Nandi Comer met Tommye Blount almost 20 years ago at a poetry workshop series.
The program, called “Write Word, Write Now” was led by acclaimed poet Vievee Francis in Detroit.
“She led a workshop of young 20-something writers who were really interested in creative writing, but we just didn’t know how to professionalize ourselves,” Comer said. “And so, she took us aside and did a monthly workshop.”
Those poets would go on to have successful careers, such as Jamaal May, who won the American Library Association Notable Book Award for his 2013 poetry collection, “Hum,” and Francine Harris, whose 2012 book “Allegiance” was a finalist for the Kate Tufts Discovery Award and the PEN Open Book Award.
Success also followed for Blount and Comer, who have become award-winning poets with works published in various literary journals and publications. Last month, Blount was one of 10 writers across the country to win the 2023 Whiting Award, a prestigious honor for emerging writers in fiction, nonfiction, poetry and drama, which includes a $50,000 cash prize.
Then, on April 12, the Michigan Department of Education named Comer as the state’s first poet laureate in more than 60 years and the first Black woman in that role.
The Detroit natives, who have stayed good friends since their workshop days, have been each other’s biggest supporters. Comer said when both of their books came out in 2020 – Comer with “Tapping Out” and Blount with “Fantasia for the Man in Blue” – they celebrated each other’s accomplishments rather than competing for the spotlight.
“It didn’t matter who got what, who was the finalist and awardee, who got a reading,” she said. “We just see each other in a way that I think artists and poets really yearn to be seen in their work.
“Tommye and I are friends and we love each other’s writing,” she said.
Blount said Comer was one of the first people he called when he found out he was a Whiting Award winner. She, along with others from the workshop, have become like family, he said.
“We look out for each other, we support each other,” Blount said. “That’s been very vital, very helpful, having them in my corner.”
Forever a Detroiter
Comer, 43, said she was excited to learn Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was looking to fill the poet laureate position when Whitmer approved a state budget allocating money for the role in 2021. The poet laureate had stalled for several years since the first state poet, Edgar Wright, died in 1959 after holding the position for seven years. Until Comer’s appointment, Michigan was one of four states without a poet laureate, according to the Library of Congress.
Comer said the process was lengthy. The Detroiter said the Michigan Poet Laureate selection committee contacted her last year and asked her to submit a packet with her recent work. Last fall, the state of Michigan informed Comer that she was a finalist for the job, but she still had to submit an application for the nomination process. A couple of months after that news, she was selected. Comer said she was “floored” when she got the call.
“This is something that I could not have imagined,” she said.
The two-year appointment will require Comer to meet with students, teachers, and residents in schools and libraries across Michigan to promote poetry, spoken word and literary arts through workshops and readings. Comer will also eventually launch a poetry initiative, which is still being developed, she said.
“I’m really excited to start to go around the state to share different types of poems that are out there in the world, to get to meet and collaborate with poets around the state,” she said.
Comer said before the announcement was made public, she wanted to make it clear to the selection committee how important it was that people knew she was raised in Detroit and has spent most of her life in the city. She said the D is one of her biggest influences for her poetry.
“Even though I travel a lot, I really value being from Detroit,” Comer said. “I love those moments of upturning people’s preconceived notions about what Detroit is.
“I feel that way about Michigan, too,” she added. “Michigan can be overlooked sometimes, but we have some incredible writers that come out of here. It’s just astonishing how Michigan writers are always showing up on the national, international scale.”
Comer grew up in a tight-knit community on Detroit’s west side, with her parents exposing her to poetry and stories at an early age. She began writing poetry in the 90s when she was a student at Communications and Media Arts High School under the guidance of her English teacher Dr. Terry Blackhawk, who later created InsideOut Literary Arts, a Detroit nonprofit that brings professional writers in the classroom to teach creative writing.
“She kind of pulled me aside and asked me if I wanted to be a part of her creative writing class and after that, she set me on a trajectory in creative writing,” she said.
The poet later earned bachelor’s degrees in English and Spanish, with a focus on Latin American Culture, from the University of Michigan. In 2016, Comer got a master’s degree in African American Literature and she got a master’s of fine arts degree in poetry at Indiana University.
Comer’s poetry earned her the 2014 Richard Peterson Poetry Prize for the Southern Illinois University literary journal Crab Orchard Review and a Vera Meyer Strube Award for poetry at Indiana University, according to a news release. She was also a 2019 Kresge literary arts fellow.
Comer’s day job is with nonprofit Allied Media Projects, serving as director of the organization’s seeds program. She will remain at Allied Media while holding the poet laureate position.
An accidental poet
Blount, also 43, said he stumbled into the poetry world accidentally. It was not part of his childhood growing up on the city’s west and east sides. It was only when he went off to college at Michigan State University that he became interested in the literary form while taking a class on the Black Arts Movement. Poet Sonia Sanchez was among the figures in his course packet and Blount was in awe after reading her piece, “Summer Words of a Sistuh Addict.”
“I was like, ‘I have no idea what she’s saying, but I know what she’s saying on a musical level,’” he said. “And then I was like, ‘Oh, I wonder if I could do this.’”
Blount joined the Black Poets Society at MSU and began reading his work at open mic events. He eventually met Francis, who changed his life with her workshops.
Today, Blount, who now lives in Novi, is a poet and account manager for a print graphics company. Blount has released two poetry books: “What Are We Not For” and “Fantasia,” which is a finalist for the National Book Award. Like Comer, Blount served as a Kresge literary arts fellow in 2017.
In January, when Blount got the call from the Whiting Foundation about the award, he initially thought it was a telemarketer. But when he realized the news was real, Blount got emotional.
“I started crying, I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “Going into this year, I was not hopeful at all. When Jan. 1 rolled around, I was like, ‘I have to go through another year?’”
But winning the award caused Blount to have a change of heart and to be confident with his accomplishments. So, two months later, he did just that while attending the Whiting Awards ceremony at the New York Historical Society.
Blount said while he’s happy for moments like the Whiting Awards, on the other hand, it makes him wonder why Detroit doesn’t have a bigger writers’ scene like New York and Chicago.
He said Comer’s new position as poet laureate is a step in the right direction.
“I do wish that for the city,” he said. “We’re getting there with organizations like InsideOut, but it has a long way to go.”