Danielle Sellers: As a poet, I am often conflicted between writing honestly about experience and the fact that what I write might hurt or offend my family. Have you ever come up against this problem, and if so, how do you deal with it?
Ed Madden: Yes, often. Sometimes it’s innocuous. My brother likes to correct the lapses in my memory, and last year at a reading I did at Arkansas State in Jonesboro, my Aunt Elaine started shaking her head when I introduced a poem about my grandmother. It was a small crowd of a few students and—a delightful surprise—several relatives, aunts and cousins, so I just asked her what was wrong. She told her version, I said my story was a better one—and everyone laughed and we moved on with the reading. My poems aren’t family history, they’re about how I remember things—they’re memory, not history.
After I came out to my family, my parents pretty much stopped communicating, so in some ways that freed me. I could write what I wanted. When I was writing in college and even in grad school, I would send poems home. But I stopped as I felt my poems were getting riskier and more honest, and after I came out, my parents and I pretty much didn’t communicate for about ten years. Still, when the book came out, I wondered how my family might respond to some of the poems. Although there are a few poems about growing up in rural Arkansas, most of the book was written after I moved to South Carolina and focuses on the culture and landscapes of the state and my experiences here. So I don’t think there are any in Signals that would hurt or offend—beyond their general discomfort probably with the gay material in the book (which is, I think, understated).
Still, there are moments. When I had work selected for an anthology in 2007, I had to choose one poem—three had made the final cut. Suddenly I realized that a little poem about early sexual experiences might be in a book. In a small journal it might have been okay, or if it hadn’t included people from my childhood, maybe. But the thought of it being in the book sobered me. I chose another poem instead. Though, it’s now in a manuscript I’m sending out….
It’s difficult. I think the fact that I have so little communication with my family makes it easier, but I still worry sometimes. I remember driving back to South Carolina from three readings in Arkansas, one at my old high school, and worrying about how my parents were reacting to the book. It’s a question that comes up in my writing classes. Though I don’t ask for confessional writing, I do frequently assign the work of Nancy Mairs, who writes so beautifully and honestly about her experiences living with a disability. And in an advanced writing class I taught recently we read work on writing and healing along with Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club, and I asked them to write a poem as an act of revenge and, later, a poem as an act of forgiveness. Inevitably the questions come up: would you publish this? should I change names? If we take risks in our writing and try to write honestly, these are questions we have to live with—and I don’t think we can ever be sure about our answers.
DS: In an interview with the South Carolina NPR, you spoke a bit about the research that went into your first book of poetry, Signals, out from The University of South Carolina Press. Can you speak a bit about the type of research that went into that book and how important is it that a poem, whether it be historical or autobiographical, involve research?
EM: The research really informs one section of the book, the last, which came from work I did as a writer in residence at Fort Moultrie. The residency was part of a larger project sponsored by the South Carolina Poetry Initiative and a tourism program called the African American Heritage Corridor. Eight sites important to African-American history in the state were chosen for the project, and an African-American poet and a white poet were selected for each site. I felt a responsibility to know the history. Fort Moultrie is important historically, both for the Civil War and the Revolutionary War, but it was on the project for the lazarettos or pest houses that used to be on Sullivan’s Island—houses where Africans were quarantined, to make sure they were healthy, before they were taken into Charleston to be sold into slavery. The lazarettos aren’t there. There’s just a historical marker, a sign beside a parking lot. So I tried to learn what I could about the history of the place, so that I could talk about it with the students—part of the residency involved workshops with high school students—and so I could write about it accurately myself. Part of that research became the found poem, “Journal,” in which I adapted lines from the published journal of Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the white commander of the First Carolina Volunteers, a black regiment fighting for the Union in the Civil War.
DS: You’re currently co-editing an anthology of poems based in the Abramic tradition and you’ve written essays inspired by religion and sexuality. You’ve even earned a degree in Biblical Studies from the Institute for Christian Studies in Austin. Where do you see religion and poetry intersecting and what interests or frightens you most about that intersection?
EM: This is a difficult question to answer, but an important question to me. To some extent it’s a personal question. I grew up in the language of scripture, so when I think about the power of language, I inevitably think through the language of scripture. My favorite classes in seminary were classes on wisdom literature and on the Psalms, where we talked explicitly about the poetic language and poetic structures of scripture. And I remember my course on the theology of worship where I found myself pulling the two together. I did a project on the origins of medieval theatre in the liturgy—and I staged my own liturgical drama as my final class project. I know these are anecdotes and really don’t answer your question. What interests me most—and what interested me in this anthology project, which I working on with D’Arcy Randall at the University of Texas—is the centrality of these stories as cultural stories. Abraham, Isaac, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael: these five characters and this family drama begin the history of three major religious traditions. I am interested in how we define ourselves as peoples and as cultures through these stories. What frightens me most, I think, is how we define ourselves as individuals through these stories. I’ve been working on another collection of poetry about growing up gay in the South, and I work and rework Biblical stories in that collection—the story of Abraham and Isaac, about a man who loved his god so much he was wiling to kill his own son, or the story of the Prodigal Son, a little fable of resentment and rebellion and reconciliation. All these father-son stories. If you grow up in fundamentalist culture, you know these stories, they are part of who you are and how you understand yourself.
