Public Voice, Public Work: A Conversation with Ed Madden
On March 3, 2016, Ed Madden had just given a talk at ASU entitled “Public Voice, Public Work.” In it, he discussed the particular issues, opportunities, and challenges he’s faced as the first poet laureate of the city of Columbia, South Carolina. Currently in the second year of that four-year position, Ed spoke with me about the ways the role of poet laureate has made him think about audience, craft, and voice as well as justice and ecology.
Kathryn Kirkpatrick: Ed, I want to start out asking you to think about how you would define a public poem. Is it different from other kinds of poems? Do you think about it differently? How does it feel to write it?
Ed Madden: I do think about it differently because I think for me a public poem has to be a poem in which lots of people can find their voice or their story. As a poet I tend to write very personal, or even when they’re not very personal, very obsessional poems that are based in very personal and very private ways of thinking and feeling my way through the world. But when I write a poem for the laureate position, I’m thinking about the ways other people are going to read this or how the poem is going to resonate in a public space. So, for example, the very first poem I wrote for the state of the city address, the mayor’s first address of the year, I wanted a poem that would work as a kind of public discourse in a public space, which feels very different from a poem in a literary journal.
KK: So I understand in some ways the distinction that you made, but you also just said in a talk that you were giving about this subject that such a poem can be about understanding a public story through a private one. I think one of the things that people sometimes worry about with political poetry is that you can’t write good political poetry because it turns out to be propaganda. And one of the ways to avoid writing the worst kind of political poetry –- you know it’s not that the poems are bad, but they maybe don’t resonate with people in the craft area — is for someone to ground it or locate it in a speaker, a public event and a speaker through which it’s filtering. Is that how you’re thinking about some of them?
EM: Maybe a way of talking about this is to give two examples. So, one, I knew I had to write a poem for the commemoration of the burning of Columbia, and there’s a way in which I could’ve just read a lot of historical documents and accounts and written a poem that retold what happened. I didn’t want to do that. I thought that would be a boring poem; I don’t want to just break a history narrative up into line breaks and call it a poem. So I thought a way we understand historical traumas is through our own experience. So even if we’ve read about it, there are still ways in which what we understand comes from our own basic experience. For me growing up in rural Arkansas, I remember my grandparents’ house burning down, so to think about a city burning down, I’m obviously going to return to that memory. And I remembered an entire small town being wiped out by a tornado. So, I used these things in the first part of the poem and in the second half I incorporated language from the historical account, and specifically there are two italicized lines that are taken directly from an historical account, but I still feel like I tried to emphasize human experience more than historical narrative. What it was like to walk out from under your house burning down and you have one day in front of you and then another and then another day, so I still wanted to emphasize that human element to the story.
The second example is the poem I wrote about the Confederate flag after the massacre in Charleston, which I wrote for the “Take it Down” rally. For that, there were things I wanted to say, but part of the way the poem works is that the entire first half includes things other people were saying. I was pulling lines from Twitter feed, I was pulling lines from Facebook posts. And so a part of the way the poem works is by first giving us all the things other people are saying about what happened before I in any way try to comment myself on what happened.
KK: I like the way that you’ve juxtaposed the poem about the historical moment and and then you came to the recent public event. Those are calling on a lot of different challenges. Can we start with the historical poem — can you read that one for us?
EM: Sure. It’s called “From the Ashes.”
From the Ashes
My granddad’s house burned down when I was young.
I remember the family huddled around a table,
my uncle stunned, my aunt doing what she could,
and later going over to see the smolder
of what was left: a concrete pad beside
the road, smoke rising over the black
ashes, surrounded by morning and empty fields,
everything lost but for the clothes they wore.
A few years later, a tornado slammed a town
just south of us—a night my mother said
We need a storm cellar—we could hear it
at the house, the wind’s angry whine.
We drove over the next morning to see
houses smashed, debris thrown across
the fields, clothing waving like surrender
in the stripped trees. Blackville was rebuilt
though never the same after, few people
left behind, and one house left to rot,
left to bindweed and trumpet vine and rain.
My grandparents moved to a house in town.
