What’s the role of poetry in the life of a city? That was just one of the questions Columbia Poet Laureate Ed Madden addressed when he spoke with Heathwood’s 8th grade students on February 28.
Madden came to Heathwood through the Columbia Connections program, which connects Heathwood students with leaders in the local academic, cultural, scientific, non-profit, and business communities to explore a range of issues, challenges, and opportunities, so that students gain a richer understanding of how the skills and knowledge they acquire in the classroom translate into real-world action.
Poetry, which has been a recent area of study in Heathwood’s 8th grade English classes, may not at first glance seem like an obvious form of real-world action. But, as Madden explained, poetry can play a vital role in the life of our city. Most notably, in his role as Poet Laureate, Madden is often called upon to write poems about events that shape the city’s history, from the mayor’s annual State of the City address to major inflection points like the historic 2015 flood and the removal of the Confederate flag from the State House. Poetry also plays an important role in the cultural life of the city, appearing, for example, in city buses and on coffee sleeves around town during the month of April, and serving as a way for citizens of all ages and backgrounds to reflect on the experience of living here.
As Columbia’s first Poet Laureate, Madden has been instrumental in shaping the job, and has also helped bring together city poets from around the country by creating a Facebook page that allows them to exchange ideas about how poets can serve their communities.
Madden, a professor of English and Director of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of South Carolina, has published several acclaimed collections of poetry. But, he said, he wasn’t always known for his literary talent. Professing to have been a terrible writer when he was their age, he told the students that “pretty much everyone writes when they’re your age. Most people quit somewhere along the way. I just kept going.”
In response to questions from students in the audience, Madden offered astute observations about how becoming Poet Laureate has changed both his poetry and his writing process. “I initially was writing primarily for people who regularly read poetry,” he said. “But now I’m writing for a general audience. And while I used to write very slowly, I now have to write on a deadline.”
He also invited the students to help him think about innovative ways to infuse daily life in Columbia with poetry. “I’ve had an intern at USC whose job was to think of ways to put poetry in public places—for example, what if, when you went to the dry cleaner, there was a poem by a local author about clothing on your receipt? If you have ideas about how to create encounters with poetry where people wouldn’t expect it, I’d love to hear them.”