DS: What do you find particularly difficult about being a poet in the South? Have you come up against any resistance to some of your subject matter? Here, anecdotes are welcome.
EM: Honestly, the gay subject matter can be risky in the South. I think it’s fairly understated in Signals, though I clearly have poems about my domestic relationship with another man. And there are two poems that clearly address homosexuality. One is about Bayard Rustin, the black gay man who organized the 1963 Civil Rights March. We remember Martin Luther King and the “I have a dream” speech, but nobody remembers the man who made that speech possible, the man who put the march together. We all know the story of Rosa Parks, but nobody knows that a black gay man was refusing to move to the back of the bus a decade before her. Another poem simply tells about a weekend trip with another couple—an older couple who are friends of ours—to their cabin in North Carolina. It’s really a nature poem, I suppose, but I also think of it as a tribute to a generation of gay men and women who came before me and made a place for themselves in a quite hostile culture.
When I read at the Arkansas Literary Festival, I referred to my partner and read one or two of the poems about him—as well as the poem about the older couple. I didn’t think much of it. But afterward a man came up to me at the signing and thanked me for referring to my partner and for reading those poems. And he said it was important, that in a culture like ours, it is important when we say these things, when we just say these things aloud. Of all the readings I have done, that was one of the most moving responses I’ve gotten.
DS: What is the difference between writing a poem with a political subject and writing a Political Poem?
EM: It’s a difficult question, and I think my answer would change depending on what I’d been teaching or reading or writing. I teach Irish literature, and over and over again—in Oscar Wilde, in Yeats, in Seamus Heaney—the question comes up of the relation between art and politics. Wilde says “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” should end at “outcasts always mourn” and that the rest of the poem is propaganda—but that it was propaganda he was determined to write. Yeats, who wrote one of the greatest poems of political ambivalence, “Easter 1916,” a poem that sets out to be a public political poem and fails over and over again, that lovely lyric voice sabotaging him over and over again. Or Heaney, who says a poem can’t stop a tank, but it can give us a moment, an important moment, of focus and attention that holds the easy politics in abeyance long enough for us to focus on the human. And I love teaching Tony Harrison, a poet who is overt about his anti-royalist and anti-Bush politics—and who writes powerful poems out of that. Or Thom Gunn—he ends The Man with Night Sweats, a book centered on the decimations of the AIDS epidemic, with a poem about a gay man adopting a child. His decision to end the book with that poem, in a United States determined, for the most part, to treat gay families as second-class families—the choice to end the book with that poem, a poetic choice, but a political decision as well.
But all that is reading. Writing is a different thing. For me, there’s been a division of labor on this. I write poetry, but I’ve also been writing op-eds and opinion pieces for newspapers and public radio since I moved to South Carolina in 1994. I’ve been active in gay and lesbian community politics, and writing has been central to my activism. But for me that’s a different voice, just as my academic voice is a different voice. One voice influences and enables the others, but in my head I hear different voices. If you grew up with the kind of literary education I had (when English classes ended with Eliot or Stevens or maybe, if you were lucky, Larkin), then you find yourself invested in a modernist aesthetic of ambiguity and so find it hard to think about using poetry to political ends. At the same time, I ask myself, what is political? The very fact that I read a poem about my partner was, to at least one audience member at the Arkansas Literary Festival, profoundly and necessarily political. When you’re gay, or write about gay material in the South, this question becomes even more complicated. I was married, I wear a ring, I take my partner to readings with me, I read a poem in which I refer to a male partner, I write a poem about the quiet domestic duties of working together in the garden—in some contexts, these things are explicitly political, even though to me they are simply the way things are. (Or, if I think about it a little, the way things should be.) Things are changing, obviously, but we’re not there yet.
DS: When one reads Signals, one is delightfully confronted with big “N” Nature. What might be less obvious is the political bent the book seems to take. Can you speak a bit about the politics that moves you as a poet and which shaped the book?
EM: Well, as I’ve said, there’s a gay politics to the book. It is understated, and the book isn’t driven by an identity politics. There are poems that hint at the rift with my family. There are poems about my relationship with my partner—not political poems about gay relationships but political in their own way as domestic love poems for another man. And the other poems I’ve mentioned, the poem about Bayard Rustin and the poem for the older couple. The Bayard Rustin poem is a kind of turn in the book, I think, toward poems more engaged with a politics of race and the history of racial discrimination in the South. I wanted to write about Rustin, but didn’t quite know how. I didn’t want to write in his voice—for me that seemed both problematic and inauthentic. But then I read about the incident I write about in the poem (more research!), when he refused to move to the back of the bus. He pointed at a white boy on the bus, saying that if he moved that child would know not about the injustice taking place there. He would accept it, accept that black people were to move, accept the unexamined privilege that comes with being white in the South. What a great story! Here was the perfect example of how we learn about race, and how we need to interrupt that learning, change the culture by making explicit the ways in which the culture perpetuates injustice. I was thinking about lot about how we learn about race—what messages we get about race and where those messages come from. I was working on the longer poem that now ends the book, “Roots: An Essay on Race,” which is about growing up in rural Arkansas . For me, the story of the kid was my way into writing the Rustin poem. What do we know about race and how do we know it? What did that child learn from Rustin’s action?