That winter, back then, Columbia was a city
of cotton and wind, bags of cotton cut open
and carried into the trees. And the streets
looked as though covered in snow, a city
thick with cotton, waiting for Sherman.
That night the air was filled with sparks, pieces
of blazing shingles, a perfect shower of fire,
the effect of which was to light the whole city,
like something biblical, a city smitten with repentance.
The sparks were falling so thick, it was said,
the nuns fleeing the Ursuline Convent had holes
burned in their veils, burned in their black dresses.
Hundreds walked out from under burning roofs
into the cold and smoldering streets, and when
the sun came up, it was the next day.
And then the next day, and then the next.
KK: That’s really beautiful. You started with a family member and a particular family where the homestead is being burned to the ground, and we take that forward to the individual homes that are part of the city burning. It seems like there was a different kind of challenge in the public tragedy of the Charleston shootings.
EM: Oh, yes. That’s so charged.
KK: So charged. It just seems like such an incredibly brave thing to walk into that material. How did you negotiate your way?
EM: I hadn’t originally planned to write on it, but I went to a luncheon with a city council person, Moe Baddourah, who is in charge of arts and history programming, and at that luncheon he said, “You know, you’re the poet laureate. You’re the public voice of the city. You should respond to the massacre.” And then a couple days later, Tom Hall, who’s a local attorney and documentary film maker and just general all around wonderful guy, was helping to organize a rally at the state house to take the flag down –- the Confederate flag. And he said, “You’re the city laureate, could you write something for the rally?” So I kind of had two charges, Moe saying, “You need to comment on the massacre,” and Tom asking me specifically to write something for the Take It Down rally. It was difficult, but again, the way I finally got into it was reading what other people were saying. I was obsessively going through Twitter and Facebook and seeing what people were saying, and I started writing those things down. I don’t normally write with that kind of anaphora, that kind of repetition –-“someone says, someone says, someone says” — but that became a way of structuring the first half of the poem.
I mean there were still things I wanted to say. I knew I was going to say “he learned his racism here.” That line was in my head from the beginning because I hated the way that politicians, who were embedded in racist politics, were in some ways excusing their own complicity or trying to get out of being implicated in this by calling it mental illness, by calling it drugs, by calling him a lone wolf. And you can’t get away from the fact that he’s part of a culture and that he learned this in a culture, a culture that is based in white supremacy. You know, that’s historically who we are, and who we have been, and to pretend that’s not there is unethical at its base. So I wanted to say that. I also know that Dixie is a racist song. I don’t know why the song was in my head, but I loved the way that if the poem is about people not saying the thing that needs to be said, I love that “Dixie” ends with “look away, look away.” I wanted to just sort of steal those lines and make the song say something it wouldn’t want to say.
KK: That was such a generative way into the material. To have all the voices there, and then for the narrator or then for you as narrator to be responding to the voices — it becomes this conversation. That’s a big charge to put on your shoulders, right — the public voice of the city?
EM: I don’t know if he actually used those words, but that’s really what he was saying.
KK: And so that poem is part of a video project that’s online?
EM: Right. The city organization One Columbia for Arts and History has a Vimeo channel, and the poem is called “When Someone Says We’ll Never Understand.” They got Brian Harmon, a filmmaker, to make a film out of it. Really, it’s also part of a longer poetic sequence, so I wrote a number of shorter pieces around that and I put them all together. The church was Denmark Vesey’s church, part of the history of that church. And I was reading about Vesey and found that his favorite fable was the story of “Hercules and the Wagoneer.” I don’t know if you know the story –- a wagoner is driving to the market, and his cart gets hung in the mud, and he calls to great Hercules, the godof strength, to come down and lift his cart out of the mud. Hercules says “Put your own shoulder to the wheel first.” And for Vesey this is a fable: “Don’t expect someone else to come in and save you, you’ve gotta do the work yourself.” And I love that, so I made that the end of the poem.
