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ivoh | January 17, 2018

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The State recognizes anniversary of Charleston church shooting with front-page poem

The State recognizes anniversary of Charleston church shooting with front-page poem

Charleston, South Carolina (via Flickr/Creative Commons)


ErinShawStreetBy Erin Shaw Street

Erin is Lifestyle Editor at Birmingham, Alabama-based Big Communications, a full-service creative agency. Street, an ivoh core team member, previously served as Deputy Editor at Southern Living.




How does one mark the anniversary of a racially charged shooting? For Ed Madden, poet laureate of Columbia, South Carolina, poetry is part of the response.

On June 17, Madden’s poem, “The Lesson That Night,” ran across the entirety of the front page of The State newspaper along with a color image of Mother Emanuel Church. It was a year to the date that a shooter killed nine black churchgoers during a Bible study at the oldest AME historic church in the South.

Madden was asked to write and perform the work for the Charleston event “The Holy City: Art of Love, Unity and Resurrection.” A professor of English and director of the Women’s & Gender Studies Program at the University of South Carolina, he is the author of four books of poetry and last year was named Columbia’s first poet laureate.

“Poetry is a language that asks us to stop and reflect,” Madden told ivoh in a phone interview. “It’s about doing the opposite of what we often do, which is rushing for information.”

Ed Madden

Ed Madden

He says that “The Lesson That Night” is a follow-up to his poem, “When We’re Told We’ll Never Understand,” which he wrote after the Charleston shooting. That poem addresses efforts to remove the Confederate flag from SC Statehouse grounds. (It ran in The State as well, on an inside section.)

Madden wrote “The Lesson That Night” while attending a weeklong dialogue on race and reconciliation at USC. It was a fortuitous coincidence that informed the poem, he says.

“The workshop leaders made the point that talking about the issues of racial reconciliation is part of the work. And you can’t do good work until you have a depth of understanding of the situation.” In crafting the work, he shared it with poet and fellow USC professor Nikky Finney, who advised him to include a reference to the killer.

The poem in fact starts with a line from Finney (“Who Are We Now?”) as well as these words from the Book of Mark that reference the parable of the sower: “And these are they likewise which are sown on stony ground.”

The poem goes on to draws upon the Sunday School lesson that was being taught the day of the shooting. “For me, the parable is a really useful way to thinking about change. A lot of times we jump to the symbolic act, like taking down the Confederate Flag, but we don’t sustain the energy around systemic change,” he says.

This is the second poem in a year published on the front page by The State from a USC poet, says Mark Lett, Executive Editor; a Finney poem on the removal of the flag was the first.

“What we liked, especially, about each poem, was the challenge put forward by the poet. Each, essentially, asked us as South Carolinians to consider the remarkable news developments and think about what type of state, what type of person, we would be in the future,” Lett told ivoh. “To make the point clearly and cleanly, we limited the design of the front pages. Reaction to this non-traditional approach was positive. Readers seemed not only to understand the purpose, but to appreciate the solemn, serious approach.”

Lee Snelgrove, the director of One Columbia For The Arts and History, which launched and runs the city’s poet laureate program, says that The State running “The Lesson That Night” was a bold stance for a state coming to terms with the shooting.

“It was so powerful for them to run this on the front page with a simple image,” Snelgrove said by phone. “Poetry isn’t journalism or an in-depth investigation and that’s OK. It is another avenue for people to find their way into the conversation,” he says.