I love that you put the big N and the less obvious political bent of the book into conversation. I’m a poet of the natural world—I think it comes from my background, growing up on a farm, and from my own continuing interest in the botanical world. But in the last section of the book, even when I’m writing nature poems, I sometimes push them into political metaphor. There’s a series called “Three Poems about Politics,” all poems situated at political meetings, but they all seem to be nature poems. The first and last poems were written at meetings of the South Carolina Progressive Network, a coalition of social justice organizations. Are they political poems? I don’t know. The middle poem, “Song,” is set at a meeting at Middleton Plantation. I don’t mention it in the poem or the notes, but it was a 2002 meeting at which the statewide gay and lesbian organization was founded, the South Carolina Equality Coalition. I suppose there’s wicked irony in the fact that an “equality” group is founded on the ruins of a plantation, but I think that also says something about the complex politics of the South. But the poem really just retells the story of something my partner said after he’d gone for a walk during one of the breaks. He said that nothing was in bloom, but the trees were full of birdsong. I loved the juxtaposition of that—the absence in what we see, the promise in what we hear. For me, that was the politics of that moment. Of course, saying all that seems reductive to me—but that’s how the poem came to be.
DS: What projects are you working on?
EM: I continue to rework and revise the collection of poems I mentioned earlier about growing up gay, which I’m calling Prodigal: Variations, since the biblical story that threads the book is that of the Prodigal Son. I’ve also begun a third collection. I’m not sure what it will ultimately become, but right now I’m calling it Nest, as I seem to return again and again to the domestic—the rituals and ways by which we create our sense of home. I’ve been rereading John Berger lately, and I love his analysis of home. It used to be the place where the vertical and the horizontal intersected—our relationships with the dead and the divine and our relationships with other people—but in the modern world that has been displaced. So instead we make romantic love falsely bear our need for that center. I’m not sure where this will go yet. I’m also hoping to finish the Abramic tradition anthology soon.
I’ve just edited a collection of radio essays from Rainbow Radio, the state’s only gay and lesbian radio show, which I hope to see in print soon. And this summer I’m working with Ray McManus, who founded the Split P Poetry project, a program that placed MFA and community writers in classrooms, on a writing textbook.
And, my current academic project is a second academic book, a study of masculinity in Irish culture 1977-2002. I spent two months in Ireland last summer on a fellowship doing research at the National Library and the Irish Film Institute, and I’m hoping to get much of it written in the next year.
DS: Do you have any obsessions?
EM: I love collecting pulp sexology—the old pseudo-scientific books that attempt to explain sexuality through case histories.
I love Elvisobilia. I have a lifesize plaster bust of Elvis in my office at USC, and we had an Elvis impersonator sing at our wedding reception. I love authentic Elvis, but even more I love Elvis kitsch.
DS: If you had to choose one smell which would encompass your childhood, what would it be?EM: Crop dusters. I remember every summer flagging the crop dusters. They dropped herbicide and fertilizer, both solid and liquid, and honestly I can’t identify which, specifically, I’m remembering. I just remember that acrid-sweet wake, pulling the orange tarp or the old bed sheet I’d been waving over my head, and the smell of it. They are so many smells I associate with growing up on a farm. Early on, I remember fields burning, the way they burned the stubble of rice and wheat fields. But they started to plow it in rather than burn it by the time I was old enough to work on the farm myself. But I remember that smell, and the almost giddy excitement of my dad and uncles burning the fields, setting the fires. But the smell I remember most is the smell of the crop dusters.
is an associate professor of English and director of the undergraduate program in Women’s & Gender Studies at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. His first book of poetry, Signals(USC Press, 2008) won the 2007 SC Poetry Book Prize. He was selected for inclusion in
Best New Poets 2007, edited by Natasha Trethewey, as well as Best Gay Poetry 2008. His poems have appeared in many journals and anthologies, including The Book of Irish American Poetry from the Eighteenth Century to the Present (Notre Dame) and The Southern Poetry Anthology: South Carolina (Texas Review Press). He is also the author of Tiresian Poetics, a study of modernist poetry, and editor with Marti Lee of Geographies and Genders in Irish Studies. Madden is also the writer in residence at Riverbanks Botanical Gardens in Columbia and an artist in residence at the Palmetto Center for the Arts at Richland Northeast High School in Columbia.