In the sequence I start with a personal narrative of trying to water the garden. I often write through environmental or botanical images; it was interesting that those two weeks were extraordinarily hot, and it wasn’t raining, and we were having to water our yard, and water our flower beds. The very day –the very hour – that the governor signed the bill to take the Confederate flag down, it rained. I mean nobody commented on that, but I’m like, “God’s saying ‘Yeah you’re doing the right thing.’” So I sort of framed the poem with that as well. The opening is about the heat and watering, and the end has this image of when the governor signs the bill, finally it starts to rain. Then I did a little repetitive ritual poem in the middle that’s a prayer for the church, so all those pieces come together.
We actually didn’t get to go to the Take It Down Rally because we had family in town, and it was really interesting because my husband, Bert, brought up that my poem was being read at the state house at that very moment. So of course the family wants to know what it is. And let’s just say we have very different opinions around the table about the Confederate flag. Parts of the family are multi-racial, and it was interesting to even try to approach the idea of white privilege at a table where its hard to make visible something that is always invisible. I used in the poem that we were playing Uno. You know, in Uno everything is coded by number and by color, so I have the cards falling by number and by color. I just wanted that family moment to be in there, because I’m thinking again about the personal and the political. There are ways in which a lot of these larger political issues get worked out around the family table, and they get worked out sometimes in very personal ways, very difficult ways, so I wanted that in the poem as well. The longer poem is called “Hercules and the Wagoner,” and the poem that became the film is the heart of the longer sequence.
KK: Do you want to say anything about the ways you’re using other media to take poetry into other spaces, because I know you’ve been working on this idea.
EM: Well, two things. One, I’m not doing video poems yet really, I’m just getting started. I’ve had other filmmakers put my poems into film. I really want to learn more and do more. But I also think part of the larger laureate project is to encourage people’s engagement with the literary arts. I have to think of ways to make literary art a public art, so that’s why the first part of our project was putting poems on public transportation, on the buses, which is a pretty standard thing to do in cities. We’re also putting poems on coffee sleeves. The local arts theater is going to include poems at the beginning during the previews. We’re trying to think of places to put poems where people would engage with them, places where they wouldn’t otherwise be — bank transactions, parking tickets.
KK: I loved that in your talk you gave the examples of the parking tickets with poems on them and the bank slips with poems. That’s such an unusual and creative way to get poetry in the world, especially the parking ticket
EM: Let me give credit. I had an intern this year, Luke Hodges, who was coming up with what he called these guerrilla poetry ideas, so many of these are his ideas.
KK: You brought up the phrase “the public voice of the city,” and I think one of the things that’s been observed in literary discussions is the way identity politics, which has been so empowering for so many, has made so many different communities that its been challenging to think about how are we all connected. Who is speaking for the whole? Can anybody speak for the whole? And so I wonder how you think about that. I think it’s so important that there be a voice, but how does one voice become a diverse voice? I think you already partly answered that by discussing the ways you’ve included other voices.
EM: That would be my first response. Part of what I’m supposed to do as laureate is create a space for local writers, and I’ve not only done that, I’ve been very conscious of reaching out to underrepresented communities. I’m very conscious of members of the spoken word community, writers from the African American community, young writers. I included middle school students on the bus poems. So I’m very conscious of including underrepresented voices as well as all the people we expect to see – we expect to see some of the really good writers of the city on the bus. And I think that’s appropriate, but I want to have right alongside them people you wouldn’t otherwise encounter.
In a poem I wrote about last fall’s flood, I tell a story that a friend of mine told me at dinner, which is really the heart of the flood poem — it’s right at the center of it in the middle section — but I cut out a lot of details that would’ve specified what neighborhood or what social class, so that anyone affected by the flood could read their story in that section in ways that they wouldn’t have had I left those very specific details in. In the poem I wrote for the mayor’s state of the city address, I was just very conscious of how I was telling a story. I mean there’s a man and a woman praying. Is the poem a prayer for healing or a prayer of praise? We don’t know. I kept writing elements in the story that could go multiple ways. There’s a man: is he packing up his desk or is he putting things out on his desk ? There’s a woman sitting outside of a grocery store: is she too upset to go in or is she just taking a moment to write a message to someone? So at the end I say maybe at this point this is your story too, and you’re this person. I hope that someone can find themselves in it, but I hope at the same time its such a general shared narrative that it works for a larger audience.
