One of my favorite all time poets is Haki Madhubuti. The genesis of this post came from a conversation I had with Nikki Skies where we both discussed how much Madhubuti’s work meant to each of us. Aside from being one of the most prolific poets in American letters over the last 50 years, Madhubuti is a Professor, editor, activist and publisher. Considered one of the most prominent writers from the Black Arts Movement, Madhubuti has also published books by Amiri Baraka, Gwendolyn Brooks, Sonia Sanchez, Sterling Plumpp, Pearl Cleage, Dudley Randall, Marc Lamont Hill and Mumia Abu Jamal. He founded Third World Press in Chicago in 1967 and they continue to produce books to this day.
For most of Madhubuti’s literary life he has been associated with Chicago. Originally known as Don L. Lee, he changed his name in 1974. Madhubuti has won more awards then there’s space to list. In addition to three honorary doctorates, fellowships from organizations like the National Endowments of the Arts and National Endowments of the Humanities, Madhubuti was named Chicagoan of the Year from “Chicago Magazine” in 2007. He earned his Master of Fine Arts from the University of Iowa.
Among his over 30 plus books, Madhubuti has written titles in not only poetry, but a number of nonfiction works and a few memoirs. A few years ago, I read his memoir, “YellowBlack: The First 21 Years of a Poet’s Life,” over the course of one day. The 253-page book was so engrossing that I ended up finishing it in less than 24 hours. He talks about his childhood and the tragic death of his mother during his teenage years. The narrative reveals how he became inspired to write and how diligent he has been throughout his life. His story empowered me and made me love his work even more than I already did.
Among the several anthologies Madhubuti has published, my personal favorite — being the Angeleno that I am — is his book about the 1992 Los Angeles Rebellion, “Why L.A. Happened.” Among the 29 authors featured in the book are Gwendolyn Brooks, bell hooks and Los Angeles Poet Laureate Luis Rodriguez.
One of my poetry favorite titles from Madhubuti is called “Run Towards Fear.” Following the 40 poems in the text, the book’s last dozen pages is a passage titled, “A Poet’s Handbook,” where he lists 40 precepts for poets interested in developing their craft. The first thing the handbook says is: “You may not be able to earn a living exclusively as a poet or writer, but if you persist, work hard and nurture your talent; it is almost guaranteed that you will earn a life.”
segmented essay offers a number of practical and realistic tips for aspiring poets. He tells it like it is and offers his many years of expertise in each segment. Another great example of his prescient advice is: “Write your truth and you will seldom have writers’ block.” Here’s one more: “Never give up on love, children, good poetry, writing and music. The best poets are masters at understatement and language efficiency—-knowing what words to use and not to use.”
He also includes a list over 100 poets to read and a few questions that poets need to consider for longevity. This section of the book is indispensable and among the best “How to Write Poetry,” guides I have ever seen. Madhubuti accomplishes the task of grounding young poets with reality but still keeping the enthusiasm and passion alive. He does not put the flame out but does offer just enough realism that would-be writers will be more prepared for the long journey ahead.
Another very influential book by Madhubuti is “Black Men: Obsolete, Single, Dangerous?” This volume originally published in 1990 has sold over one million copies. The combination of essays and poems in the work examine the social, political and racial landscapes in America and the world at large. Elements of the book are also oriented towards self-help and how to guides, as far as how to survive in these modern times. Segments like “Twelve Secrets of Life,” and “200 Books All Black People Should Study,” are filled with pragmatic wisdom that everyone can learn from. It is a very unique book that remains relevant 25 years after it was published.
Madhubuti cares deeply about the community and this concern screams from every page he’s ever composed. I saw the great Sonia Sanchez read last week at Cal State Los Angeles and she was reading poems from her book, “I’ve Been A Woman,” a volume published by Madhubuti and Third World Press in 1985. She mentioned his name in her opening statement. Sanchez is like Madhubuti with her community-minded poetics.
On one final note, it is often said that you should never meet your heroes. When I met Madhubuti briefly in Chicago in 2012, this adage did not apply. When I shook his hand and earnestly expressed my admiration for his work, he received the complement sincerely and told me to keep working hard after I briefly told him about my own work. The exchange left me feeling uplifted and not disappointed or dejected in any way. I was at the annual AWP Writers Conference. Between the exchange I had with Madhubuti and the great conversation I had with Luis Rodriguez, I was inspired. Many times at these writing conventions there is a surplus of egos and cold vibes, Madhubuti and Rodriguez were both so positive that they overshadowed any of the bad attitudes I came across from other writers while I was there. Haki Madhubuti is one of the most important contemporary writers in America.
Mike Sonksen is a writer from Los Angeles, California. He is a poet at Los Angeles Walks, a Professor at Woodbury University and an Adjunct Professor at Los Angeles Community College District. Get more information on Sonksen at