poems that talked about living in poverty are pertinent today. Poems about not finding jobs, about love, about your neighborhood, poems about how things used to be are pertinent today.”
Harris, a lifelong Detroiter, has been involved in talking to kids in classrooms and a summer program about writing – and has helped introduce them to the older and newer poetry published by Broadside.
“One of the main things we try to get across is that poetry is essential and poetry represents life. Broadside Press is important because we’re carrying on a legacy of poetry that speaks not only to youth and adults but to the world in general,” Harris says.
In 2015, Broadside merged with Lotus Press, which was founded in 1972 by Naomi Long Madgett, now 93 and still publishing work Rutherford describes as radical and liberating but less fiery than the works Broadside published. Long Madgett has been Detroit’s poet laureate since 2001.
Late last year, Broadside marked its 50th anniversary with a series of events. A Knight Foundation grant and matching funds have bolstered the digitization project and helped Broadside to launch an e-commerce site (broadsidelotuspress.org) where more recent works are available. Rutherford estimates that half of Broadside’s work has been digitized – with the help of the University of Michigan, which owned a significant cache of Broadside work. It will be available in HASI, a national digital library.
Rutherford has served as president of the Broadside board for the past nine years. The last two have been the most exciting by far, he says.
“We knew we had a great legacy. So, how do you move it forward so it’s relevant not just as an historical legacy? How do you open it to a new generation of writers? We are partnering with young upstarts who do spoken-word poetry and are part of Detroit’s poetry society, thinking of projects where we can work together to preserve legacy and also move forward,” Rutherford says.
Deonte Osayande is one of the young poets who was discovered and nurtured by Broadside and who is helping to fan the flames of literary art in the city.
“A lot of the things I wanted to say in 2008 and 2009, I would crack open one of their books and they’d be saying it right there. And that was 30 or 40 years ago,” says Osayande, 28, the winner of a Broadside poetry prize who teaches writing and literature at Wayne County Community College. He also started a regular slam poetry series at the Baltimore Gallery in the New Center area and is a regular at Broadside’s monthly Poets Theatre at the UD Mercy, which runs from September to April.
Osayande, a Detroit native, had heard of Sanchez and Amiri Baraka (A Poem for Black Hearts, 1967), he says, “but it didn’t click that they were published by Broadside until I’m studying all of Broadside’s books and I’m just like, wait, you published these people? I was in the presence of a legend.”
Legends can still be relevant, and Osayande considers the voices contained in those powerful little books to be fresh today.
“Even to look at the examples of writing about police brutality in the Sixties and Seventies – we’re experiencing that today,” he says. “If you’re a young person who doesn’t know this voice was here before, you don’t know how to speak out. If I sit down or kneel during the national anthem, I’ll be viewed the wrong way. So, what is the right way to protest? We show them these books and it is a potential option.”
That includes the work of Broadside Lotus in publishing winners of the Naomi Long Madgett Prize, as well as winners of a spoken-word contest held from March to May each year at the Motown Museum. In addition, Broadside Lotus has partnered with Wayne State and UD Mercy to publish several books, and has created a classroom-based program called Black Genius in the 21st Century. Through this program, young students are introduced to the legacy of African-American contributions to the arts.
Broadside Lotus is looking for more permanence even as it’s finding new readers. The board meets at UD Mercy and is looking at buying property of its own.
Rutherford believes Detroit is a fertile place for poetry – especially the kind that peddles hard truths.
“If you’re looking for flowers and butterflies you’re not going to get it. You’re hearing from people who lived through decline. You see poets hopeful about their future and the city,” he says. “If you want to get a true sense of Detroit’s development, go to the poets.”