KK: I know the poem that you’re talking about, and I think that readers feel invited into it. It’s a very generous poem. There’s so many perspectives included in it that I think its absolutely the case that you feel invited into the narrative of that poem, which is unusual. I don’t know how many other poems I’ve experienced in that way. One of the things we’re doing at CMR is feeling our way toward a broad ecological framework where we’re trying to connect the ecological issues with justice issues. That’s something that’s being called “eco-justice.” And I wonder how you would think about that connection.
EM: I’ve thought about it in different ways. In my very first book, Signals, which was about South Carolina and South Carolina’s history, part of what I tried to do is metaphorize the history as the landscape, map the history onto the landscape. So when I’m at Fort Moultrie, Fort Sumter, I’m offering natural details that I think have historical or political possibilities. I have one poem in there that’s a found poem of a military journal from the Civil War, but part of what he’s watching is the natural world go by and part of it is his observation of the African American soldiers serving alongside him. So putting those two things together in the same narrative, same consciousness, same space was what I was doing in that book.
Now I’m more aware of social geographies, of the ways that there are food deserts; there are places that it’s okay to put landfills and homes for the mentally ill or halfway houses or homeless shelters, and there are places you can’t because of who lives there. My own neighborhood I think is a very, very diverse neighborhood, and that leads to problems. I think that’s part of an eco-politics because we’re talking about a very specific place that has an ecology; it has deer and other things living in it, but it also has people with septic tanks overflowing, which affect the natural population. It has people accusing each other of racism over things that might have more to do with social class than race, but the problem in the South is that usually what looks like race is often social class, and what looks like social class often is still race, right? So all those sorts of things are working themselves out in the same geographical/ environmental space. And I don’t think I’ve written about that; I want to write about that. I have written some poems about my neighborhood, but I haven’t written those poems yet.
KK: Are there things from your talk that you want to bring out here or that we might include here and/or poems that you might to share here as we conclude?
EM: I could read “A Story of the City,” which was my first laureate poem.
A Story of the City
In the story, there is a city, its streets
straight as a grid, and in the east, the hills,
in the west, a river. In the story,
someone prays to a god, though we don’t
know yet if it is a prayer of praise
or a prayer for healing—so much depends
on this—his back to us, or hers, shoulders
bent. We hear the murmur of it, the urgency.
In the story a man is packing up
a box of things at a desk, a woman is sitting
in a car outside the grocery as if
she can’t bring herself to go in, not yet.
Or is the man unpacking, setting a photo
of his family on the desk, claiming it?
And is the woman writing a message to someone—
her sister maybe, a friend? In the story,
a child is reading, sunlight coming through
the window. In the story, the trees are thicker,
and green. In the story, a child is reading,
yes, and his father watches, uncertain
about something. There is a mother, maybe
an aunt, an uncle, another father. These things
change each time we open the book, start
reading the story over. Sometimes a story
about trees, sometimes about a city
of light, the city beyond the windows of a dark
pub, now lucent and glimmering. Or sometimes
a story about a ghost, his clothes threaded
with fatigue and smoke, with burning—you smell him
as he enters the room, and you wonder
about that distant city he fled, soot-shod,
looking back in falling ash at the past.
Sometimes it’s a story about someone
singing. Or someone signing a form, or speaking
before a crowd, or shouting outside a building
that looks important, if only for the flag there,
or the columns, or the well-kept lawn.
By now it’s maybe your story, and the child
is your child, or you, or maybe we’re telling
the story together, as people do, sitting
at a table in a warm room, the meal
finished, the night dark, a candle lit,
an empty cup left out for a prophet,
an empty chair, maybe, for a dead friend,
a room filled with words, filled with voices,
the living and the dead, someone telling
a story about the people we are meant to be.
KK: That was a way to start that position! That’s amazing, and I know that each of the four years have a thematic focus and isn’t the first year and the last year “the story of the city?”
EM: Right, that’s my theme for both the first year and my closing year.
KK: Well, thank you so much, Ed.